The most dangerous place on the highway is the toll plaza, say federal safety investigators who are urging changes to reduce accidents like one that claimed eight lives in Illinois.
Thirty states, including Oklahoma, have toll facilities and 20 have none, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Though highway safety issues such as drunken driving, seat belt use and air bag deployment are debated, studied and regulated, toll plaza safety has been virtually ignored.
“Toll plazas have been designed for 50 years without national design standards,” Dan Walsh, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a hearing on the Illinois crash.
More toll plazas are being built and old ones are being retrofitted for electronic toll collection, he said.
“The need for standards is paramount,” Walsh said.
The NTSB recommended that federal highway officials develop design standards to reduce the number of crashes at toll plazas. Those may include guidelines on signs, pavement markings, lane width or rumble strips.
The recommendations resulted from the investigation of a chain-reaction crash on Oct. 1, 2003, that killed eight people near Hampshire, Ill.
A speeding Freightliner tractor-trailer slammed into the back of a small bus that had nearly stopped at an interstate toll plaza about 50 miles west of Chicago.
The Freightliner slammed into the bus, pushing it into another truck and causing a five-vehicle pileup. Killed in the crash were eight of the 22 passengers in the bus, which carried a group returning from a garden tour.
The safety board blamed the inattentive Freightliner driver.
Investigators also said that traditional toll booths, where drivers pay attendants or throw money into an automatic coin machine, increase the danger of rear-end collisions because drivers must stop suddenly.
NTSB investigators said:
49 percent of all interstate accidents in Illinois are at toll plazas, and three times as many people die in them as in accidents on the road itself.
30 percent of all accidents on the Pennsylvania toll highway system happen at toll plazas.
38 percent of all crashes on New Jersey toll highways are toll plaza accidents.
Introducing electronic toll collection lanes, though, can make the problem worse.
Mohamed Abdel-Aty, associate professor at Central Florida University’s department of civil and environmental engineering, studied the Orlando-Orange County Expressway system in Florida.
Between January 1994 and June 1997, 31.6 percent of total crashes occurred at the 10 main toll plazas and 46.3 percent at the 38 toll booth ramps, Abdel-Aty found.
Introducing E-PASS electronic toll collection lanes beside the regular lanes increased the accident rate at the busy Holland-East Mainline Plaza, he found.
“It’s the mixture of E-PASS lanes and other lanes — the confusion from nonfamiliar drivers — that’s causing most of the rear-end collisions,” Abdel-Aty said.
One key to preventing crashes at toll booths, he said, is separating drivers who have to stop from those who don’t. Drivers also need signs and lane markings that give them enough time to get into the proper lane, he said.
The Federal Highway Administration is expected to finish a study on best practices for toll plazas this summer, NTSB investigators said.
Connecticut abolished all of its toll booths in 1989 after a crash six years earlier when a tractor-trailer rig plowed into cars at the Stratford toll plaza, killing seven and injuring many more.
“That got the legislature saying, ‘We’ve hated these things for years,”‘ said Connecticut transportation department spokesman Chris Cooper. “Clearly we felt there was a safety issue.”
The state, though, is considering reinstating tolls as a way of raising money for new roads and easing congestion. Connecticut has applied for federal money to study a concept in which vehicles with electronic toll cards would slow slightly as they pass under an overhead transponder system. A cash lane would be separate from the flow of traffic.
“It would be like getting off at a rest stop,” Cooper said.