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Who Decides When a Road Is Unsafe to Drive?

The recent tragedy in Florida in which 11 people lost their lives has called attention to a problem faced in many states. When is the potential for a serious car accident so great that a road should be shut down? Florida officials briefly shut down Interstate 75 because a brush fire and foggy conditions had lowered visibility to unsafe levels. Shortly after deciding to reopen that stretch of highway, the dangerous conditions caused a massive wreck involving semi trucks, a motor home and multiple cars. The accident has left people wondering who has the responsibility to close roads and what criteria do they use to make their decisions?

The standards used by Florida officials are not the same as those used in Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona or other states. The reason for that is simple-there is no set guideline recommended by any federal agency for when to close a road. The absence of such a policy is surprising. Florida officials used the reports of Highway Patrol officers on the scene to decide to reopen the highway. Many states rely entirely on the judgment of individual officers on site to decide when to close or reopen a road.

The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the accident in Florida. A tragedy on this scale may spur that organization to recommend a uniform method, which states can adopt if they choose, for closing roads. The NTSB does not have the legal authority to require the adoption of its recommendations, but as a dedicated safety advocate, the conclusions reached by that body are generally taken seriously.

Regardless of the system used in this or any other state, drivers should always take steps to protect their own safety. The fact that a road is open does not mean you should feel comfortable using it. Water can turn to ice and fog or smoke can thicken to unsafe levels well before officers have a chance to act. If you are uncertain about the condition of the road, it is best to simply get off the road and wait for the situation to improve. Unless you are in an emergency situation, the risk is not worth the time you might save if you make it through safely.

Source: CBS News, "Few guidelines exist on when to shut down roads," by Curt Anderson, Mark Carlson, Greg Bluestein and David Sharp, 1 February 2012

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