Gov. Chris Gregoire recently hired an expert to evaluate the effectiveness of cable barriers along a deadly stretch of I-5 near Marysville. Since 2001, eight people have died in head-on crossover collisions when vehicles broke through the road’s guardrails.
For more than 30 years, I have worked as a plaintiff attorney representing families who have lost loved ones due to faulty highway design. I have witnessed their pain and anguish first hand. Therefore, I urge state officials to take corrective measures to protect our families from known unsafe sections of the freeway.
Based on an undisclosed report from Malcolm Ray, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is insisting that the cable barriers be replaced with concrete barriers. Sen. Haugen plans to make it a top priority during the next legislative session. Her opponents are concerned that funding for the project could climb to $28 million. They may also counter that state traffic engineers have been avid supporters of cable barriers everywhere except along I-5 near Marysville.
I fully support Sen. Haugen’s efforts to replace the cable barriers as soon as possible, and I challenge previous reports from our state engineers that endorse cable barriers. The California Department of Transportation used the cable rail system as their standard during the early 1960s, but abandoned it by 1978. The agency stated in its 1997 Cable Median Barriers Report that the cable barrier is “the least expensive to install, but it has had the worst accident experience and is the most expensive to maintain.”
Human life, however, is priceless. Soon, Washington will consider solutions for its median system. Depending on road conditions and median width, I recommend three types of barriers: the continuous concrete barrier, the standard steel W-beam guardrail, or the steel Thrie-beam guardrail.
The continuous concrete barrier, commonly known as the Jersey barrier, has protected American highways for more than 50 years. Typically, it is used on highways where opposing traffic is not separated by a grassy median. The standard height for a Jersey barrier is 32 inches. It has a graduated design that re-directs cars that contact it and prevents a head-on collision with oncoming traffic. Jersey barriers have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Steel guardrails, such as the W-beam or the Thrie-beam, are just as safe, yet more cost-effective, on roads where lanes are separated by grassy medians. The W-beam is a protective metal railing that has two rows. The Thrie-beam is similar, but it has three rows and is slightly larger. In the majority of collisions involving these steel rails, tests show that the beams deflect and lower crash impact, so occupants only sustain mild injuries.
For example, when a larger than average 4,400-pound vehicle collides with a W-beam rail at 62 mph or less, at an angle less than 25 degrees, the rail re-directs the automobile and softens the impact. This dissipation can make the difference between breaking through the guardrail and dying in a head-on collision, or walking away with few or no injuries.
A Jersey barrier is impractical for roads with oncoming lanes separated by grassy medians, because it would have to be placed on both sides and the cost would be doubled. Both W-beam and Thrie-beam barriers are significantly less expensive than concrete Jersey barriers.
As Washington evaluates the dangerous segment of I-5 near Marysville, I recommend that we consider the options that are the safest and most cost-effective based on highway conditions. The concrete Jersey barrier, the W-beam and Thrie-beam guardrails have a proven record of lowering crash impacts and saving lives. Let’s support Sen. Haugen’s efforts to replace the ineffective cable barriers that continue to endanger our Washington drivers.
Keith Kessler is a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney based in Hoquiam.