Cruise down Interstate 80 in Iowa and you’ll find a safety feature the state says is saving lives. Cable barriers on medians. The Iowa Department of Transportation started installing cable barriers more than a decade ago, and the cables have significantly reduced deaths caused by vehicles crossing the median into oncoming traffic, said Chris Poole, the department’s safety programs engineer . On Sunday, that type of crash claimed four lives on Interstate 80 in Nebraska. A westbound vehicle veered through the median west of Lincoln and collided with an eastbound vehicle. Jeni Campana, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said the state does not have cable barriers on rural sections of I-80 because traffic volume and the width of the medians don’t warrant them. She said federal guidelines recommend cable barriers where medians are between 30 and 50 feet wide and traffic volume reaches a certain threshold.
Medians across Nebraska are at least 64 feet wide and even wider along the stretch of Interstate from Lincoln to Omaha. In most cases, a driver entering a median as wide as Nebraska’s would have enough room to slow down and recover to avoid crashing into oncoming traffic, Campana said. The Interstate in Omaha and Lincoln, where volume is high and space is limited, uses concrete barriers to separate traffic. Poole said medians in Iowa are about 50 feet wide on average. He said 330 miles of Iowa’s Interstate System have cable median barriers, or about 42 percent of the total miles. On I-80 , there are cable barriers in the median from Adair in western Iowa all the way to the state’s eastern border, with shorter stretches of concrete barriers in urban areas. The barriers have reduced fatalities in cross-median crashes, Poole said. The state first began installing them on rural sections of Interstate in 2003 and made a major push to put them in starting in 2011, he said.
From 2011 to 2015, there was an annual average of 6.4 fatalities in cross-median crashes on Iowa’s Interstate System, down from 14.4 a year on average from 2005 to 2009. During the past five years, Nebraska has averaged about five fatalities per year in cross-median crashes on rural sections of Interstate, according to the Nebraska Highway Safety Office. Dean Sicking, a former engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has studied the use of median barriers, said it makes sense for Iowa to have the barriers because its traffic volume is higher and its median widths are narrower than Nebraska’s. Sicking, who is now a professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said other states, including Missouri, have added cable median barriers. He said the barriers are not foolproof and can cause deaths, such as when a vehicle hits them and flips over. So far , Nebraska has had a rough year for fatalities on rural stretches of Interstate.
The 14 rural Interstate fatalities this year is the highest number recorded since an equal number of deaths was recorded in 2005 for the same time period, said Fred Zwonechek, administrator of the Nebraska Highway Safety Office. Nebraska averages 22 such deaths a year, based on data from the last 10 years. This year’s crashes and deaths have been concentrated on the section of I-80 between Lincoln and York. Zwonechek said that while that stretch of the Interstate has had multiple fatalities this year, it’s not an unsafe section. He emphasized that drivers and passengers must take steps to help keep themselves safe, such as buckling up. Sunday’s four deaths occurred when the car drifted onto the shoulder and the driver overcorrected, authorities believe. Three of those four were not wearing seat belts, officials said. In a separate I-80 crash Sunday, a semitrailer truck driver who investigators think may have been texting died when his rig collided with another semi.