Meeting explores ways to improve traffic safety in Alabama

| 12/28/2004

Alabama is suffering a shortage of troopers, and increased enforcement could help make the state’s roads safer for everyone, a group of state officials recently concluded.

The officials met recently to discuss truck safety after a series of accidents involving tractor-trailers. One of the wrecks, involving a tanker truck, closed a portion of the “Malfunction Junction” interstate crossing in Birmingham for more than a month.

No formal proposals or recommendations were produced by the meeting, Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation, said. However, a number of ideas did come out of it, and the meeting allowed Highway Patrol officers to communicate to state officials about their concerns as well.

Among the ideas discussed were:

  • Increased overall enforcement;
  • Putting more troopers on the road;
  • More inspections of large trucks;
  • Camera-based speed-enforcement measures; and
  • Better signage to alert drivers to problem areas.

Speeding was an area of particular concern because it was a factor in several of the accidents that led to the meeting. Harris said it was one area the group felt could benefit from increased enforcement. However, the officials at the meeting did not limit their ideas to more speeding tickets.

“They were looking at every aspect of traffic safety,” Harris said.

The group discussed figures from the state’s Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Highway Patrol, that show – based on the number of patrol officers per capita – “Alabama’s total number of state troopers lags behind what some sister states are putting on the roads,” Harris said.

And while more troopers on the road could lead to better speed enforcement, it also could help in other areas, Harris said.

“Troopers in Alabama conduct most of our truck inspections,” he said. “(With) a higher number of troopers on the road in Alabama they could not only concentrate on speed enforcement, but they could do more inspections.”

Those could include more checks at weigh stations and along the roadside. The state performs more mobile than fixed-site inspections.

Harris said one particular area of concern was trucks traveling through the Birmingham area that carry large steel coils. In the past 15 years, “dozens” of accidents involving those trucks have occurred, Harris said, with many of the steel coils breaking loose and damaging the road surface.

“They feel like if they had more enforcement, companies that transport that would be more diligent in their efforts to secure those loads,” he said.

However, those attending the meeting did not consider at this point the idea of tracking individual carriers and targeting enforcement on those with the worst safety records.

Another idea discussed included increasing the number of places that truckers can go to get their trucks inspected, as well as increasing the number of “truck inspection days” each year.

“That puts more locations around the state where truck owners and operators can go and have their trucks inspected,” he said.

Although the meeting was spurred by accidents on interstate highways, the officials involved also looked at safety measures that could be taken on smaller roads, such as using cameras to enforce speed limits and to increase safety at intersections. Some of those measures would require an act of the legislature.

Harris said the meeting has already had one major benefit – creating more dialog between state troopers and DOT officials about what is causing accidents across the state, and what actions the troopers think would help reduce accidents.

Troopers suggested a number of “little things that we can do with traffic control … things that can make a difference.” For example, troopers suggested putting up more signs marking areas where the road is typically wet and slippery or adding more speed limit signs in some areas.

Also, the troopers suggested adding devices to some interstate ramps that use radar to measure vehicles’ speeds, and activate flashing lights when those vehicles are moving above a safe speed. The devices are already installed at the intersection of I-85 and I-65, and are planned for some ramps at Malfunction Junction.

“We contend that interchange functions properly if you go through it at the right speed,” Harris said. 

One measure that the group did not considered was splitting the state’s speed limits.

“There was no discussion of it at all,” Harris said. “I don’t think our DOT is in favor of that.”

State officials are planning to conduct another meeting on truck safety in January, Harris said, although no firm date has yet been set.

– By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor