Editorial: Safer Diving on Route 4 in Vermont

The news is not exactly overburdened with success stories these days, especially ones involving government action. But it does appear that one may be quietly unfolding along Route 4 in Vermont between Bridgewater and Hartford.

Within a few months last year, that 23-mile stretch of road was the scene of four fatal car accidents, resulting in five deaths. Vermont transportation officials and police became duly alarmed and emphasized that drivers needed to pay closer attention to what they were doing. That’s sound advice at any time, of course, given the rapid growth in electronic distractions by which drivers may be tempted. But it was particularly apt in this case because Route 4 in many places is narrow with tight shoulders. Added to that is a succession of gentle curves that subtly encourage vehicle drift over the center line, a factor that was implicated in some of the fatalities. In short, the margin for driver error was slim.

Some writers to the Forum at the time argued that there was nothing wrong with the road and that drivers simply needed to pay attention. Fortunately, though, safety officials did not simply rely on admonishing drivers. In addition to stepping up police patrols, they also installed rumble stripes on the center line so that drivers who drifted over it would be alerted by the vibrations and noise caused when their tires encountered the indentations in the pavement.

It may well be that the spate of fatal accidents last year was nothing more than tragic coincidence and that the absence of them lately does not signify anything much. But traveling the road suggests to us that, at the very least, the measures taken last year have increased the margin of error — or more properly, the margin for safety. That the rumble stripes have proven effective in refocusing drivers’ attention on maintaining their proper travel lane can be verified almost any day by mere observation of course corrections that follow a drift onto the center line. And, whether the result of an increased police presence or the news coverage that resulted from the spate of fatal accidents, the flow of traffic is a bit slower.

The Agency of Transportation, after consulting with police officials, is now taking the next step, which is to lower the speed limits in several places along the road to make them more consistent and to give drivers increased time to react when emergencies arise. This seems a prudent step. It is all too easy to fail to notice that the speed limit has suddenly dropped when it changes frequently in a relatively short stretch.

We are not making the case here that government can cure all our ills. Route 4 remains a dangerous road that is difficult to navigate and is likely to become more so as the volume of traffic inevitably increases. Undoubtedly, there will be other fatal accidents.

But in this case, government took a series of small and relatively inexpensive steps to improve safety that seem to have been effective without imposing dramatic new burdens on the traveling public or the taxpayers. In short, it’s a modest success story.