(And now for something completely different... In this blog, I discuss a place where the pavement really does end.)
With all of the stimulus money available for road construction projects, it's no surprise that orange barrels are even more common than usual across the country this summer.
Based on what I saw while traveling through the Rust Belt states recently, I would say that some highway departments and contractors are lacking in both cents and sense.
Let's start with Illinois, where the state highway department (IDOT) is only an "i" away from "idiot." Actually, that's probably an unfair characterization, since they seem very smart about devising ways to generate traffic ticket revenue.
The bridge on Highway 146 across Cache River between Anna and Vienna is down to one lane, with a traffic light controlling access. When I drove through, the light only stayed green long enough to allow three-and-a-half cars through (the fourth car -- me -- barely made it through the abnormally short yellow signal). There was, of course, no sign of any opposing traffic. Assuming this wasn't a malfunction, it seems like a perfect setup for issuing tickets: trap motorists into running a red light that shouldn't have turned red in the first place.
Indiana, however, is even smarter. Interstate 64 featured a so-called "work zone" filled with orange barrels along the shoulder, but very little work happening. The total lack of any construction workers, however, didn't negate the fact that the speed limit dropped from 70 mph to 45 mph. Signs with flashing lights announced "WORKERS PRESENT WHEN FLASHING", an obvious falsehood.
Actually, maybe I'm unfairly characterizing again. I did see one worker -- a state patrolman -- who was busy issuing tickets.
So here's the dilemma:
(a) Drive the legal speed limit like a fool while most other drivers blow past you at 70 mph or higher, a dangerous situation for everybody involved, or:
(b) Keep up with the pace of traffic by driving well above the speed limit, hoping that the cops don't say "ka-ching" after spotting your out-of-state plates. (Driving 25 mph over the limit in a work zone? I hate to imagine how many digits that fine would have.)
To add to the frustration, I did see workers working at the next construction project on I-64. But here the speed limit remained 70 mph. How nice.
Despite all this, Illinois and Indiana were just preliminary warm-ups for the disaster that is Ohio.
Try to imagine a work zone where the right lane suddenly ends with no immediate warning. Then, to add to the excitement, picture an exit ramp that has been temporarily relocated, again with no immediate warning. I didn't realize mental telepathy was a requirement for obtaining a driver's license, but that's apparently the case in Ohio.
Here's the chain of events:
1. Enter work zone on Interstate 75 northbound at mile marker 22, on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati.
2. Tiny sign indicates that the right lane will end ahead, but doesn't say where.
3. I'm trying to find Exit 24. The location of the offramp appears to be blocked by orange barrels, but without any signage indicating that the ramp has been moved or closed. The car in front of me zooms through the barrels, hoping to sneak through to the offramp, but gets trapped in the maze of barricades, forcing the driver to make a crazy and dangerous manuever to slip back onto the freeway.
4. Sign indicates "EXIT OPEN AHEAD". Gee thanks, now you tell us! In the back of my mind, I'm still worried about that initial "RIGHT LANE CLOSED AHEAD" sign that I passed almost two miles earlier, but I haven't seen any follow-up signs, so I remain in the right lane hoping that the promised offramp will soon be delivered.
5. Construction worker ahead frantically waves his arms, signalling everybody to get out of the right lane immediately, then proceeds to make a strange gesture when I go by. I was too busy trying not to get killed while merging into the center lane, but the gesture was of the rude and possibly obscene variety.
6. Right lane does, in fact, suddenly end against a wall of concrete barriers. Without the rude construction worker, it would be impossible to know about the lane closure until your front end was smashed against it. There were no road signs, no flashing lights, no arrows, and no edge striping. The barrels along this stretch looked the same as the thousands of other barrels throughout the work zone.
7. Offramp unexpectedly branches off from the freeway at a sharp angle, barely wide enough to pass without smacking cones on either side. Again, there was no warning except for an "EXIT" sign after the exit. Gee, thanks.
8. Somehow arrive safely at destination, knowing that I'm going to be writing a snarky blog about this ridiculous work zone designed with an obvious disregard for safety.
I toyed with the idea of mounting a camera to my dashboard and driving through the work zone again, carefully documenting this breathtaking insanity while trying to catch the construction worker flipping another rude gesture. But why subject myself to that torture again?
I'm not an engineer, but it's hard to see how the design of this work zone could possibly comply with federal regulations. The government publishes the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which all states are required to follow. Part 6 of the MUTCD provides an incredible level of detail for the proper design and implementation of work zones, and even includes handy diagrams showing where the signs, arrows, lane stripes, and other devices should be present. What I saw in Ohio doesn't even come close to matching the two relevant diagrams, 6H-33 and 6H-42.
Many states have passed laws with strict penalties for motorists that hit construction workers. However, bad engineering can create dangerous situations where even the most prudent driver can be misled or confused, putting lives at risk.
The next time I see a "ROAD CONSTRUCTION AHEAD" sign, I'm going to act as if it says, "BAD ENGINEERING AHEAD -- ARE YOU FEELING LUCKY?"