For many years, the transportation industry has struggled to keep up with the demand for bigger, better, and more efficient roadways. With the precautions taken to battle the recent pandemic, however, traffic volumes along the nation’s highways have decreased considerably. How has this impacted the way people drive?
In many metropolitan areas, there are large freeways with six, eight, and up to 12 lanes. During pre-pandemic times, these would have been saturated with vehicles. Now, these roadways are consistently seeing traffic travel at and above normal operating speeds, especially truck traffic. The results? An increase in high speed-related crashes. While the average daily traffic is currently about 90% of what it was pre-pandemic, crashes continue to occur at the same rate. Why?
Through our experience, we have determined that the speed at which someone drives is based largely on their comfort level. The more room a driver has on the roadway, the higher the tolerance for error, and the greater the speed. So with many empty or low volume lanes now on metropolitan freeways, motorists tend to increase their speed. I have always likened it to threading a needle. Extra care is needed when pushing a thread through a normal-sized needle. Increase the size of the eye of the needle to, say, an inch, and the thread goes right in without any trouble. Comparatively, open roads mean less care is taken on average.
In some areas, the increase in travel speed is not problematic. In the more urbanized areas, however, with closely spaced interchanges and shortened weave areas, these speeds become very problematic. It is in these areas that we see most of the crashes.
So what can be done to improve the travel speeds in these areas? There are various devices and measures that can be used to provide much-needed information to the driver, but before any of these can be implemented, a speed management plan is a must.
Speed management plans are just as the name implies: a plan to manage travel speeds that accounts for various conditions, such as weather, various levels of traffic, and emergency situations. Our team’s experience has determined that a successful speed management plan first requires identifying the various conditions that need to be addressed, and then setting the goals (i.e. speeds) for each situation. Once that has been determined, decisions will need to be made on how to accomplish these goals. These decisions include what devices and measures to use, as well as who will assist us in this endeavor as the engineering community cannot do it alone. Normally this is law enforcement.
Properly managing speeds due to the drop in traffic volumes leads to more efficient and safer highways without incurring considerable costs associated with removing unnecessary lanes. In all probability, these lanes will be needed in the future—traffic will increase again at some point, and motorists will once again travel as they have in the past. Until then, let’s manage their speeds to help everyone arrive safely to their destination!