Expert: Broken cables do little to stop crashes

July 24, 2011 9:00:00 PM PDT
Cable barriers are intended to keep vehicles from crossing highway medians into the lanes of oncoming traffic in an accident.

"We've heard a number of positive stories about how this barrier has saved lives, individuals' lives," said Kevin Lacy with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. "They've called and said if they hadn't have been there, they would have died."

But what if the cables are not in place? Some safety advocates say the barrier systems are easily damaged and are often left unrepaired for significant time periods.

"You'll see the cables hung from the post like garland, like limp spaghetti, and nobody does anything about them," said Jerry Donaldson, an expert who retired from the group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety based in Washington, D.C. He now lives in North Carolina.

After learning of Donaldson's concerns about broken cables, the ABC11 I-Team opened an investigation. We monitored a 10-mile stretch of Interstate-540 where we found nearly a dozen cable sections that were damaged, loose, or down on the ground - offering little to no protection in crossover accidents.

We watched every day for nearly a month and the cables were not repaired until we began asking the Department of Transportation about the problem.

The DOT told us such a long delay on repairs is not the standard.

"We like to get it done within a week or two, that's ideal," said Lacy.

This is not the first time cable barriers have been the subject of an I-Team investigation. In May, we reported on concerns about their overall effectiveness.

Click here to watch that report

The barriers are designed to work by bending with vehicles driving parallel to the cables and stopping them from crossing into oncoming traffic. The DOT admits they are not meant to stop cars that hit them at a 90-degree angle or vehicles that "submarine" under the wires.

Mickey Cheek knows firsthand about the devastation that can happen when a car goes under a cable barrier. His 19-year-old daughter Jessica died eight years ago on Interstate-40 in Sampson County. She was returning home from college for her dad's birthday.

"She abruptly had to turn to the left," said Cheek. "She went underneath the wire, pulled it out of the ground, and went on the other side of the road and a Ford F-150 truck hit her passenger side."

But Lacy says despite some fatalities, the cable barrier system is effective. And he says some damage to a wire barrier doesn't mean that entire section won't work.

"Some people think that if you got one or two posts that are damaged along that whole section that the barriers are ineffective, but that is not true," said Lacy.

There are 700 miles of cable barriers throughout the state of North Carolina. They're the least expensive of the available highway barrier systems which also include concrete and steel.

While cheaper, Donaldson says the cables are the most vulnerable.

"The system that you have here now insures that you will have more catastrophic crossover crashes," he offered. "Some will be stopped. Once the NC DOT has been criticized for the system, every time they have a safely contained and redirected vehicle, they will trumpet that."

North Carolina has focused on installing more barriers along highways and interstates in recent years to improve safety. It says as a result of that effort, injuries are down 62 percent.

It also says when a car strikes a cable barrier, injuries result about 19 percent of the time. Compare that to 35 percent for guardrails and 41 percent for concrete barriers.

North Carolina spends about $10 million a year to fix damaged highway barriers. Forty percent of that money comes from the drivers who hit them or their surviving relatives.

Mickey Cheeks says he got a bill after his daughter died to fix the system that failed to stop her car.

"A few months later, I get a letter. It's a bill, not a letter, saying that I owe the state of North Carolina. I think it was 276 dollars and 74 cents," he recalled. "And I'm a deacon in a church, and I've never been so mad in my life."

Cheek's insurance company paid the bill.

The DOT told ABC11 it's not policy to bill the loved ones of fatal accident victims and it's not sure how it happened. It apologized.

It also said it needs the help of the public to report damaged barriers so they can be quickly repaired. Drivers can call (877) DOT-4YOU (1-877-368-4968).

The DOT also says it is not considering replacing the cables with another type of barrier system. It says the cables do work.

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