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Tim O'Brien | Dec, 16 2014 | 13 Comments

Wire-rope Barriers Everywhere: Who Cares About Motorcyclists?
(Also see Roads Designed to Kill, Part 1)

Wire-rope barriers are contentious. The motorcycle lobby, in the main, argues that they pose an unacceptable danger to motorcyclists.

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They are banned from use in a number of European jurisdictions: Norway, France, Denmark and The Netherlands among them.

There have recently been protests from motorcycle groups in the UK over a decision to install wire barriers along the A11 into the city of Norwich.

And, while VicRoads strongly argues the safety benefits they provide to “vehicles and their occupants”, it would also seem to accept, from a statement provided to TMR, that the unprotected poles pose a risk to motorcyclists.

The road safety evidence in support of these barriers - ‘strained’ cable through multiple posts - is that they are somewhat effective at one thing; they will entangle a vehicle that strays off the road or across a median strip.

And, provided the vehicle is not large or heavy or travelling too fast, quickly pull them up.

Unfortunately, as a number of Victorian fatalities have demonstrated, and VicRoads concedes, they can fail to stop a truck or a larger SUV.

Image from The Age, a multiple fatality involving an SUV, wire barrier in the foreground. Click to view in full.
Image from The Age, a multiple fatality involving an SUV, wire barrier in the foreground. Click to view in full.

“Wire rope barriers, like all other barrier types, have limits on the amount of force they are able to withstand,” Mr Andrew Wall, VicRoads Director Network Policy and Programs, said.

(Mr Wall’s full statement in response to our questions follows below.)

The evidence is that they will pull most cars to a stop, most times. And they will occasionally, as evidenced in one vehicle I have seen entangled, rip the lower A-arm from the front suspension.

They also have the potential, the motorcycle lobby argues, to rip the limbs off a motorcyclist.

Like any hazard, the danger to motorcyclists posed by wire-rope barriers is clearly increased when placed close to the road.

From our inquiries, there are at least two deaths of motorcyclists in Victoria where wire-rope barriers were involved - one in Ferntree Gully, and another in far East Gippsland. In neither instance, VicRoads advises, were the barriers “the cause” of the death, which we accept.

Site of a motorcycle fatality in Ferntree Gully, image provided by motorcycle activist Damien Codognotto. Click to view in full.
Site of a motorcycle fatality in Ferntree Gully, image provided by motorcycle activist Damien Codognotto. Click to view in full.

However, where the death occurred in Ferntree Gully, the posts were padded following the incident.

That there is hazard to these barriers is a point that VicRoads acknowledges. VicRoads’ Andrew Wall, concedes the danger posed by the posts.

“Unprotected road users, such as motorcyclists, are at risk if they hit any roadside object. For wire rope barriers, while some motorcyclists are still concerned about the wire rope, the posts are the most likely component to cause injury,” Mr Wall said.

Is this good enough, then? Surely, best-practice road-building is to minimise or, where reasonable and practicable, remove hazards to all road users.

These barriers are everywhere along the Monash, and along long sections of the South Gippsland Highway and Bass Highway. (And also everywhere in Victoria along other highways and freeways; like the Hume Freeway.)

A busy freeway merge on the Monash.
A busy freeway merge on the Monash.

They even sit alongside traffic merging lanes on the Monash, most noticeably on the very busy merge of the Cranbourne/Hastings freeway with the Monash.

But if a motorcyclist is to be hip-and-shouldered by an inattentive driver, the risk is greater when cars change lanes (as commonly occurs around merging freeways).

On the South Gippsland highway, there are barriers placed where there is no evident danger from the proximity of scrub or trees: just paddocks and the occasional cow.

Where is the danger here that requires this barrier along this length of divided road?" class="small img-responsive"/>
Where is the danger here that requires this barrier along this length of divided road?
In installing wire-rope barriers along such vast sections of highway, all around Victoria, VicRoads is clearly discounting or choosing to ignore the hazard these barriers pose to motorcyclists - “...the posts are the most likely component to cause injury...” (VicRoads).

Isn’t this then a fundamental failure by the regulator VicRoads of its duty to act in the best interests of all road users?

Contrast the approach of the Victorian regulator with a recent statement from the South Australian Minister for Road Safety, Mr Tony Piccolo (November 27, 2014)

There, the State Government has announced the installation of motorcycle barriers beneath existing guard rails - Armco barriers - on 14 South Australian roads.

"Motorcycle barriers (...) deflect a rider away from the impact point, shielding riders from hitting roadside hazards including guard rail posts."

"These particular barriers extend the traditional steel beam safety guard rails used on roadsides to cover exposed posts and gaps to reduce the impact should a motorcyclist be involved in a crash,” Mr Piccolo said.

In Victoria, given the proliferation of wire-rope barriers and their proximity to the road-edge, sometimes narrowing the shoulder to little over a metre, and given that any hazard placed closed to the road is of particular risk to motorcyclists, we at TMR think that the real concerns of motorcyclists as to the dangers of these barriers should not continue be discounted, and that there be a wider debate as to the efficacy of these barriers.

What a hue-and-cry there would be if VicRoads implemented a road safety system for drivers that increased risk to pedestrians.

The question needs to be asked: is VicRoads carrying out its duties satisfactorily, when, in implementing so widely a safety system that decreases risk to one section of road users - car occupants - simultaneously increases risk to another group of road users: motorcycle riders?

 

Wire Rope Barriers Everywhere: Nowhere To Safely Pull Aside

It is not just the danger to motorcyclists that is contentious with wire-rope barriers.

They can also be a danger to motorists.

Look at this next photo. It’s of a small farm truck, pulled to the side of the Baxter/Tooradin road, feeding into the South Gippsland Highway.

Which here is the greater hazard, the vegetation or a broken-down vehicle?
Which here is the greater hazard, the vegetation or a broken-down vehicle?

It’s there to illustrate a point because I placed it there - very briefly.

Too often, as this photo shows, these barriers do not allow enough room on the road shoulder to allow a vehicle to be safely pulled to the side of the road should it encounter mechanical problems, or even a flat tyre.

On this stretch of road, the barrier continues around a corner without a break. The hazard here is obvious.

Any vehicle that breaks down on his stretch of road poses a clear danger to passing traffic.

Worse, should a driver have a family on-board - a Mum driving the kids home at night - the danger is not only to the passing traffic, but to the occupants of any vehicle forced to pull over here.

What an irony then, that, just around the corner we found the sign shown here.

So this is what it costs to build a dangerous stretch of road.
So this is what it costs to build a dangerous stretch of road.

But this is not an isolated example; all around Victoria are similar narrowed road verges, hemmed by wire barriers. In many instances placed where there is little ‘potential hazard’ from encroaching vegetation, and in many instances on long stretches of straight highway.

Surely best practice road design allows for the contingency of breakdown, and, on country roads, enough space to alight the vehicle, to allow room for traffic to safely pass (particularly at night), and to allow room to safely change a tyre or attend to the vehicle.

The photograph to the right shows a broken-down small car along a new stretch of road that carries two-way traffic on the approach to Phillip Island.

It’s pulled tight up against the wire barrier, but languishing just over a rise. The break in the barrier, a long way up the hill, is not apparent, and certainly less-so at night.

At night, just over a rise, and impossible to see until right on it. Click to view in full." class="small img-responsive"/>
At night, just over a rise, and impossible to see until right on it. Click to view in full.
This vehicle sat there for some days and nights. In being hidden until cresting the rise, it was a sudden and unexpected hazard to cars travelling past at highway speed.

And what danger does this car pose to cars passing at night, should an approaching car neglect to dim the lights? (Don’t we all veer a little left when blinded by approaching traffic?)

With these barriers so ubiquitous, and extending, VicRoads is creating the hazard.

If it has not already occurred, it is simply a matter of time before a family in a broken-down car is rear-ended in dim light, or a travelling family itself rear-ends a broken-down car.

Where barriers are placed poorly or where they need not be, the road itself becomes the hazard.

These roads fail. They are designed to kill, and we need not be surprised when they do.

We might give the last word to the Australasian College of Road Safety (ACRS).

Its policy position is that “Road safety barrier systems should only be installed at locations where the risk of injury resulting from a crash with the device installed is much less than the risk without the device.

“The main function of road safety barrier systems is to improve road safety for all road users (our emphasis) by reducing the consequences of crashes into potentially hazardous environments. Road safety barriers should shield: vehicles and their occupants, riders, and pedestrians from hazardous objects and other vehicles in the roadside and the median.”

via ACRS.org.au

Tuesday: FAIL, Part 3. Road Design At Its Worst: This New Road Will Kill


Andrew Wall, VicRoads Director Network Policy and Programs:

Mr Wall’s full statement in response to our questions follows below.

Q: 1&2

TMR Q1. How many fatalities have occurred involving cars, light commercials or heavy commercials (trucks), where a wire barrier has failed to function as designed (such as the deaths in Western Victoria where an SUV left the road, resulting the deaths of a number of the occupants)?

TMR Q2. How many deaths of motorcyclists have occurred where a wire barrier has failed to function as designed (such as the deaths of a motorcyclist in or near Ferntree Gully, and the death of a woman motorcyclist near Cann River in far East Gippsland)?

“Wire rope barriers like all other barrier types have limits on the amount of force they are able to withstand. The amount of force from an impact depends on various variables such as speed, weight of the vehicle, and impact angle.

“In none of the known fatal crashes (vehicle or motorcycle crashes) at locations in Victoria where wire rope barriers are installed, has the barrier been implicated as the cause of death.”

Q: 3&4

TMR Q3. Is VicRoads aware of any international/European jurisdictions where wire barriers are banned from use? (Such as Denmark and The Netherlands, as advised by Australian motorcycle rider groups... is this information accurate?)
Which countries have banned their use?

TMR Q4. If wire barriers are banned in these jurisdictions (as advised to The Motor Report), is VicRoads aware of the reasons why their use is banned? What are these reasons?

“VicRoads, like other road jurisdictions, has a common interest in reducing road trauma. All jurisdictions have different strategies, policies, and/or standards on how to achieve this.

“Some jurisdictions, particularly in Europe, have taken a position on the use of wire rope barrier that has been more politically influenced rather than based on the road safety evidence.”

Q: 5&6

TMR Q5. What research is available to show that wire barriers are more effective, or equally effective, as Armco railing barriers in lessening dangers to road users on Victorian roads?

TMR Q6. Which is more costly: wire barriers or Armco railing?

“Wire rope safety barriers have been in use overseas for over 30 years and in Victoria for around 15 years.

“Experience has shown that wire rope safety barriers have been a highly cost-effective treatment in reducing road trauma, particularly in collisions with roadside hazards and cross-median crashes, as they cause less damage to vehicles and their occupants.

“The installation and maintenance costs of wire rope barriers are competitive with alternative barrier types. However, if the effectiveness of reducing road trauma is considered, then the wire rope barrier is the most cost-effective system.

“Unprotected road users, such as motorcyclists, are at risk if they hit any roadside object. For wire rope barriers, while some motorcyclists are still concerned about the wire rope, the posts are the most likely component to cause injury.”

Further background

“There have been many studies and reports which have illustrated the very significant road safety benefits from the use of wire rope safety barriers.

“These reports also considered issues relating to motorcyclists. In November 2009, the Australasian College of Road Safety published a special journal about motorcycle and scooter safety (November 2009, Volume 20 No 4). A copy of the journal can be downloaded from:

www.acrs.org.au/publications

“The journal includes a report titled An Overview of Motorcycle Crash Fatalities Involving Road Safety Barriers, which provides information regarding motorcycle and scooter crashes in Australia.

“In addition to the above, Austroads published a report earlier in 2014, AP-R437-14 Improving Roadside Safety that discusses the effectiveness of barriers and provides references to research documents for further information.”

 
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