Monday, July 26, 2010

These lumps are always benign.

This blog post may be the closest I ever get to a real-time narrative. It’s not purely real-time, of course, any more than this is an online journal. But everything that this blog features occurred within the past few days, and fortunately I was able to document it photographically as I was experiencing it, including the crucial revelation at the end. I was driving from Monroe, Louisiana toward Little Rock, and, as anyone from these two states could tell you, there is not a single limited access highway or interstate connecting Louisiana and Arkansas. But if part of the goal is absorbing Americana through a camera lens, who wants to take interstates anyway?

I was venturing northward toward Pine Bluff, Arkansas on U.S. Highway 425, across southern Arkansas’ flat and impenetrable pine belt, just south of the college town of Monticello. The photo above is hardly an anomaly for being devoid of cars: this was the norm, and ten minutes could easily pass before I confronted another vehicle. If my driving got a bit sloppy—as most of us are wont to do when the roads are this barren—I might skim over the yellow painted lane divider, when I would here the familiar pa-dump pa-dump pa-dump of those reflectors against my wheels.

At any rate, it’s a familiar sound in a good part of the country, and apparently a common enough phenomenon that it approaches highway vernacular status. Facebook even has multiple groups devoted to people who try to avoid hitting them when they change lanes. I had learned several years ago that the patented design commonly employed in American highways is called Botts’ dots, after Elbert Dysart Botts, the California transportation engineer credited with their invention. However, this whimsical name often suffers from over-application, because Botts’ dots are a particular design rather than a general term—usually round and non-reflective, like the example seen in this photo. They serve as a purely auditory warning—for alerting motorists when they are crossing a certain threshold, usually a lane. Attempting to avoid them is fine—as apparently a few thousand Facebook users do—but it should not be done out of fear of damaging them, since the ceramic or polymer used in their construction can support the weight of a car. The square reflectors along this Arkansas highway also are made of a sufficiently durable material, meaning they serve a double purpose of providing both a lighted path at night and an audible warning at all times of day.

Despite the fact that US Highways and interstates receive federal funds for their construction and continued maintenance, not all roads are created equally. A major American highway can bisect several states and morph considerably along its trajectory—quite often these shifts are obvious when crossing into a new jurisdiction, such as a state or county line. Differences in soil quality, topography, climate, and jurisdictional road safety laws add variety to any transcontinental thoroughfare, and these pavement markers are no different. Departments of Transportation can clearly decide which safety features are most critical in their jurisdiction. In south Arkansas, square reflectors and Botts’ dots can protrude from the pavement:

As suitable as these devices are in an arid climate like southern California, they don’t work so well in upstate New York, or any part of the US that ever receives heavy snowfall: the plows would scoop these critters up. If they can exist at all in the North, they must be recessed in the pavement and further reinforced. I cannot provide a firsthand auditory comparison right now between protruding and recessed reflectors, because I haven’t been in the Frost Belt in awhile. But I suspect the trademark skip-thump sound would have to be muted if the device cannot protrude as much.

Later that same day from which the above photos were taken, I had to head westward from Little Rock along Interstate 40. By this time, it was pitch dark, and I have never felt so nervous about driving on an interstate in my life. I couldn’t pin it down at first, but something about this stretch of highway winding through the Ozarks induced anxiety. Eventually I realized that a number of features were missing that I often had taken for granted. This portion of Arkansas interstate does not in general use street lights at exit ramps. It has relatively few billboards--or, at least, very few of are illuminated. Only a few communities between Little Rock and Fort Smith have more than 10,000 inhabitants, so no ambient light from a neighboring community. But perhaps most critical, the center lane lacked any square reflectors. No reflectors in general—not on posts, not embedded in the pavement, and relatively few green reflective signs. It was dark. Clearly a driver’s headlights should compensate, but they only provide illumination for 50 to 100 feet or so. Driving that night through western Arkansas, I often couldn’t tell if the car in front of me was just turning to negotiate a curve or getting off at an exit ramp. These reflective squares critically promote safety because they show the trajectory several hundred feet ahead of the driver, allow him or her to prepare for curves. They only way I could anticipate curves that night in Arkansas was by turning on the high beams, which is arely permissible because traffic is much higher here than US Highway 425. Thus, a rarely traveled fragment of highway in the rural southern part of the state offers a better reflective environment than the interstate connecting Arkansas’ largest and second largest cities.

But why would the state’s Department of Transportation choose to use federal funds for reflectors on one highway but not the other more traveled one. Why snub interstates in Arkansas? My return trip during broad daylight (I wasn’t going to try that route again at night) provided the most likely answer:

In the near exact middle of the above photo, before the white stripe marking two different lanes, is a small indentation. I got as close as I could with my camera, given the high speed and frequency of cars passing by.

It almost looked like a scar where the reflector should be. But why is that reflector missing? Is it possible that the DOT, assuming that central Arkansas’ climate is warm enough, allowed the reflectors to protrude just as they might in Arizona or southern California? And could this have been the critical mistake that seriously deteriorates the safety of this Arkansas highway at night? Central Arkansas most likely does not endure heavy snowfall very often at all. But at one point, it did, and the necessity for making the road remotely passable by employing snowplows superseded the preservation of protruding square reflectors, Botts’ dots, or whatever they had once used here. They’re all missing. Just looking the other direction reveals the same scar where something clearly should be; it was snatched by a snowplow.

I could be wrong of course, but I can think of no other reason why this heavily travelled transcontinental highway would lack them. (The small patch of I-40 that I traveled in Oklahoma lacked them as well, but at least Oklahoma’s exit ramps had streetlights. Maybe the two states suffered from the snow pattern.) It would be interesting to determine if there is a comparatively higher crash rate on Arkansas interstates due to unsafe night driving conditions—if that would justify the cost of re-installing these reflectors, which apparently need to be recessed into the pavement to handle the occasional heavy snowfall that Arkansas might receive. The current state of the road’s safety hints at the broader dilemma: if the federally funded highway network required complete uniformity of design, with every state using its funds for the highest caliber safety infrastructure, this might not have happened. But a one-size-fits-all federal standard could scarcely account for the climatic and topographic diversity of this vast country, so it would elicit new problems for regions that simply defy any criterion. It would be tough to deny that Interstate 40 in Arkansas needs better visibility at night, but the means of achieving this through the federal funds allotted—whether routine improvements, transportation enhancement grants, or some other untested improvement—rests upon each state’s decision making authorities. Botts’ dots originated through one state’s pursuit of new solutions to localized road safety concerns. Perhaps those bizarre indentations on I-40 are the installation mechanism for a solution unique to the Arkansas Department of Transportation.


Nici said...

I am always amazed how you take the most mundane things and turn them into a lengthy informative article. I was particularly delighted at this one as I found it quite entertaining. Your description of driving on Arkansas I 40 was quite descriptive; I could almost hear the twang of the banjo, from the Deliverance theme! You must have been driving on an overcast night or one with little moonlight. The pine trees that line the interstate did not help either with your visibility. However the dark lonely interstate without street lights on exit ramps is not just “an Arkansas thing” , it’s what most the country looks like once your west of the Mississippi. (That’s a generalization to be more precise I would say “the wild west” starts after Dallas) As you know most of the United States is concentrated on the East and West coast leaving a lot of empty highways in between. When I drove at night I was constantly turning on and off my high beams. Not every night is as dark as the one you experienced. In the “old days” they would have called it a Rustlers’ Moon”, meaning it was so dark that you could steal cattle safely. Well as safely as you could stumbling around in the middle of the night on a horse trying to move cattle, but I guess it’s all relative. I never understood about the Rustlers’ Moon until I drove at night in the Virgin River Gorge on the little stretch of Arizona that I 15 runs through between Nevada and Utah. The sky was so clear and the full moon so bright, the landscape was literally lit up like it was day light. I could see individual tumble weeds over a mile away. I knew then I would not want to try and steal any cattle as a blind man could have shot someone that night. Please forgive my tangent into the past. The most dangerous time on the highway is between 3am and 5am. Not having a lot of visibility like you described is a factor along with fatigue. As most people travel during the day and the costs associated with lighting up the barren interstates do not produce a high ROI, Americans are stuck using their high beams. I do not know why there are no reflectors on the road but if the white lines are painted with reflective paint that would serve the same purpose as a reflector. The reflector can only reflect the light that is coming from the headlight so you wouldn’t see any farther down the road than you would with just the white reflective lines. You may not have the ba-dump to catch your attention but on a one way, two lane road at night you should be aware if another car is right next to you and pay attention to your driving. If you fall asleep and drift the other way you hopefully will be awakened by rumble strips on the outside lane.

Nici said...

( I wrote too much to post my comment in one post)

I can speak a little on interstate standardization. Around 2000, the federal government threatened to remove federal highway money from Pa, Fl, Ga and Ca due to lack of mile marker standardization with the rest of the country. I do not know the complete details but I can give you the high points. Currently, all Interstates have mile markers every mile and each exit is numbered with the corresponding mile marker number. The numbering system starts at 1 at the western part of the state and goes up as you travel east. Likewise it starts at 1 at the southern part of the state and goes up as you go north. Simple enough and very useful. However when Pa, Ga and Fl built there interstates they did not use mile markers and the first exit off the interstate in the state was exit #1 even if it was 30 miles into the state. California did not have any exit numbers for its exits, just the name of the street was used on the sign. The mile markers where set up for the counties and started over once you crossed the county lines. As the La Basin east to west is over a hundred miles you can imagine the stress of looking for Cherry street when you have no idea how close you are to it. One must remember 2000 was pre GPS. As you can imagine this lack of standardization was frustrating for motorist and the states probably fought it for years, why it finally came to a head in the late 1990s early 2000, that I do not know. The 3 eastern states where changing over there signs in the 2000 – 2001 while Ca did not come into compliance until around 2005. Who paid for these new signs I cannot say, I would assume the state as they fought it so hard.

Now back to Arkansas interstates. Around 2000 Arkansas started a 5 year project to redo the interstate system within their borders. Which believe it or not they pretty much completed the project in that time frame. I do not know when the portion of the I 40 you where on was redone so it is anywhere between 5 and 10 years old. It’s my opinion that the reflectors where not scooped up by snow blows. Here is my reasoning. The odds of every one of them being scrapped off perfectly and leaving no parts or pieces is pretty slim. However, they may have been damaged and work crews were sent out to clean up the leftovers. If this was the case why where they not replaced? And the way snow plows work they generally do not cover the whole one side of the road. There is usually about a 1 foot part in the center lane of build up snow where the plows did not reach. Typically snow plows go up one land and come back down the other. To get the center of the lane would require the snow plow to make an extra trip and essentially shut down traffic as no one could pass. Another theory of mine is the marks on the road where made to indicate where the reflectors where to be place but where never actually installed. Without talking to someone from the Arkansas DOT one will never know for sure. However I just happen to be going to Little Rock in 2 weeks and will try and make time for some highway investigation.
As always, I enjoy your reading your perspective on Americana.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the comments, Nici, and you could be right on the money in terms of the snowplow issue. It does seem awfully strange that ALL the reflectors are missing in that area, but your reasoning of how a snowplow operates makes good sense, so I suppose it's possible that they just haven't gotten around to installing them yet.

I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is also inconsistent with the reflectors, but inconsistent is an improvement over lacking them altogether. East of Sorrento (or thereabouts) they are very hit-or-miss, as though they have been falling out from wear and tear. But west of Sorrento toward Baton Rouge they're perfect.

Perhaps the paint on I-40 in Arkansas isn't reflective. At any rate, reflectors have an amazing ability to "do their thing" from a headline beam that is quite far away. They provide just enough illumination to see one's way along a twisty path like the one between Little Rock and Fort Smith--you forget how useful they are until they're completely missing. (I never appreciated them until that trip on I-40.)

Your info about the numbering for Georgia, California, etc is very interesting! It amazes me how seemingly few unifying standards there are for these federal interstate highways, which results in things like reflectors and rumble strips coming down to the individual states' decisions. Vive la difference, I guess?

Nici said...

We will just have to agree to disagree on the quality of I 40 west of Little Rock. It could be better but I would rate it overall above average compared to other interstates across the country.

Being a product of the South, I tend to naturally lean towards states rights but in the case of Interstates I would like to see standardization. Anyone that has traveled across the country can see that "all roads are not created equal" even when they are part of the federal interstate system and receive federal money.

AmericanDirt said...

I hear your argument, Nici, and I generally think that someone has to make a pretty good case if we're going to preempt states' rights. What would be interesting is if a study were performed that determined that I-40 west of Little Rock has an unusually high rate of crashes, involving motorists driving off the road at night. My experience traveling across the western US is not that substantial, so I'm sure you know much better than I do how good--or bad--the interstates are out there.

Nici said...

Sorry for my late response to your last post. I have been busy at work, I know that’s hard to believe but it is true. However, the real reason that I have not replied swiftly is that I don’t like admitting I’m wrong. Well I’m not exactly wrong but you are correct there is a study that shows I40 west of Little Rock has higher rate of accidents than most any other part of I40 and actually the rest of the Interstates in Arkansas. It didn’t mention if they where cause by driving off the road but it does prove your point that that part of the interstate is somewhat dangerous than most. So I humbly defer to your observation on this post as correct. …. Here is a link to the study

Dale said...

I am here in Pensacola Florida on holiday from Scotland in the UK. I have the use of my mothers car (she has stayed here for 30 years) I had the "pleasure" of driving at night during rain and have never been so scared in my life & i am a Firefighter back home and licensed to drive a fire appliance. Can you tell me why Florida does not appear to use reflective road markings? I could not see the lanes in the road due to the heavy rain and the headlights of the other cars coming the opposite way did not help.(i have 20-20 vision as well) There were very few reflective road markings and to be honest the ones that were there were as much use as a handbrake on a canoe. Reflective road markings are standard throughout the UK and i could not believe they are not used here. What they do use looks like gloss paint.Can anyone shed some light (excuse the pun) as to why not?

Dale said...

Sorry, in the post above i should have made it more clear that i was meaning the white lines on the road which are non reflective.

AmericanDirt said...

Dale, thanks so much for your interesting post. I was not very familiar with reflective paint until your comments, so I tried to do some superficial research to see if there is much written on it. My time is short, and I did not find much, but an this article suggests that methyl methacrylate (which makes the stripes reflective) is in short supply as producers such as Dow scaled back during the downturn.

I believe most highway stripes have a certain reflectivity in the US, but perhaps not as much as the UK because of certain climatic conditions caused by glare? (Just a guess, but the UK as you no doubt have recognized does have considerably fewer sunny days than the Sunshine State). I am still surprised about your experience around Pensacola. I was just in Panama City a few weeks ago, along a very remote highway in the middle of nowhere, with nothing near but the Panama City airport, and the road seemed freshly repaved with good reflectors. Keep in mind that southern states can take advantage of raised-surface reflectors more easily due to the lack of snow (and snowplows), where as northern states have to find other means. In Indiana it is more common to see repeated reflector strips in the median or on the verge. I'm sorry about your experience, but, as you could tell from my own difficulties along the windy roads of western Arkansas, not all states have a uniform approach to night-time highway visibility. Hopefully you'll find better luck in the future as the American highway system, long overdue for reinvestment, gradually gets a fresh gloss, literally and figuratively.