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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65· No. 5 > Small Investment, Dramatic Dividends—Saving Lives in "Blood Alley"

March/April 2002
Vol. 65· No. 5

Small Investment, Dramatic Dividends—Saving Lives in "Blood Alley"

by Dave Davis

A notorious northwest Oregon highway corridor has seen a dramatic drop in traffic fatalities during the past three years thanks in part to an innovative public-private partnership.

The partnership drew together the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), three northwest Oregon counties, a community traffic safety committee, and a Native American tribe.

The corridor, dubbed "Blood Alley" by local residents, encompasses two highways, the Salmon River Highway (Oregon Route 18) and the Willamina-Salem Highway (Oregon Route 22). They serve as the main route between Salem, the state capital, in the populous Willamette Valley and the Pacific coast. The corridor also is the only way to one of Oregon's top tourist attractions, the Spirit Mountain Casino at Grand Ronde.

ODOT officials say the highways are classic examples of what happens when roads built for the traffic of the 1970s and 1980s begin bumping up against their capacities. ODOT records show that the average daily traffic count at the junction of the two highways ballooned from 10,607 in 1989 to 18,520 in 1999. "That's a 75-percent increase in traffic on a roadway that's basically remained the same for the past three decades," says Don Jordan, ODOT district manager. "You can't put that many vehicles on that kind of roadway and not expect to have problems." The 1990s witnessed the opening of several major tourist attractions along Oregon's Pacific coast, including the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the remodeled Hatfield Marine Sciences Center in Newport, and a factory store outlet in Lincoln City.

Photo of "Lights on for Safety" sign
"Lights on for Safety" signs were posted along the Oregon Route 18 safety corridor.

Two major gaming facilities also opened during the mid-1990s, Spirit Mountain in Grand Ronde and the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City. Each added more traffic to the already congested highways. And with the added traffic came more traffic crashes.

Beginning in 1995, the Oregon 18/22 corridor began to experience a significant increase in traffic fatalities. After recording two fatality-free years in 1993 and 1994, traffic crashes on Oregon Route 18 claimed three lives in 1995, three in 1996, two in 1997, then six in 1998, and 11 in 1999. Fatalities on Oregon Route 22 averaged about three a year for the same period.

An analysis of the crashes revealed a high percentage of crossovers — crashes in which one vehicle crosses over the dividing line into oncoming traffic and strikes another vehicle head-on.

"We were presented with a challenge," Jordan said. "We needed to find a way to prevent vehicles from crossing over the center stripe. Usually, that means installing a metal guardrail, a concrete barrier, or even building a divided highway. Unfortunately, all those improvements "cost money that ODOT just doesn't have."

The money to build and maintain Oregon highways (aside from federal highway funds) comes from the state highway fund. The chief source of revenue for the fund is the state's 24-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. Revenue flowing into the fund is then parceled out proportionally to ODOT, 34 counties, and 238 cities.

Oregon's fuel tax rate, however, hasn't increased in nearly a decade, and each year, inflation takes a bigger bite out of the revenue. Compounding the problem, the demand for gasoline for each mile driven actually is decreasing as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. Faced with shrinking revenue, ODOT shifted its emphasis from increasing capacity and modernizing highways to simply maintaining the existing system.

Photo of 4 lane road with a center barrier
A center barrier was installed along Oregon Route 22 west of Salem, Ore.

With bleak prospects for funding major projects in this corridor, ODOT began looking for low-cost ways to increase safety.

As part of the search for a solution, ODOT went into the communities along the corridor to seek ideas for improving the highways. The department sponsored a series of public meetings, hosted by the Spirit Mountain gaming facility.

ODOT also hosted two bus tours through the corridor for local elected officials, public safety officials, and transportation officials to see the problem areas firsthand and to seek possible solutions.

Dave Bishop, ODOT Area 3 manager in charge of construction projects in the mid-Willamette Valley, said the meetings brought the safety issues into clear focus.

"Everyone agreed early in the process that our two biggest problems were crossover-type crashes and collisions at intersecting roads," Bishop said. "As we focused on those problems, we began to see areas where, by pooling our resources, we could make some low-cost improvements that might save some lives." In 1996, an 18.5-mile- (30-kilometer-) long section of state Route 18 through Grand Ronde was designated as a transportation safety corridor. ODOT uses the designation to signify sections of highway with historically high rates of crashes. ODOT had earlier applied the designation to a 10-mile- (16-kilometer-) long section of state Route 22 west of Salem.

"We use a three-pronged approach to deal with safety corridors: education, enforcement, and engineering," said Bishop. "The designation itself is mainly an educational effort. We use signing to alert drivers that they're in the corridor. The signs also ask them to use extra caution and turn on their headlights. We also work with local police agencies on the enforcement piece to increase patrols through the corridors." In 1999, the Oregon legislature passed a law that doubled traffic fines in certain safety corridors, including the Oregon Route 18 corridor.

Rick Midkiff (left) and Steve Barner of the Oregon Department of Transportation mount sign "Traffic Fine Doubles In This Safety Corridor"
Rick Midkiff (left) and Steve Barner of the Oregon Department of Transportation attach a sign warning motorists that traffic fines are doubled in the safety corridor.

Meanwhile, ODOT formed a public-private partnership. Members included the department's District 3 maintenance and Area 3 construction offices; the ODOT Transportation Safety Division; Polk, Lincoln, and Yamhill counties; the Oregon State Police; the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community (owner of the Spirit Mountain Casino); the Mid-Willamette Valley Area Commission on Transportation (MWACT), a citizens' committee that advises the Oregon Transportation Commission; and the Highway 18/22 Transportation Safety Committee.

"ODOT's Transportation Safety Division, the Grand Ronde tribe, and the counties provided funding. The District 3 maintenance office and the counties supplied equipment, materials, and workers. The county sheriffs and the state police provided enforcement. And the safety committee and MWACT provided support and direction. Working together, this partnership has been able to make a number of small, but significant, safety improvements to the highway," said Jordan.

Improvements have included:

  • Installing turn lanes.
  • Widening intersection approaches and installing sight posts at county roads to improve sightlines.
  • Restriping and adjusting "No Passing" zones to improve visibility and safety.
  • Eliminating a three-mile (five-kilometer) section of shared passing lane.
  • Establishing a uniform speed limit of 45 miles per hour (72 kilometers per hour) through the Grand Ronde area.
  • Building off-road "launching pads" (parking areas) for police patrol cars.
  • Installing an automatic "Traffic Stopped Ahead" sign at the crest of a hill that blocks visibility of an intersection.
  • Installing blinking warning lights near several high-crash intersections.
  • Installing oversize "Intersection Ahead" signs that include the name of the crossroad at all intersections of county roads and state highways.
  • Cutting rumble strips along the shoulders and, in some cases, the center stripe of the highway.
Close up photo of rumble strips cut into centerline pavement
Rumble strips Route 18 west of were cut into the centerline of state Sheridan, Ore.

"Cutting rumble strips in the middle of the highway was a first for Oregon. It was the first time we'd placed rumble strips on a two-lane highway, and the first time we'd placed rumble strips down "Jordan said.

"Rumble strips were a direct attack on the problem of crossover crashes," he said. "We suspected that a large number of the incidents were cases in which a drowsy driver fell asleep and drifted across the centerline. We wanted to stop that from happening.

"Rumble strips alert drowsy drivers that they're headed for trouble. That way, they have a chance to pull back into their lane before they get involved in a collision." Installing the rumble strips also took the cooperation of ODOT's Traffic Engineering Section.

"Both our Traffic Engineering Section and our Roadway Engineering Section went 'outside the box' on these projects," Jordan said. "They worked with us to allow exceptions to normal design standards. This allowed us to try different low-cost improvements without forcing the costs outside our capabilities."

And the rumble strip projects have already paid dividends.

"I've heard of at least two cases in which people have said the rumble strips prevented them from having serious accidents and probably saved their "said Jordan.

With two exceptions, the projects completed in the corridor so far are truly "low cost." The exceptions are:

  • A $2.5 million reconstruction of the entrance and exit ramps at the Spirit Mountain Casino on state Route 18 in 1998. (The Grand Ronde tribe paid for this improvement.)
  • Installing about four miles (6.5 kilometers) of concrete median barrier on Route 22 in 1999 for $480,000.
Photo of two police officers with police car and motorcycle
From a police vehicle "launching pad" along state Route 18 west of Sheridan, Ore., a Yamhill County sheriff's deputy and an Oregon State Police trooper monitor the passing traffic.

For the other work, the partnership put together a series of project "packages" costing about $30,000 each. The funds came from the ODOT maintenance and transportation safety budgets; in-kind grants of materials, equipment, and workers from Polk, Yamhill, and Lincoln counties; and grants from the Spirit Mountain Foundation administered by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community.

ODOT's Transportation Safety Division also provided funding to increase enforcement and public awareness through the corridor. Working with the Oregon State Police and the county sheriff's departments in Polk and Yamhill counties, the division provided funding for increased patrols through the corridor. An advertising campaign targeted drivers who travel through the corridor. Using billboards, tabletop "tent" ads, bumper stickers, and movie screen advertising, the campaign focused on the hazards of drowsy driving and told drivers to "Be Patient — Don't Be a Patient."

Photo of tent card from the Oregon Dept of Transportation "Be Alert on the Road" with bullet points
This tent card, warning motorists against driving when drowsy, was distributed to restaurants and other businesses along state routes 18 and 22.

These small investments have returned dramatic dividends. The Oregon Route 18 segment of the corridor was fatality-free in 2000 after recording six fatalities in 1998 and 11 in 1999. The Oregon Route 22 segment, after recording four fatalities in 1998, dropped to one in 1999. Unfortunately, traffic crashes claimed four lives in 2000. However, only one of those fatalities occurred in the areas where highway crews had made improvements.

"We are not ready to declare victory yet," said Jordan. "Traffic continues to increase each year, and we know we need to do some major work to continue to improve the safety of this highway.

"We have received great cooperation from all our partners in this effort. Although we haven't had a lot of money to spend on these improvements, we have made the most of what we've had available.

"It all comes down to doing whatever we can to meet ODOT's number one priority of making our highways safe for the people who use them," he said. "We will work with our partners in the Oregon 18/22 corridor to make these highways even safer in the future."


Dave Davis is the public information officer in Region 2 of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

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