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Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Why NCDOT Says Lane Markings Are Hard to See in Charlotte

By meerna Jul10,2024
Why NCDOT Says Lane Markings Are Hard to See in Charlotte

A “stop here on red” sign points to a blank sidewalk at the intersection of E Westinghouse Boulevard and South Boulevard. While hard-to-see and faded lane lines are a problem throughout the region, the solution isn’t easy, officials say.

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Rain drummed on Sarah Richardson’s windshield as she drove her son home from soccer practice along I-485 one October evening last year.

Straining to see through the pouring rain, we saw that the once distinct white lines dividing the lanes on the road had turned into blurry streaks.

Richardson gripped the steering wheel of her blue Hyundai tighter and kept her eyes on the taillights ahead. It was a familiar 25-minute drive home, but the rain seemed to swallow everything whole.

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Suddenly she felt a blow against her son’s door. The car jerked violently from side to side. Instincts took over, and Richardson fought to regain control, tires squealing on the slippery road.

In her mirror, Richardson saw that she had side-swiped another vehicle. The driver was shaken but uninjured. Richardson had unknowingly crossed into the man’s lane.

“It was the scariest moment of my life,” she told The Charlotte Observer. “I didn’t know what had happened, and by the time I did, it was too late. I thank God no one was hurt.”

There is a section of road at the intersection of E Westinghouse Boulevard and South Boulevard that has no or very few lane markings as of July 9, 2024. Preston Jenkins [email protected]

Richardson’s story is not uncommon in the Charlotte area. Hundreds of drivers have shared similar problems with The Charlotte Observer: Day or night, rain or shine, faded or not, lane markings that are hard to see or missing altogether.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, rear-end collisions, side-impact crashes and off-road crashes are more likely when drivers fail to see lane markings. More than half of fatalities and injuries attributed to road conditions in North Carolina involve lane departures, according to the Roadway Safety Foundation, an organization that works to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries attributed to road conditions.

State and city officials say they are aware of the problems and are working to fix them. But any changes would take years to implement.

Invisible at night?

There is a section of road at the intersection of E Westinghouse Boulevard and South Boulevard that has no or very few lane markings as of July 9, 2024. Preston Jenkins [email protected]

Ann Reynolds drives the Billy Graham Parkway at least once a week, often at night.

“The road lines between Boyer Street and the I-85 on-ramp to the north and south have faded to the point where they are almost invisible, especially at night,” she told the Observer.

Interstate 485 “is a joke” from the York County area to Matthews, said Fort Mill resident Blake Scottfield. That’s where crews are building toll lanes between I-77 and Independence Boulevard.

“It seems like road construction just paints over the old lines,” he told the Observer. “When they wear out or crack, the old lines come through. The lane warning system in my car goes crazy.”

Donald Young drives to and from work in Uptown four times a week. He told the Observer that Charlotte can be one of the worst places to drive after dark because of faded and non-reflective lane markings, as well as a lack of street lights.

“I fear for every driver on the roads,” Young said.

The Science Behind Lane Markings

The North Carolina Department of Transportation typically marks the stripes with thermoplastic paint.

The thermoplastics are bonded to the asphalt using heat and contain tiny glass beads that act like mirrors, reflecting headlights back to drivers in the dark. The markings last about 12 years, about five years longer than traditional road paint, but this varies with traffic and weather.

They are effective if they haven’t faded. A study by NCDOT found that thermoplastic paint led to a 13% reduction in lane departure crashes.

However, thermoplastics have a weakness: they are resistant to humid weather.

Rain can make the glass beads invisible to drivers by covering them in water and causing headlights to reflect in many directions other than back to the driver. Snow and wear can also damage the beads and reduce their effectiveness.

That makes it nearly impossible to see when it rains, said Zachary Gardner, a traffic engineer with NCDOT. He says there is no immediate solution.

“Of course, when it rains, it’s going to be harder to see. If the markers are also faded and the sky is darker, those are all factors that cause problems,” Gardner said. “We’re trying to get the lane markers up so drivers can feel the lanes, but it’s going to take time and money.

“Regardless of the weather, if you can’t see the lanes because they’re so damaged, it can be dangerous.”

Ordinary lane markings are much cheaper compared to thermoplastics – their price ranges from one-quarter to one-tenth of the price.

However, normal paint only lasts about a year before it needs to be repainted. This leads to more frequent road closures and the costs associated with repainting, or, without maintenance, the complete absence of lines and other road markings.

Challenges of road repair

There is a section of road at the intersection of E Westinghouse Boulevard and South Boulevard that has no or very few lane markings as of July 9, 2024. Preston Jenkins [email protected]

To keep lane markings from fading, transportation departments, including Charlotte’s, are turning to thermoplastics because the markings last longer.

However, repairing roads takes time and resources.

The Charlotte Department of Transportation maintains 2,500 miles of roads within the city limits. NCDOT maintains state and federal highways and other major roads outside the city limits.

While Charlotte repaves about 140 miles of lanes a year, more than 400 roads require some form of pavement maintenance, according to CDOT’s latest road survey. All of those roads can’t be repaved because of other projects that would damage the new asphalt, according to the city.

Paving also costs about $123,200 per lane mile, a cost that doubles for a two-lane road. This year, the city will receive just over $13.5 million from the state for road improvements, which comes from state gasoline taxes.

“The city identifies any maintenance needs that can be corrected through patching or other repairs that protect the pavement and provide an acceptable ride quality until a later date,” the spokesperson said. “This coordination allows the city to maximize resurfacing expenditures while maximizing the life of the pavement.”

In June, NCDOT awarded a $1.9 million contract to improve sections of 10 secondary roads in Mecklenburg. Work includes milling, resurfacing, shoulder reconstruction and pavement markings.

But Richardson doesn’t think the city is doing enough.

“They spend money on new stadiums and buildings, but they do not do what is most important to ensure the safety of residents,” he said.

Other solutions

Transportation departments across the country are testing new methods to improve lane visibility and prevent accidents.

Texas is experimenting with vibrating strips along lane markings. These textured strips vibrate when drivers drift out of their lane, providing an audible and tactile cue in addition to visual cues. They can also be found on the side of many North Carolina roads.

Utah has committed $26 million to modernize highway lanes with tiger-tail lanes. The lanes feature a familiar broken white line followed by a black line. Proponents say it makes the lane more visible, making it less of a show for drivers.

Some European countries and Australia have experimented with lane markings that glow in the dark, but the technology is still in the development phase and has not yet seen widespread use.

Tips for driving in the rain

Charlotte residents are asked to call 311 or use the CLT+ app to report road issues.

NCDOT also offers the following tips to stay safe on wet roads:

  • Slow down and give yourself more time to get to your destination
  • Be prepared for sudden stops or changes in road conditions
  • Keep at least twice the normal distance between vehicles.
  • Signal your turns and brake earlier than usual
  • Turn on your headlights when using the wipers.
  • Use a de-icer to increase visibility

Luke Fountain's profile picture

Luke Fountain is a Metro and Business Intern at The Charlotte Observer in the summer of 2024. He is a senior at Washington and Lee University.

By meerna

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