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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Four Lane Highways and Darwinian Selection

Bob Mercer likely loses some Madison friends with his suggestion that the South Dakota Department of Transportation ought to make U.S. Highway 12 a four-laner west of Aberdeen to Ipswich. Mercer notes another four-laner anywhere, not just the lonely 20 more miles to Ipswich, is the last thing the state can afford right now, but...

...each time I drive on U.S. 12 between Ipswich and Aberdeen, I become more convinced that expanding to a four-lane highway might make sense from a traffic safety standpoint. The area has seen more and more agriculture development including ethanol production, which has seemed to significantly increase semi-truck traffic. Whether or not the traffic numbers support such a project, I don’t know. But I do know that the combination of grain trucks, which seem to be driven safely on a consistent basis, and the impatience of many other motorists frequently isn’t a smooth mix, especially during sunrise and sunset hours [Bob Mercer, "A Four-Lane West of Aberdeen?," Pure Pierre Politics, 2010.03.31].

That mad rustling sound you hear is John Goeman digging out his flyer with the traffic numbers explaining that there's no chance that Highway 12 should qualify for more lanes ahead of Highway 34. The traffic numbers on four-lane Highway 12 east of Aberdeen are already 40% lower than traffic on two-lane Highway 34 between Madison and I-29. I'll speculate wildly that there's probably even less traffic west of Aberdeen.

But note Mercer's mention of driver impatience. Does he really want us all to spend tax dollars because some drivers can't behave like civilized human beings? Why should I have to pay more taxes because the SUV meathead on his cell phone next to me can't show the same good sense Nick Nemec does and ease up on the gas pedal? (Conservatives, I smell a campaign issue here!)

What I've said previously about safety concerns on Highway 34 may apply similarly to the road to Ipswich: we might solve the problem much more cheaply by adding a few turning lanes and telling people to slow the heck down.

But maybe I've got it wrong. Maybe we shouldn't spend money to add lanes or change speed limits on either highway. Maybe we should leave those roads exactly the way they are... and let Darwinian selection weed out the impatient drivers. Let a few leadfeet highball right up the back end of a grain truck by the ethanol plant, clear out the worst drivers, leave more room for the rest of us. Any takers?


  1. Too many years ago when I was working in highway safety, I did some rough calculating. Adoption of mandatory seat belt laws then at near zero cost to South Dakota would save the same number of lives as converting 3,000 miles of two-lane highway to four-lane interstate standards.

    Republicans let Darwinian selection work for another 10 years or so after that.

  2. US12 is a Least Heat Moon blue highway at risk; we won't even recognize it in ten years. I use it between Summit and Helena regularly. Big Sky meets the Whetstone Ridge.

    SD34 between Belle Fourche and Whitewood deserves a look, too.


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