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2013 study offered menu of fixes to make U.S. 550 safer

June 18, 2017 GMT

A 2013 study for the New Mexico Department of Transportation proposed putting concrete or cable barriers in the middle of U.S. 550 as one of several possible ways to reduce the number of fatal collisions from vehicles crossing the highway’s narrow median into oncoming traffic.

Since that study, no barriers have been installed on the four-lane highway, which, The New Mexican reported June 11, has had a high number of fatal crashes in recent years caused by motorists crossing its 6-foot-wide paved median, which is five times narrower than recommended by the Federal Highway Administration.

The study also proposed other steps to make the high-speed route across northwestern New Mexico safer, including better marking of median lines; lighting at some intersections; and signs alerting motorists to their speed, hazardous weather conditions, upcoming intersections, curves and changes in grade.

Department spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell didn’t respond to a written request asking if any of those additional safety measures have been implemented.

The consulting engineers who conducted the study cited high rates of cross-median crashes at and near places where U.S. 550 intersects other roads. They proposed that the Department of Transportation “install median barrier treatment (concrete or cable style) with limited median breaks to mitigate for cross median crash patterns at T-type intersection locations.”

But while it proposed the barriers, the study added, “This treatment isn’t necessarily the most reasonable first course of action that could be undertaken to mitigate crashes along the corridor.”

Cantrell hasn’t said why median barriers weren’t installed but has said engineers take a number of factors into account when deciding on barriers. For example, she said, barriers are subject to the width of a median and other geometric conditions. She also said barriers can increase danger depending on their locations.

The Department of Transportation released the study last week in response to a request by The New Mexican under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

The New Mexican reported that for the years 2013-15, the much busier Interstate 40 was the only highway in New Mexico with more motorist and passenger deaths per road mile than the state’s stretch of U.S. 550. A total of 35 motorists and passengers died over the three-year period on U.S. 550, which runs for 175 miles from just north of Albuquerque to the Four Corners area.

A family of four from Aztec died in May when their SUV was hit by a truck that crossed the median after a tire blowout. Investigators believe the truck driver, who also died, may have been drinking. Another family of four from Texas died in strikingly similar fashion in August 2014 when a truck veered across the median and slammed head-on into their vehicle. In both cases, cable barriers might have saved lives.

Following The New Mexican’s report on U.S. 550, state Transportation Secretary Tom Church asked department engineers to look into what could be done to improve safety on the highway. The 2013 study gives engineers a long menu of choices.

“From the perspective of public safety concerns, NMDOT’s attention should be on not only reducing the frequency of crashes, but also on reducing the types and characteristics of the most serious crashes,” said the study by the global engineering and consulting firm CH2M.

The study was conducted in response to a memorial unanimously approved by the state Senate in 2012. It asked the department to examine the feasibility of installing center guardrails on U.S. 550 from Bernalillo to Bloomfield. The memorial was introduced by then-state Sen. Linda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, because of the high number of crashes. In an interview, she said she believed for years there should be a “fence” or some other type of barrier dividing the opposite lanes.

The memorial, citing cross-median collisions on U.S. 550, said, “Increased safety measures need to be taken to prevent further head-on collisions and to help ensure the safety of all drivers.”

Cable and concrete barriers have been installed on other highways in New Mexico.

Cable barriers, which are much less expensive than concrete barriers, are about 95 percent effective in preventing vehicles, including large trucks, from crossing medians into opposing lanes, according to a 2012 report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

In conducting the study for the Department of Transportation, CH2M examined crash data for 135 miles of U.S. 550 from 2006-10.

“Of the fatal and injury crashes, the most predominant crash type was cross median,” the study said.

But the study said that while barriers on U.S. 550 would prevent cross-median crashes, there were others factors to consider.

Noting the Senate memorial suggested center guardrails on U.S. 550, the study said:

“NMDOT must consider, when deciding to implement median barrier treatments, the potential effects to cross median traffic which would necessitate providing u-turn and/or turn-around locations for vehicles needing to make the movement” to access a road or driveway on the opposite side of the highway.

“Other countermeasures … may reduce the frequency of all crashes including cross-median without the costs and impacts of installing median barrier.”

CH2M found that excessive speed, inclement weather and time of day were significant factors in crashes on U.S. 550.

The study proposed:

• Monitors for weather stations and pavement conditions that would enable highway crews to respond faster to winter weather.

• Signs tied to weather stations that would alert motorists to hazardous conditions and could impose lower speed limits based on conditions. (U.S. 550 has a 70 mph speed limit for most of its stretch in New Mexico, although it was designed for a top speed of 65 mph.)

• Signs alerting motorists of their speed.

• Signs warning motorists of upcoming intersections, curves and changes in grade.

• Signs on curves and grades advising motorists of appropriate speeds.

• Increased reflection in pavement markings, include markings at the edge of the median.

• Installation of lighting at intersections with crash clusters.

• Increased speed enforcement on rural U.S. 550.

• Increased frequency of highway crew work to clear snow and ice.

The study said the proposed safety measures, including the installation of median barriers on some stretches of U.S. 550, present “a complete suite of solutions for consideration by NMDOT to address identified crash patterns and frequencies” on rural U.S. 550.

The study said an analysis would be performed on the proposals selected by the Department of Transportation in order to quantify the cost of the safety measures, as well as the financial benefit from improved safety. The department didn’t respond when asked whether the analysis had been conducted.

Contact Thom Cole at 505-986-3022 or tcole@sfnewmexican.com.