The Hidden Menace of the Superhighway

The better roads get, the more people die on them. This baffling puzzle confronts safety experts and highway engineers who warn you this summer to beware of high-speed hypnosis

FRED BODSWORTH August 1 1953

The Hidden Menace of the Superhighway

The better roads get, the more people die on them. This baffling puzzle confronts safety experts and highway engineers who warn you this summer to beware of high-speed hypnosis

FRED BODSWORTH August 1 1953

The Hidden Menace of the Superhighway

The better roads get, the more people die on them. This baffling puzzle confronts safety experts and highway engineers who warn you this summer to beware of high-speed hypnosis


CANADA AND the United States stand at the threshold of a new era of automobile driving the superhighway era. But as wider, smoother, grander highways unroll across the continent in great ribbons of arrow-straight concrete, it has been proved again that all the laws of human behavior and logic fail to apply when you are dealing with that bewildering breed, the car driver.


The better roads get, the more people die on them. This baffling puzzle confronts safety experts and highway engineers who warn you this summer to beware of high-speed hypnosis

CANADA AND the United States stand at the threshold of a new era of automobile driving the superhighway era. But as wider, smoother, grander highways unroll across the continent in great ribbons of arrow-straight concrete, it has been proved again that all the laws of human behavior and logic fail to apply when you are dealing with that bewildering breed, the car driver. Right now the car driver is confounding the safety experts with the most puzzling contradiction of automobile history.

It doesn’t make sense, but the fact is becoming increasingly obvious that the “safer” you make a highway—the more curves you straighten out and the more intersections you eliminate— the more motorists kill themselves, and others, on it.

Superhighways like Ontario’s new Toronto-to-Barrie twolaner on which a motorist can roll along for fifty miles without having to slow down for a stop light, curve or intersection are super all right. But are they safe?

“Superhighways are safe,” insists J. D. Millar, Ontario Deputy Minister of Highways. “Their higher death toll is because drivers haven’t learned how to use them yet.” And every North American highway safety expert agrees. For here is one instance where statistics surely are confusing.

Ontario has a fatality rate of eight persons killed per hundred million vehicle miles of travel. This includes cities where the toll is boosted by large numbers of pedestrian deaths. The highway rate alone is believed to be six to seven. Yet the Toronto-to-Burlington section of the Queen Elizabeth Way—until last year Canada’s most modern highway— has had a ten-year average fatality rate of about twelve per hundred million vehicle miles. The TorontoBarrie superhighway, just opened last year, has so far had a fatality rate close to ten.

Pennsylvania’s fatality rate, including cities, is five, yet its Pennsylvania Turnpike—three hundred and twenty-seven miles of the finest superhighway on the continent—has a fatality rate of eight. New Jersey’s rate is four, the New Jersey Turnpike 6.5. Connecticut’s rate is 3.8, the rate of its Merritt Parkway close to eight.

When the Queen fidizabeth Way was opened in 1940 (cost: ten million dollars) its designers said it would cut highway fatalities sixty percent and be the safest highway in Canada. But that eighty miles of smooth pavement joining Toronto and Niagara Falls immediately became the most dangerous highway in Canada. In 1940 its fatality rate per hundred million car miles was eleven. In 1941 the fatality rate soared to twenty-four per hundred million car miles. In 1942 it dropped to eighteen, and in the usual superhighway statistical pattern it has been dropping slowly ever since as drivers adapt to the new techniques of superhighway driving. But it is still well above the average for other Ontario highways.

On the other hand the total number of accidents on the Queen Elizabeth has remained slightly below the provincial highway average of around four hundred per hundred million miles.

The discrepancy between accident rates and fatality rates is explained by the most significant stat istic of them all on Ontario highways as a whole, two percent of accidents are fatal, on the Queen Elizabeth more than three percent are. And even this figure doesn’t tell the whole story, for double and triple fatalities are much more frequent on the Queen Elizabeth, but each one rates statistically as a single fatal accident.

The most revealing lesson from the Queen Elizabeth appears when its “best” section is compared with other sections. For four miles west of Toronto to No. 27 Highway Continued on page 33

The Hidden Menace of The Superhighway


cloverleaf, the Queen Elizabeth is straight as a flagpole, flat as a cop’s arches, its one-way lanes are entirely divided and this section is one-hundredpercent limited access without even a cloverleaf intersection. Head-on or intersection collisions are impossible here Pedestrians are fenced out. Engineers said that on this section accidents would be practically nonexistent. The next twenty-five miles, frone No. 27 Highway to Burlington, has several danger points created by ¡level intersections and undivided Streiches. One intersection here, the notorious Dixie Road, now being safeguarded with an overpass and cloverleaf. has averaged one fatality a month, to make it Canada’s deadliest highway intersection.

All the rules of logic say that the firsl four miles should be much safer than the other twenty-five. On the four-mile “safe” section the accident rate over ten years has been one hundred and seventy per hundred million vehicle miles — one of the lowest highway - accident figures in Carada. For the other danger-studded section the accident rate is four hundred and twenty, considerably more than double. Just what you’d expect

but what about fatality rates'?

Fewer Accidents, More Deaths

In 1941 the “safe” section started its statistical record with a recordbreaking fatality rate of thirty-five per hundred million vehicle miles—four and a half times the provincial average—and the other section’s rate was thirteen. Reductions since then have produced a ten-year average of twelve and eleven respectively. With less than naif the number of accidents, the “safe” section on a per car-mile basis has had slightly more deaths.

Superhighways provide merely the extreme illustration of this strangest paradox to hit motoring since Henry Ford turned the Model T into an automobile for the ordinary man. It’s becoming apparent that to improve a highway, even though the improvement falls short of superhighway standards, is to make that highway more deadly.

On the prairies, where the terrain permits long, straight, level stretches of highway, this has been the roadbuilders’ unhappy experience. W. M. Stewart, Saskatchewan Deputy Minister of Highways, says: “On the

average, our improved highways are not resulting in any appreciable reduction in traffic accidents as compared with highways of lower standard. In fact, I think the tendency is toward an increase in accidents.”

J. D. Millar, Ontario deputy minister, put it more bluntly: “The better

and straighter we make a road, the more fatal accidents it seems to have.”

H. L. Cairns, highway project engineer for British Columbia, states: “It has been our experience that improvement does not reduce the accident rate.”

The over-all U. S. fatality rate is around eight per hundred million vehicle miles, the same as Ontario’s. Yet it is highest, twelve and over, in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico

states which do not have superhighways as such, but have desert thoroughfares which share the superhighway’s lethal features—long, flat, straight pavement.

Superhighways have everything that

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modern engineering can give them to make it difficult to have an accident. Then why do they kill more people?

Let’s take a look first at what the superhighway engineers set out to do: Originally roads were huilt to provide access to farms and to link neighboring communities. They were designed for the horse and buggy and we simply adapted them as best we could for automobile travel. By the mid-Thirties it had become obvious that the old roads had been resurfaced and remodeled to the point where nothing more could be done, and they were still inadequate. It was essential to make a clean start and provide main travel routes with highways specifically designed for the automobile. The U. S. started work on its Pennsylvania Turnpike and Merritt Parkway. Canada started laying down its Queen Elizabeth Way.

Two requirements had developed simultaneously. The automobile had become a means of long-distance travel but the motorist with two hundred miles to go was still shifting into second gear every mile to get around a farmer driving his horse and mower over to the next field, because we were still adhering to the outdated principle that every road had to be a local convenience. These two dangerously conflicting classes of highway user - the local straggler and long-distance traveler—were a menace to each other. On routes where the long-distance trippers were numerous the classes had to be separated.

The second requirement was a new and positive approach to the problem of the highway death toll which was soaring alarmingly on the congested routes.

To fill the first requirement — a highway for long-distance travelers on which local interference would be

reduced to a minimum—highway engineers developed the “limited access” principle and the “cloverleaf.” Access to the hundred-percent superhighway is limited to cloverleaf intersections where the incoming traffic merges with the main traffic flow by means of right-hand turns. The cloverleaf carries traffic across the superhighway at a higher or lower level by means of an overpass or underpass, and eliminates all left turns and stop lights. Traffic goes left off a superhighway by a right-hand circling turn which brings it back across the superhighway at a different level. Where the limited-access rule is strictly applied, all farm driveways and residential streets open onto a local service road which parallels the main highway, and access to the superhighway itself is restricted to cloverleafs which may be several miles apart.

For the second requirement, that of accident prevention, highway engineers looked over their statistics and discovered that more than seventy-five percent of highway fatalities occurred in two types of accidents—intersection collisions and head-on collisions. Cloverleafs would eliminate the intersection collisions. To prevent head-on crashes all they had to do was build a divided highway with the opposing lanes of travel separated by a boulevard. So the divided, limited-access superhighway was born. There were other safety features tossed in. Hills were graded down until the typical superhighway wound up flatter than a wallet the night before payday. Curves were straightened to provide clear visibility far ahead. Most of them were barred to pedestrians and bicycles, and fenced against wandering animals. Headlight glare was reduced or eliminated by boulevard shrubbery.

The divided, limited-access super-

highway, therefore, seemed the answer to both requirements. But it didn’t work out that way.

They solved the first requirement by giving the long-distance traveler a means of rolling up mileage at a fast clip But in eliminating the causes of most fatal accidents on older highways they created new and deadlier hazards the old highways hadn’t possessed.

Superhighway drivers immediately started tangling up in a spate of rear-end and sideswipe accidents that sent more corpses to the morgues than the old highways ever could. What has actually happened, statistically, is this: after eliminating the cause of

seventy-five percent or more of accidents, superhighways have wound up with an accident rate around twenty percent less, but a fatality rate considerably higher—because when an accident does occur on a high-speed superhighway it is frequently gory carnage.

So your chances of having an accident on a superhighway are slightly less. Your chances of getting killed are more.

Where did the superhighway planning go wrong? It didn’t. For the new superhighway hazards are not essentially the fault of the superhighways themselves. The villain is not the man who built the highway, it’s that unpredictable man behind the wheel who’s using it. The superhighway hazards have developed because many drivers bring to the superhighways the same driving habits which served well only as long as they remained on the old highways.

“It works this way,” one Queen Elizabeth Way patrol officer explained. “If you took a civilian pilot who had never flown anything but light planes and gave him a supersonic jet to fly, he’d kill himself in no time. It’s much the same when you take the average thirty-mile-an-hour, stop-and-go city driver and turn him loose on a superhighway where he can bowl along at seventy for an hour without lifting bis foot off the gas pedal. It’s a different type of driving entirely, and to do it safely requires different training. Superhighways are no more unsafe than supersonic jets. Only you’ve got to know bow to handle them.”

We’d better learn to use them safely, because the superhighways of today will be the average highways of tomorrow.

Canada as yet has few superhighways. Ontario has about two hundred and fifty miles of divided highway which meet or come close to superhighway standards, and Quebec and Manitoba have small stretches. But all provinces are rapidly adding to their mileages of straightened, widened, improved highway where conditions approaching superhighway conditions are beginning to appear. The TransCanada Highway too, though it will not be a superhighway, is adding materially to Canada’s first-class highway mileage.

Ontario has now blueprinted fourteen hundred miles of new highway, most of which will be of superhighway standard. On the main travel routes, they will carry eighty percent of the province’s traffic. With a highway budget of more than one hundred and fifty million dollars a year (it was thirty millions ten years ago) the province’s highway extension program is moving rapidly.

Canada is also eyeing the toll-charge principle which has been instituted on most U. S. superhighways where it has been proved that long-distance motorists will pay a toll for the privilege of driving on high-speed turnpikes. If adopted here, the toll system will provide funds for a much faster extension of superhighways.

The new U. S. expressways are offering superhighway driving opportunities to more and more Canadians. By next year when the New York Thruway is completed from Buffalo to New York City, Ontario motorists will he able to start at Toronto and drive the more than six hundred miles to New York, superhighway practically the whole way. In a few years western Canadians will he able to drop down to Chicago and then whisk across the seven hundred miles from Chicago’s Outer Drive to New York’s 178th Street without changing gears for a red light or intersection. Vancouverites in a decade may he able to cross to Seattle and drive on linking superhighways to Los Angeles.

What are the new superhighway hazards? They boil down fundamentally to two previously unknown highway dangers which the safety experts have dubbed “speed blindness” and “high-speed hypnosis.”

Lulled To Sleep By Speed

On the normal highway where approaching traffic and curves don’t permit the maintenance of high speeds for long stretches, speed has to be varied. The driver is constantly accelerating and slowing down, and when he does get the chance to open up on a straight unobstructed stretch he is conscious of the greater speed. The faster hum of his motor, the louder rush of air past the car, the bumpier ride, all contribute to make him feel the speed. Before he has time to forget his speed, he has to slow down again for another curve or another approaching car.

But on a superhighway there are no interruptions. The speedometer creeps up to seventy and frequently it can stay there for an hour at a time. There are no curves for his tires to squeal on, no bumps to jolt the driver back to a realization that the miles are rolling by a lot faster than he’s accustomed to. The speed grows on him. After a while seventy seems no faster than the old forty-five. He may even disbelieve his own speedometer. He has become “speed-blind.”

Linked with speed-blindness is the other superhighway hazard of highspeed hypnosis. Superhighways make driving seem so easy. A finger tip or two will control the car mile after mile. The pavement rolls under the car wheels like an endless flying carpet of concrete, the driver gets a false sense of security, the monotony and effortleasness of it numbs his senses. After a long stretch he is driving along mechanically in a trancelike state. The danger of dozing at the wheel becomes much greater, but scientists who have studied this peculiarly superhighway phenomenon say the greatest danger is not falling asleep, it is allowing oneself to lapse into an actual condition of hvonosis in which you can stare .wake at a danger

speeding toward you and never see it. Superhighway driving with its monotonous concentration on a specific object for a long time with no outside distractions is a perfect duplication of the techniques used to induce hypnosis.

Speed - blindness and high - speed hypnosis are primarily superhighway hazards, but they can appear on any highway that is improved to the point where long stretches of high speed, monotonous and effortless driving become possible. Every time an old stretch of highway is widened, its curves straightened out, its hills graded down—any improvement that provides for greater speed and less driving effort —the danger of speed-blindness and high-speed hypnosis is increased.

“Nobody advocates a return to highways of hairpin turns and one-lane bridges,” says Russell Byers, general manager of the Ontario Safety League. “The trouble is highway improvement has gone ahead faster than driver improvement. We are providing highways that permit a new type of driving, but we are at an in-between stage in which drivers haven’t yet fully developed the skills that that new type of driving requires. That superhighway feeling of safety with finger-tip control is dangerously misleading. Actually the speed of superhighway driving demands much more vigilance and training while giving the impression of demanding less. To drive a car you could once get by as long as you knew how to change gears and steer, but now it is getting more and more like piloting an airplane. You need co-ordination, a well-developed sense of distance and speed.”

Cynics have dubbed the superhighways “speedways to death,” but they needn’t be. They can and should have a lower fatality rate. They will when the present generation of drivers, trained to drive on horse-and-buggy highways, learn the new ten commandments of superhighway driving.

Here they are:

1. Don’t drive more than ten miles an hour faster than your normal maximum.

“There isn’t one driver in ten who can suddenly step up from fifty to seventy miles an hour and drive himself out of an emergency when it comes,” says J. D. Millar, Ontario Deputy Minister of Highways. At 70 mph all the manoeuvres of passing, taking curves and stopping are radically different from what they are at 50 mph. And at 65 mph the odds on you or someone else being killed in ° nile-up are a short one in six.

You don’t need to burn up the pavement to make time on a superhighway. Arthur H. Rowan, of the accident - recording division, Ontario Department of Highways says: “It’s

the constancy of the speed, not the high speed, that saves time for the superhighway driver.”

2. Beware of speed-blindness.

Remember that everyone’s speed

sense becomes dulled when speed can be maintained smoothly for long stretches. Service-station attendants on the Queen Elizabeth Way have become inured to the squeal of brakes from cars overshooting the pumps when they turn off the highway for gasoline. Speed-blind drivers slow down from seventy to forty and think they are practically at a standstill until they try to stop. On superhighways you have to drive by your speedometer, not by the speed you feel.

3. Don’t be a bumper chaser.

The commonest superhighway accident is the rear-end collision caused by following the car ahead too closely. The old highway rule of staying one car-length behind for every ten miles of speed is fine up to thirty or forty miles an hour, but it can be suicide on a high-speed superhighway, for when you double speed it takes four times as far to stop. At 70 mph you need three hundred feet, the length of a football field, to stop in.

4. Watch for slow-moving vehicles, especially trucks.

As speed increases it becomes more difficult to estimate the speed of other cars ahead, yet it becomes more vital that you detect slower moving vehicles while you are still a safe distance behind. A common superhighway accident is the one in which a car driver has followed a truck for miles at 60 mph and then smashed headlong into the rear of the truck when its speed has dropped suddenly at a grade.

And don’t be a slowpoke yourself. If you’re just out sightseeing, stay off the superhighways. They’re meant for drivers who have places to go.

5. As your speed increases, increase the distance ahead on which your vision is concentrated.

Adjust your sights to your speed. At 50 mph, the flash of a tail light on a braking car a quarter mile ahead is nothing to worry about. At seventy it’s a danger signal to heed immediately by slowing down. If you have to stop quickly at high speed the secret is to press the brake pedal firmly, don’t jab it.

6. Perfect your high-speed passing technique.

The superhighway passing rule is “Take your time.” The big hazard is not traffic approaching you in front —there isn’t any—it is traffic that might be overtaking you from behind, so check your rear-vision mirror. Then turn out well back and allow plenty of space before swinging into your own lane again ahead.

If another driver is hogging the passing lane, don’t pass on his right. Be a suicide if you want to, but select a method that won’t also murder two or three others.

7. Watch out for high-speed hypnosis.

Three factors increase the hypnosis danger—fatigue, night driving and driving alone. Recognize its insidious danger wherever long straightaways, light traffic and effortless driving tend to produce boredom. Be well rested before starting a long trip; stop for a coffee or a nap at the first sign of drowsiness; on a long trip eat often and lightly; don’t play soft dreamy music on the car radio; keep your car well ventilated. Sing, talk to yourself, start the windshield wipers, vary your speed. On an ordinary highway the road itself provides the distractions you need to prevent high-speed hypnosis, on superhighways you have to create your own.

8. If you stop, pull entirely off the pavement.

At superhighway speeds another driver can be too close to prevent a rear-end collision before he realizes you are standing still. If you have a flat tire, ride it flat until you can get your car entirely onto the shoulder with four or five feet to spare between the side of the car and the pavement. And at night there is another rule of vital importance - - as soon as you are off the road turn out your lights. For superhighway driving, lights off when off the highway is as important as lights on when on the highway. Tail lights are a lure and, if you park on the shoulder with lights on, another driver bowling along behind you at high speed can easily swing off and crash into your car before he’s aware that you are off the highway.

9. Make driving your full-time job.

If you want to light a cigarette, fiddle with the radio or reach into the glove compartment, pull off onto the shoulder, or at least slow down to 35 mph, a speed at which your car will be more easily controlled. To light a cigarette your eye leaves the road for about two seconds. At 35 this means you are driving blind for one hundred feet—a gamble with death; but at 70 it becomes two hundred feet —and you’re no longer gambling.

10. Be sure your car is in good mechanical shape.

Prof. W. A. Bryce, of the University of Toronto school of public safety, warns that the high and enduring speeds of superhighway travel put a greater mechanical strain on tires, brakes and steering mechanism than ordinary driving. And a mechanical breakdown or blowout at superhighway speed is far deadlier because of the speed itself. And remember that on a superhighway where the traffic is zooming along at sixty or seventy behind you, your tail light is your lifesaver. Be sure it is working, and also be sure the glass is clean, for tail lights dimmed by dust, mud or snow appear misleadingly far away and invite rear-end collisions.

There are new driving wonders and opportunities waiting for you on the broadening Canadian and U. S. network of superand almost-superhighways. There are new dangers too, but the dangers will disappear when we learn to recognize and handle them, it