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This report is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information
Publication Number: FHWA-RD-97-135
Date: January 1998

Older Driver Highway Design Handbook


  1. Pavement Markings and Delineation on Horizontal Curves
  2. Pavement Width on Horizontal Curves
  3. Crest Vertical Curve Length and Advance Signing for Sight-Restricted Locations
  4. Passing Zone Length, Passing Sight Distance, and Passing/Overtaking Lanes on Two-Lane Highways

Background and Scope of Handbook Recommendations

Accidents on horizontal curves have been recognized as a considerable safety problem for many years. Accident studies indicate that roadway curves experience a higher accident rate than tangents, with rates ranging from one-and-a-half to three to four times higher than tangents (Glennon, Neuman, and Leisch, 1985; Zegeer, Stewart, Reinfurt, Council, Neuman, Hamilton, Miller, and Hunter, 1990; Neuman, 1992). Lerner and Sedney (1988) reported anecdotal evidence that horizontal curves present problems for older drivers. Also, Lyles' (1993) analyses of accident data in Michigan found that older drivers are much more likely to be involved in accident situations where the drivers were driving too fast for the curve or, more significantly, were surprised by the curved alignment. In a review of the literature aimed at modifying driver behavior on rural road curves, Johnston (1982) reported that horizontal curves that are below 600 m (1,968 ft) in radius on two-lane rural roads, and those requiring a substantial reduction in speed from that prevailing on the preceding tangent section, were disproportionately represented among accident sites.

Successful curve negotiation depends upon the choice of appropriate approach speed and adequate lateral positioning through the curve. Many studies have shown that loss-of-control accidents result from an inability to maintain lateral position through the curve because of excessive speed, with inadequate deceleration in the approach zone. These problems in turn stem from a combination of factors, including poor anticipation of vehicle control requirements, induced by the driver's prior speed, and inadequate perception of the demands of the curve.

Many studies report a relationship between horizontal curvature (and the degree of curvature) and the total percentage of accidents by geometric design feature on the highways. The reasons for these accidents are related to the following inadequate driving behaviors:

  • Deficient skills in negotiating curves, especially those of more than 3 degrees (Eckhardt and Flanagan, 1956).
  • Exceeding the design speed on the curve (Messer, Mounce, and Brackett, 1981).
  • Exceeding the design of the vehicle path (Glennon and Weaver, 1971; Good, 1978).
  • Failure to maintain appropriate lateral position in the curve (McDonald and Ellis, 1975).
  • Incorrect anticipatory behavior of curve speed and alignment when approaching the curve (Messer et al., 1981; Johnston, 1982).
  • Inadequate appreciation of the degree of hazard associated with a given curve (Johnston, 1982).

With respect to vertical curves, design policy is based on the need to provide drivers with adequate stopping sight distance (SSD). That is, enough sight distance must exist to permit drivers to see an obstacle soon enough to stop for it under some set of reasonable worst-case conditions. The parameters that determine sight distance on crest vertical curves include the change of grade, the length of the curve, the height above the ground of the driver's eye, and the height of the obstacle to be seen. SSD is determined by reaction time, speed of vehicle, and tire-pavement coefficient of friction. There is some concern with the validity of the SSD model that has been in use for over 50 years, however. Current practice assumes an obstacle height of 150 mm (6 in) and a locked-wheel, wet-pavement stop. Minimum lengths of crest vertical curves are based on sight distance and driver comfort. These criteria do not currently include adjustments for age-related effects in driving performance measures, which would suggest an even more conservative approach. At the same time, the general lack of empirical data demonstrating benefits for limited sight distance countermeasures has led some to propose liberalization of model criteria, such as obstacle height.

Standards and criteria for sight distance, horizontal and vertical alignment, and associated traffic control devices are based on the following driver performance characteristics: detection and recognition time, perception-reaction time, decision and response time, time to perform brake and accelerator movements, maneuver time, and (if applicable) time to shift gears. However, these values have typically been based on driving performance (or surrogate driving measures) of the entire driving population, or have been formulated from research biased toward younger (college-age) as opposed to older driver groups. The models underlying these design standards and criteria therefore have not, as a rule, included variations to account for slower reaction time or other performance deficits consistently demonstrated in research on older driver response capabilities. In particular, diminished visual performance (reduced acuity and contrast sensitivity), physical capability (reduced strength to perform control movements and sensitivity to lateral force), cognitive performance (attentional deficits and declines in choice reaction time in responses to unpredictable stimuli), and perceptual abilities (reduced accuracy of processing speed-distance information as required for gap judgments) combine to make the task of negotiating the highway design elements addressed in this section more difficult and less forgiving for older drivers.

This section will provide recommendations to enhance the performance of diminishedcapacity drivers as they negotiate roadway curvature and passing zones, focusing on four designelements: A. pavement markings and delineation on horizontal curves; B. pavement width onhorizontal curves; C. crest vertical curve length and advance signing for sight-restricted locations; and D. passing zone length, passing sight distance, and passing/overtaking lanes on two-lanehighways.

The Handbook recommendations that follow are supported by material presented later inthe "Rationale and Supporting Evidence" section under the "Roadway Curvature and Passing Zones" heading.

Recommendations by Design Element

A. Design Element: Pavement Markings and Delineation on Horizontal Curves

  1. The installation and maintenance of white edgelines of normal width (MUTCD [Federal Highway Administration, 1988]) on horizontal curves at an effective luminance (L) contrast level of at least 5.0 is recommended on all highways (including arterials) without median separation of opposing directions of traffic, where

    luminance (L) contrast equals L subscript stripe minus L subscript pavement over L subscript pavement

  2. A minimum in-service contrast value of 3.75 is recommended for pavement edgelines on horizontal curves where median barriers effectively block drivers' view of oncoming headlights or where median width exceeds 15 m (49 ft)
  3. The installation (at standard spacing) of centerline raised-pavement markers beginning 5 s driving time (at 85th percentile speed) before, and continuing through the length of, all horizontal curves of radii under 1,000 m (3,281 ft) is recommended.

    Centerline Raised-Pavement Markers

  4. The installation of roadside delineation devices at a maximum spacing (S) of 12 m (40 ft) on all horizontal curves with a radius (R) of 185 m (600 ft) or less, is recommended; for curves of radii over 185 m (600 ft), the standard/MUTCD formula (in feet) to define roadside delineator spacing intervals is recommended, where
    S equals 3 multiplied by the square root of R minus 50 Roadside Delineation Devices

    The rationale and supporting evidence for this recommendation can be found by clicking here.

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B. Design Element: Pavement Width on Horizontal Curves

  1. A minimum lane-plus-paved-shoulder width of 5.5 m (18 ft) through the length of arterial horizontal curves greater than or equal to 3 degrees of curvature is recommended (assuming AASHTO [1994] design values for superelevation and coefficient of side friction).

    The rationale and supporting evidence for this recommendation be found by clicking here.

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C. Design Element: Crest Vertical Curve Length and Advance Signing for Sight-Restricted Locations

  1. To accommodate the exaggerated decline among older drivers in response to unexpected hazards, it is recommended that the present criterion of 150 mm (6 in) for obstacle height on crest vertical curves be preserved in the design of new and reconstructed facilities.
  2. Where a need has already been determined for installation or replacement of a LIMITED SIGHT DISTANCE (W14-4) sign, the alternate message HILL BLOCKS VIEW is recommended, using the special sign size of 900 mm x 900 mm (36 in x 36 in) cited in Standard Highway Signs as Specified in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (Federal Highway Administration, 1979) as a minimum.


  3. If a signalized intersection is obscured by vertical or horizontal curvature in a manner that the signal condition becomes visible at a preview distance of 8 s or less (at operating speed), then the use of the advance warning sign PREPARE TO STOP, with a yellow flasher activated during the red-signal phase, is recommended.

    The rationale and supporting evidence for this recommendation can be found by clicking here.

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D. Design Element: Passing Zone Length, Passing Sight Distance, and Passing/Overtaking Lanes on Two-Lane Highways

  1. A minimum passing zone length of 350 m (1,150 ft) is recommended for any facility with an operating speed of 64 km/h (40 mi/h) or greater.
  2. A minimum passing sight distance (MUTCD definition [Federal Highway Administration, 1988]) of 215 m (705 ft) is recommended for any facility with an operating speed of 64 km/h (40 mi/h) or greater.
  3. Use of special size (1,200 mm x 1,600 mm x 1,600 mm [48 in x 64 in x 64 in]) NO PASSING ZONE pennant (W14-3) as a high-conspicuity supplement to conventional centerline pavement markings at the beginning of no passing zones is recommended.
  4. To the extent feasible for new or reconstructed facilities, excepting those with low traffic volume, the implementation of passing/overtaking lanes (each direction) at intervals of no more than 5 km (3.1 mi) is recommended.

    The rationale and supporting evidence for this recommendation can be found by clicking here.

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