Will “rubber band barriers” save you from death or injury?

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Russ and Tiña De Maris

As we rumble along the highway of life, there are plenty of deep, universal questions to be answered. On one trip we rumbled some 2,800 miles in a matter of a few days, and had more down-to-earth questions: Will cable barriers stop an RV from careening through the median and crashing into oncoming traffic? For that matter, will cable barriers really stop an errant auto from careening across that same median and smacking into your RV?


It’s a big deal in Washington state, where the Department of Transportation installed miles of the stuff along various highways, including the much-traveled Interstate 5. Some years back, after the installation near Marysville, a series of tragic and fatal accidents made it seem that the “rubber band” barriers (as some call them) just weren’t particularly effective. A couple of settled lawsuits later, and some independent studies revealed that those rubber band barriers do work – provided they’re installed correctly. In the case of the Marysville tragedies, it seems installation wasn’t up to snuff.

Click to enlarge. Motorhome meets rubber bands. Washington DOT.

But according to statistics, those wiry barriers do actually seem to save lives: Real world figures indicate that when vehicles hit the cable barriers, they stay on their own side of the median more than 82 percent of the time. “Sure,” you say, “but those concrete Jersey barriers have got to do better than that!” Those concrete curbs keep traffic out of the other side of the median just 38 percent of the time. That’s a pretty significant “capture rate,” and adding to the seeming superiority of the cable barriers – they don’t usually allow the striking vehicle to “bounce back” into traffic, thus avoiding a secondary collision with some other unfortunate motorist. The science behind cable barriers says the energy of the impact is absorbed by being distributed along the cable, preventing the vehicle from being “bounced back” into traffic, and lessening the chance of injuries or death.

Click to enlarge. Travel trailer rollover backstopped before hitting oncoming traffic. Washington DOT photo.

As time has moved along, so have changes in the barrier system. Washington has moved away from “3-rope barrier” systems to those employing four cables. By using this added cable, the bottom cable is lower, the topmost is higher, and the net effect seems that vehicles are having a harder time getting over – or under – the barrier.

The four-cable systems appear to be effective. Washington has experienced no cross-median collisions for some time after the four-rope barriers were installed, and of those rigs that hit the ropes, 85 percent had no injuries to occupants. Keeping a rig from making it to the other side of the freeway is the net effect (if you’ll pardon the pun), as is illustrated by the rollover travel trailer that got backstopped near Ferndale, Washington.

It’s also true that no kind of barrier will be effective against every kind of accident, every time. Three friends of ours nearly lost their lives and were permanently disabled when a hotdogging car blew over the top of a Jersey barrier in Washington some years back. Would a cable barrier have prevented that carnage? It’s not something we can say for certain. We’re just glad they’re alive and doing the best they can with recovery.

As the motorhome/cable barrier photo shows, cable barriers can also prove good for stimulating the economy: Rather than sailing into oncoming traffic, this motorhome was “captured” by the cable barrier, and probably provided many hours of work for an RV body repairman. Just between us, we think we’d rather hang up the rig like this than smack into an oncoming semi-truck.

##RVT915

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Jim

Unfortunately, the cable restraints have proven extremely deadly to motorcyclists.

Tim H Lecluse

Interesting question california stopped using them when cars were sawed in two by the cable action at speed.

Bob p

The cable barriers have stopped semis carrying up to 80K lbs of weight.

Bill

Not to mention those concrete walls are just butt-ugly.

CRAIG SEITZ

Saw many of these type accidents in my 25 years of police work. The barriers do work most of the time. I did witness a few occasions when vehicles did go under the wires but were slowed enough to avoid going into oncoming traffic

Larry H Lee

Always a better mousetrap.