How a more forgiving roadside could impact severity of crashes

Researchers working on ways to make roads safer

HOUSTON – Side roads, main roads and highways have seemingly transformed into race tracks or obstacle courses during the last couple of years.

“2021 was the worst year we’ve had fatalities in the state since 1981 and the second highest since they started collecting data in 1940,” said Robert Wunderlich, the director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

RELATED: Deadly crashes around Houston area skyrocketed during the pandemic

KPRC 2 Investigates’ analysis of TXDOT data found a 24% increase between 2019 to 2021.

Comparison maps showing where deadly crashes happened in Houston in 2019 and 2021. (Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“I don’t think that most people have an appreciation for the size of the problem that we’re dealing with here,” said Roger Bligh, a senior research engineer of roadside safety at TTI. “It’s like a fully loaded 737 jet crashing ... six times a week, and so if that was occurring, there would probably be a lot more attention given to the problem.”

Experts with TTI said drivers slowing down, wearing seat belts and not being under the influence can help reduce the number of deaths on roads. However, researchers are also working on other ways to make roads safer.


The “Forgiving Roadside” Concept

In the 1960s, the United States adopted the idea of a more forgiving roadside.

“The penalty for inadvertently leaving the road should not be serious injury or death,” Bligh said.

Researchers worked on new innovations to make barriers, guardrails, light fixtures and other tools to decrease the chance for serious injuries or death during crashes.

Bligh points to median barriers, which can prevent dangerous head on collisions, and to signs, street lights and poles. Those are designed to break away during impact to prevent more serious crashes.

TTI tests the roadside feature to make sure it’s structurally able to contain or redirect the vehicle and also keep a vehicle from rolling. Researchers also look at the risk for serious injury inside the vehicle should it strike one of the barriers.

Despite the best efforts of engineers, deadly or serious crashes still happen. But Bligh said innovations to roadside safety, better education and safer vehicles have all helped to decrease the numbers.

The proof is in the data, according to Bligh.

He said that in 1964, there were nearly six deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Bligh said if the standards and death rate remained unchanged by 2019, there would be more than 180,000 deaths per year on Texas highways.

Despite the improvements, TTI engineers said the research needs to continue to keep up safety standards.

“The job is never done,” Bligh said. “The nature of these crashes that are taking place on the roadway are ever changing and evolving.”