by Allison Preslar
Poor road conditions, meaning roads that are unpaved, potholed, too narrow, not clearly marked or too congested, can pose major consequences for Alabama drivers each year. These consequences for Alabama drivers come in the way of car damage, car accidents and fatalities, and time costs.
According to TRIP, a national transportation research group, Alabama roads in poor condition can cost drivers up to $382 a year in additional vehicle operating costs, contribute to one-third of fatalities in the state, and cost drivers up to 34 hours a year in time delays.
Sydney Ruff, a student at The University of Alabama, paid $650 in repair cost for damage done by a divot in a road in Tuscaloosa.
Unaware of the road condition, Ruff turned off Hackberry Lane onto 12th Street in Tuscaloosa. Going approximately 30 mph, she drove over the spot, hitting the front of her car in the process. She immediately knew her car had been damaged.
She would learn her front tires and bumper needed repair. The divot broke the steel wall of her front tires. They both had to be replaced and her alignment adjusted.
No signs or markings notified motorists of the divot. This instance cost her more than the estimated additional vehicle operating costs (VOC) a year for Alabama drivers.
Roads in poor condition cost Alabama motorists an average of $382 in additional vehicle operating costs per year, according to TRIP’s calculations based on statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. The average VOC is $271 in Tennessee, $705 for Mississippi, and $258 for Georgia.
These costs include additional vehicle repair and maintenance outside of the routine and average cost it takes to operate a vehicle.
The average cost in Alabama increases to $1,430 in Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile, according to TRIP.
The VOC rose by 19 percent in the past two years since Alabama received its first American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card in 2015, according to TRIP.
Although TRIP is privately funded by insurance companies, businesses, and organizations concerned with safe transportation, the research is cited by other organizations, including ASCE, the organization responsible for giving Alabama’s infrastructure a C- overall grade but a D+ for roads.
Brad Johnson, general manager of Warren Tire Pros on The University of Alabama campus, knows the impact poor roads can have on automobiles, especially on tires.
On a rough road, a driver won’t get the usual mileage or warranty out of their tires, needing them to be replaced sooner than expected, he said.
In a rural area of Alabama, Johnson said, drivers will most likely “get half the mileage out of their tires that they are supposed to” because the roads are not smooth.
Johnson, with 18 years of experience, speculates that “the impact to drivers is reduced in major metropolitan areas because those places tend to have a lot better roads and surfaces than, say, rural areas.”
As was the case for Ruff, many motorists come to the auto repair shop and specifically attribute the damage to a pothole. Johnson estimates that his shop sees a car every two weeks with significant damage that the customer attributes to a pothole.
The extent of damage to the car depends on the depth of a pothole. Bigger potholes in the road can cause damage somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000, much higher than the average VOC. The damage Warren Tires sees is mostly to the suspension of the cars, which includes the struts, shocks and knuckles.
Shane Coker, owner of Coker Body Shop, agrees that roads will ordinarily damage the tires and suspension of a car, but his shop has not seen anything beyond that. “As far as we get, we don’t see a lot of damage from roads.”
The most damage Coker sees from roads can be attributed to driver error. “In constructions zones, barrels may fall over and we have customers coming in that have hit them.”
Shane Deason, general manager of Landmark Collision Center, also does not see customers coming in with damage caused by roads. “If we do see anyone, it’s because they hit a curve or go off the road.” Landmark Collision, like Coker’s shop, attributes this damage to human error rather than roadway features.
Deason believes the roads in Alabama are in good condition. “It is not a big issue. They are in very good shape.”
Clay Ingram, spokesman for AAA Alabama, said the estimated cost to motorists by TRIP and the ASCE is typically what his organization sees with its members. “The poorer the road conditions, the more of an expense drivers are going to have.” Roads are a well-known problem in Alabama, he said.
AAA knows the states with poor roads conditions typically see higher repair bills. “It can cause lots of issues if you are driving on poorly maintained roads or roads that have a lot of issues,” Ingram said.
Emergency road service, or ERS, is the biggest part of AAA Alabama. Ingram said tires are one of the main reasons customers need roadside assistance. “In fact, flat tires are probably the primary thing that we see with potholes or with washed-out areas on the edge of the road.”
AAA’s car insurance policies would not cover damage caused by a road unless “it was a situation where somebody hitting a pothole caused an accident.” If it is just an alignment or tire being blown out, the customer would pay.
Alabama members often report to AAA on the condition of roads in the state. “We do hear from our members that get a little impatient with the areas that are slow to be repaired and improved,” Ingram said. He did not know any specific areas in Alabama with exceptional problems but rather thinks it is a statewide problem.
Accidents and fatalities
The 2015 Federal Highway Administration (FHA) reported 849 fatal car accidents on Alabama roads. That was 1.26 fatal accidents per 100 million miles traveled. The national average was 1.14.
The number of fatal crashes in Alabama increased by 4 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The FHA has yet to release numbers from 2016, but according to a preliminary study by the UA Center for Advanced Public Safety, the number of fatal crashes in Alabama has increased by at least 25 percent since 2015.
With this increase in fatal accidents comes concern over public safety on Alabama roads. The top three reasons for crashes in Alabama are driver behavior, vehicle characteristics and roadway features, according to ASCE’s Alabama Infrastructure Report Card.
Roadway features, including pavement conditions, road width, signaling and intersections, contribute to one-third of fatal accidents in Alabama, according to the ASCE.
Joe Scarborough, an officer in the traffic homicide unit of the Huntsville Police Department, believes the number of accidents caused by roadway features is an overestimate.
“At the very most, we are listing roadway as a secondary cause,” he said.
Scarborough has never marked roadway as a primary cause in the past 10 years as an officer. “Just driving on a road with a pothole isn’t going to do much by itself,” he said.
While potholes are only one type of roadway feature, Scarborough believes that no matter the feature, an accident or fatality can still be chalked up to human error. “If somebody swerves to miss a pothole or something and they go off the roadway, the primary reason will be swerving,” he said.
Each accident report, including cause, is based on an officer’s personal opinion. “What one puts as roadway, another may put as driver action,” Scarborough said.
Sgt. Becky White of the Birmingham Police Department said even if a road is in poor condition, it still would not be the primary cause of an accident. At most it would be secondary. “To our knowledge, an accident could be caused by a medical condition, individual error or the driver being slow to pay attention,” she said.
In the Birmingham area, White could name only one area where the road might contribute to accidents and that was a stretch of Interstate 20 commonly known as “Dead Man’s Curve.” She estimated more than 100 accidents have occurred in the curve this year.
“Drivers just aren’t slowing down enough in the curve, so 18-wheelers often flip over,” she said.
The speed for the curve is too high, White said, and there needs to be a physical feature in the roadway that gives the driver no other option than to slow down.
According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), congestion on roads can cost Alabama drivers anywhere from 10 to 34 hours per year in time delays, depending on the city in Alabama.
Jay Lindly, director of University Transportation Center for Alabama, said, “As we get more drivers and congestion, we lose time in traffic.”
Time cost is a part of what researchers call user cost, which also includes the cost of gas due to congestion, he said.
Policy makers and engineers should take user costs into account when they want to build new roads in the state, he said. “If there is only enough money to build one road and road A will alleviate some of this user cost, that might go into the planning.”
With a high number of hours lost due to congestion, various businesses in Alabama have had to adjust to the growing crowdedness on roads and bridges.
“Time is money,” said Alton Taggart, supervisor of the Tuscaloosa United States Post Office (USPS). “If you are taking up time on the highway, it is costing us money.”
According to Taggart, USPS has time-sensitive packages, so if it cannot deliver a package on time, it loses revenue.
Daniel Hall, area manager of Jimmy John’s, said the company has had to build three more stores in the delivery range of the University Boulevard location in order to serve the same number of people.
“We used to be able to get from [University] to the Woodlands in five and a half minutes and now it takes 18 minutes sometimes with the congestion.”