A Campaign on Curves

Jan 21, 2013

Lexington transportation activist Gerard Gerhardt.
Credit Stu Johnson / WEKU News

Highway safety comes in many shapes and sizes….not all of them from official government sources.   Governments set speed limits, improve roadways, and battle bad drivers.  But, for more than a decade, a Lexington man has argued the experts are not perfect.  

“You have a highway memorial here.  A burned out tree here.  Another highway memorial there.  Over my lifetime, I’m gonna guess maybe 15, 20 people have died at that same spot, that same stretch of road.”

Lexington resident Gerard Gerhard, speaking recently to members of a highway safety panel.  Gerhard worked thirty years in Frankfort and has been fighting for better road signs over the past ten years.  He noticed time and again trucks on their side at what’s known as the northern split, where Interstate-64 merges with Interstate-75 just north of Lexington. 

At Gerhard’s urging, the State Transportation Cabinet did post additional signage along that ramp.  He still believes more could be done to alert drivers of that curve and others in the region. 

“What seems to be missing is advanced warning signage on one hand.  In other words, before someone enters a very sharp curve, there needs to be advanced warning of that curve.  That’s particularly true at night when people don’t have the visual cues like tree lines and other things that they can see during the day time,” said Gerhard.

Since then, Gerhard has made a study of roadways in central Kentucky that seem accident-prone.  In many cases, he would like to see more arrows, or chevrons marking a risky curve.  The transportation activist is also is credited with the addition of signage in and around a sizeable curve on the connector in Frankfort.

Among the people attending the roadway safety coalition meeting was Julia Shaw, who’s a traffic analyst with Lexington’s Police Department .   When investigating an accident, Shaw says police often overlook the role poor signage could have played.

“Officers don’t really pay attention to whether the signs or lack of warning signs could have contributed to the fact.  They may not even focus on that.  So, I think that’s a really good point to bring up and make officers aware.  Look around at your surroundings and see if there is some other factor than maybe what they would think is the obvious or speed or impairment,” said Shaw.

In Lexington, the Division of Traffic Engineering is responsible for assessing the effectiveness of road signs.  Director Jim Woods says they’re always working to insure signs provide the information and warnings needed by motorists.

“We are going to re-evaluate some of these locations and have evaluated some of them.  But, we’re gonna look at some of the other ones and perhaps try to get some money in the budget to try to cover some of these other areas, because it does cost more money to put up the signage, so it’s something we take very seriously, it’s very important,” added Woods.

Additional signs sound like a good idea, but, Chuck Wolfe, who’s with the state transportation cabinet says traffic engineers must also watch out for ‘signage fatigue.’

“Just the number of signs isn’t a cure all.  You’ve just got to be able to convey the message and make wise use of your signage so that a driver doesn’t subconsciously tune it out,” said Wolfe.

Besides the effectiveness of adding signs,’ state traffic engineers must calculate the cost.   Wolfe notes some signage can cost thousands of dollars when taking into account installation and traffic flow impact.

Critics argue the economic cost is minimal.   Police traffic analyst Julia Shaw adds ‘if you can put down five or ten signs, and save a life, it’s worth it.”

For his part, Gerard Gerhard still believes more can be done.  He contends better signage can even aid drivers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol survive a difficult turn.

“The federal law certainly seems to be emphasizing that warning signs on the highways should address reasonable and prudent drivers, but not all drivers are reasonable and prudent and they still die on the highways.” Said Gerhard.

By doing a better job of warning drivers of the hazards they must soon navigate, Gerhard believes Kentucky can protect people and their property.  It’s a goal that he shares with traffic engineers and a vigil he promises to maintain.