Federal highway studies show that in locations where high-tension cable median barriers have been installed, crossover crashes are reduced by 92 percent.

That’s why Lebanon County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization members recently voted in favor of installing additional new barriers on interstates 81 and 78.

The plan, according to Jon Fitzkee, senior transportation planner for Lebanon County, is to shift existing Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funding to pay for the installation of new high-tension median barriers along additional portions of those two interstates.

While highway traffic officials and first responders both agree that these barriers save lives, there is disagreement on where the new ones should be installed.

In 2017, on Interstate 78, and again in 2019, along portions of I-81 in Lebanon County, the contractor that was awarded the state bid installed barriers just off the highway shoulder, which first responders believe are situated too close to the passing lane.

High-tension median barriers have been installed on portions of I-81 in Lebanon County. First responders interviewed by LebTown believe that the barriers would be better placed towards the center of the median, rather than immediately next to the shoulder. (James Mentzer)

The location of the current barriers and the likelihood that placement of the new ones will also be closer to the lane of travel than in the median has raised concerns with first responders.

Local firefighters with Northern Lebanon Fire & Emergency Services (NLFES) believe the medians should be situated further away from the travel lane to assist drivers in simultaneously avoiding vehicles in front of them and the high-tension median barrier.

“The issue that we’re running into is that they’re so close to the shoulder that vehicles that would usually get out of the way of hitting the car in front of them are bouncing back into traffic,” said NLFES Chief Dan Mohn. “I’ve seen cars that would have driven away with no damage but are torn apart because it is a high-tension wire and it is actually ripping those cars apart.”

Mohn said he understands why this type of barrier is a safety feature since they do lessen the occurrence of head-on collisions – which tend to cause more fatalities than other kinds of vehicular crashes.

Mohn said he presented his concerns at a recent TIP meeting, asking why the barriers are so close to the shoulder of the road.

“They said it was designed that way by an engineer because he did a study and that’s where it needs to be,” said Mohn. “But if you go down around the Capital Beltway around Baltimore or D.C., those are right in the middle of the median, not on the shoulder, and they’re effective there, so how can’t they be effective here.”

Chrls Flad, district traffic engineer for PennDOT Engineering District 8-0, said placement is determined by an engineer based on different factors, noting medians contain areas where the barrier can’t be placed.

“There are no zones – in terms of where not to install it – and it’s really up to the designer to determine where the best location is for that,” he added.

The barriers are also only placed on one side of the highway at a time, not both, according to Flad, and which side is selected is also based on various determinants.

“There are a number of factors, soil, (median) slope recommendations and median drainage swells that are considered, so that’s also up to the designer to determine where it is better to be on the northbound side or the southbound side,” he said.

He acknowledged that there is a tradeoff with the installation of these barriers, which typically have three or four tension wires installed through fence posts that collapse upon impact. The barrier, he added, is designed to slow down the vehicle that has impacted it.

“High-tension median barriers really do stop a majority of those kinds of (head-on) crashes,” said Flad. “But part of the issue that we face, and sometimes it is difficult with this issue is, when we put them in the medians, it can increase the number of crashes but will reduce the severity of the crashes.”

Photo from NLFES’ Facebook page showing a crash that involved a high-tension median barrier.

Flad noted, however, the tradeoff through installation of this kind of safety system is worth it.

“It does, essentially, eliminate crossover crashes but it can introduce other kinds of crashes that weren’t certainly recorded in the past,” added Flad. “Everything has its pluses and minuses and we feel, and federal highway feels, that this type of application – the cable median barrier – has such a tremendous cost-benefit ratio when you talk about the fatalities that happen when we do have crossovers. So, in most cases, it is worth it that we do (install) this.”

Given the concerns of first responders of bounce back for vehicles that make contact with the barrier and then travel at other stopped vehicles, Flad said he understands their point of view.

“We don’t want them that close to the highway, we understand that there is a preferred location,” said Flad. “It does make sense how they see it, that the more offset the barrier is from the road, obviously, the less chance for vehicles to impact it. But as I said, some of the design decisions for that come with what that barrier was approved for in terms of offset from the road, so a lot of that comes from design.”

Flad said bid requests for the latest project are expected to be announced in May or June with work commencing once the project is awarded to a contractor. Installation is tentatively slated to start later this year or possibly in 2024.

Editor’s note: The interview with Chief Mohn was during LebTown’s first-ever, community-wide, live interview event held recently at The Perse in Jonestown. LebTown interviewed Flad after the event.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...