For years, too many drivers cruising the monotonous desert stretches of Interstate 80 in Tooele County would become drowsy, wander into opposing traffic and crash head-on Â helping cause an average 19 fatalities a year there.
The Utah Department of Transportation then started installing cable barriers in the freeway median and, f or the past four years, fatalities have dropped 50 percent. Fatalities now average about nine annually.
Stricter law enforcement of speed limits and Zero Fatalities ad campaigns also likely helped save lives, but "when it comes to those crossover fatalities, the cable barriers are the definitive mitigation in reducing them," says Robert Hull, UDOT director of traffic and safety.
That's part of the reason UDOT is currently spending $5.1 million to add cable barriers along 21 miles more of remote I-80 in Tooele County, and hopes to finish most of the project by year's end.
The cable barriers may not sound like an exciting innovation or slick engineering, but UDOT has found them to be effective during the decade they have been in use around the state. In addition to saving lives, as most clearly illustrated in Tooele County, a side benefit is that the cable barriers are relatively cheap.
"They typically cost about a quarter of concrete barriers," Hull said.
They are more forgiving in accidents, too Â and many people who crash into them are able to drive away uninjured and with minor damage, and don't even report the accidents.
"That doesn't happen with concrete barriers, obviously," Hull said.
He explains that a cable barrier "absorbs the energy and typically will capture the vehicle." Cars that do not hit those barriers at sharp angles often are just rebounded back into their lane. "So they are able to drive away. A lot of times we don't have those reported. We find the damage later, but we don't see the vehicles there."
Hull remembers when a few years ago the state received its money's worth on a cable barrier the day after it had been added on Interstate 15 in Centerville.
A man was driving a semitruck pulling two trailers full of gravel, "so it was heavy. The driver was in an inside lane and wasn't paying attention to traffic. He ran into congestion, so he did an evasive maneuver to the left" toward traffic headed in the opposite direction.
A day earlier he would likely have had a head-on crash, but instead, "it hit the cable barrier, got tangled up and went into the shoulder area on the other side. But it captured it" before it went into opposing traffic.
Contractors were still nearby working on other cable barriers and, "When they got the semi out, they replaced the poles, retensioned the cable, and within 30 minutes it was back to where it was before." Fatalities likely had also been avoided.
In sum, Hull says UDOT has found that "where we can use cable barrier, it does become a more cost effective alternative."