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Bad road conditions and car accidents: When to shut down highways?

Traffic officials in most states, including Ohio, have few explicit guidelines to follow when they are considering closing down a portion of a freeway or major highway due to adverse driving conditions. In the absence of clear instructions, and on occasions of rapidly changing weather or other factors that can negatively influence driving conditions, car accidents of significant magnitude can occur.

In recent weeks, for example, there have been multiple media reports of massive pileups in locales across the country, from Louisiana to Florida. In both those states, deadly vehicle chain collisions resulted from lack of visibility. In states such as Ohio, snow, wind, fog and ice can create suddenly dangerous conditions that imperil motorists.

Federal transportation agencies -- e.g., the Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board -- have never issued firm rules on when roads should be closed due to adverse conditions, with the call generally residing in the discretion of and being made by local officials. For the most part, these local officials tend to rely simply on what police officers at the scene have to say.

Unfortunately, those responders are unable to always determine the best cause of action and, hence, tragic outcomes sometimes do occur. The recent Florida pileup occurred on a foggy, smoke-filled stretch of Interstate 75 in Gainesville, killing 11 people. After being closed in both directions for three hours, state troopers decided to reopen the highway. It now seems that doing so was a bad call.

Given the spate of recent accidents, more safety experts are calling for additional guidance and written protocols to assist local officials. In states with rapidly changing driving conditions and complex roadways -- which Ohio easily qualifies as -- the need can be especially great.

Source: CBS, "Few guidelines exist on when to shut down roads" Feb. 1, 2012

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