Traveling south from the former Fort McClellan down Veterans Memorial Parkway, there’s a deep curve with an extreme drop just off the right shoulder of the roadway, about a quarter mile before Iron Mountain Road.
If you’ve ever driven that route, you’ve no doubt felt an uneasy sensation in your stomach as you approach the curve, imagining how even a minor driving error could send your car over the cliff and into the treetops dozens of feet below.
Similar dropoffs are present at different points all along the parkway, and last Tuesday a Weaver woman experienced that dreaded nightmare when she dodged a deer and accidentally went over the edge of a cliff along the northbound side of the parkway, just before the exit onto Alabama 21 in north Anniston.
Ashley Johnson spent the night at the bottom of the deep embankment and was rescued by State Trooper helicopter the following morning, according to a report by The Star’s Ben Nunnally. Johnson was airlifted to UAB Hospital with a dislocated hip and a punctured lung. We’re thankful she’s going to be OK.
Those following the story on social media almost immediately began raising questions about the lack of guardrails at the more dangerous points along Veterans Memorial Parkway.
“I hate driving on this road for this very reason,” one commenter said. “One wrong move, or one wrong move caused by another driver, and your car is falling into a canyon or onto a tree. I am surprised there have not been many more accidents like this one.”
Another reader suggested that “Everyone needs to start a petition for guardrails to be put on the bypass.”
Federal Highway Administration data show that crashes where a vehicle leaves the roadway accounted for more than half of all fatal crashes in the United States in 2017, the most recent data available.
A Purdue University study published in 2014 comparing more than 2,000 single-vehicle accidents between 2008 and 2012 on more than 500 roads showed that guardrails reduced the risk of injury by 65 percent, while cable barriers reduced risk by 85 percent.
Tony Harris, the media and communications bureau chief for the Alabama Department of Transportation, warned against placing undue confidence in guardrails. “... you can never use enough guardrail to overcome driver error or driver behavior,” he said. “We can’t engineer around those things.”
Indeed, drivers need to slow down, put cellphones away and be careful. But something as simple as a routine blowout could send a vehicle in an unintended direction. In such cases, a guardrail could provide a potentially life-preserving safety net.
Too often, public officials wait until there’s loss of life before investing in preventative measures. We saw it in recent years at the intersection of Henry Road and Coleman Road/Choccolocco Road where several fatalities forced officials to install a combination of safety measures around that intersection.
After last Tuesday, we don’t need any more evidence that the dropoffs along Veterans Memorial Parkway are dangerous. These roadside cliffs leave little room for error.
This Editorial Board calls for city, county and state officials to begin the process of cost assessments toward installing guardrails and/or cable barriers along this potentially deadly stretch of road.
No, guardrails won’t prevent all accidents along the parkway, but we should not let perfection be the enemy of progress. Don’t wait until someone dies before doing the right thing.