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Gila Monsters Meet You on the US Interstate Highway System?

Ruth Haag • Oct 15, 2013 at 3:00 PM

There is a fun children’s book entitled “Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport” by Marjorie Sharmat.  The book is a discussion between two little boys, each of whom is moving across the country.  The boy moving to New York City envisions mob bosses meeting him at the airport, and the boy moving to Arizona envisions Gila monsters meeting him at the airport.

Our perceptions of various areas of the country often come from what we have seen on TV or in movies, and can be very wrong.

The three-member Sandusky branch of the Haag family made a cross-county car trip from Ohio to Arizona and back again last winter.  The trip provided us with a lot of insight about what various areas of the country consider “normal.”  Before that trip, I had mistakenly believed that the Interstate Highway system was pretty homogeneous and generic.

We left on December 26 in a snowstorm, but were very comfortable because snow storms are what the mid-west is all about in the winter.  A friend recently observed that if you had lived in Michigan for a while (which we did) slipping off the road is just a part of winter driving that one comes to accept.

As we began our travels we found Interstate signs that we were used to, through Indiana and Illinois.  Although I still wonder about the change of “bridge freezes before road surface” to “bridge ices before road surface.”  I really don’t think ice is a verb.  But still, I understand the point of the sign. Then we drove into Missouri and found the Interstate sign that said: “Do not drive into smoke.”  We passed by this warning so frequently, that our navigator finally “Googled” it.  It turns out that fires in the Ozarks of Missouri are frequent and if you just drive into smoke you will most likely have an accident.  We are still wondering what we were supposed to do as an alternative.

The song from the Broadway musical “Oklahoma” starts with, “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plains.”  They weren’t kidding; the wind is so strong what the car was continually buffeted for more than three hours of driving.  Finally, in Texas, we found an Interstate sign that said “Strong wind gusts next 9 miles.”  This concerned the driver, what does Texas consider strong when we had just come from Oklahoma where they did not warn us?  They were pretty strong gusts.  We stopped at a rest area with a building that was made of earth mounded up 30 feet high and 200 feet long toward the south, to block the wind.  The northern entrance was nice and calm.

Texas also has an interesting Interstate anomaly.  It turns out that the ranches that used to access the roadway before it became an Interstate Highway would each need an individual on and off ramp to access the highway now.  This would cost quite a bit of money, so they just have the rancher’s driveway enter the Interstate in was is referred to as an “at grade intersection,” meaning the rancher can drive to the end of their driveway, look both ways and turn onto the Interstate Highway.

Then as we traveled further West into Arizona we started to see signs that said “Winter driving conditions may exist.”  What are winter driving conditions?  We never post signs that say this in Ohio!  The driver took firm hold of the steering wheel, ready for a sudden freezing roadway.  It turns out that “winter driving conditions” amount to a few wisps of snow on the road. Not a big challenge for a Midwesterner.

Then we arrived in Phoenix, an area of the country that we believe to be a desert, and saw signs that said “Do not drive [on this road] when flooded.”  The hydrogeologist with us explained that the soil was most likely a hardened caliche and that any rain water would simply rush over the surface, not percolate in.  When 1.65 inches of rain fell one Saturday; that is exactly what happened.  This rushing surface water made Phoenix drivers alarmed and reckless.

Returning to the East, we decided to travel on a southerly route, which caused us to go through El Paso, Texas.  Here we found a police car driving 55 mph in a 65 mph zone.  Most other cars were slowed down and traveling behind the police car.  We foolishly passed the police car going about 57 mph, and were immediately pulled over.  It turns out that the police in this area have a policy to stop all cars that provide any pretext; our problem was the frame around our license plate that obscured the word Ohio.  Explaining this to me, I did wonder how the policeman knew it said Ohio if it was obscured.  In any event, after a check for outstanding warrants, and a discussion of our planned route along with a caution about a dearth of gas stations on our route for the next day, we were on our way.  The next day, just to complete our El Paso visit, all cars traveling on the expressway were stopped by the Border Patrol.  Our car was forced to travel through a bank of cameras that took pictures of all sides and the underneath of the car, twice.  By the time we reached the Border Patrol officer at the end, we were all a bit concerned about what questions were going to be asked.  The dog in our car made sure that his tags were on.  However, the officer merely wanted to know if we were all U.S. Citizens.  Still, it seemed odd that on an Interstate Highway in the United States, all cars would be stopped and photographed.

While the US Interstate Highway system has a lot of differences, there is one similarity that is troubling, and that is that some sections of the highway have reached (or exceeded) their carrying capacity.  We found that driving around any major city, and in most of the State of Kentucky, the sheer number of cars traveling made it impossible to even think about maintaining an “assured safe distance,” that would give enough room to not hit the car in front if it should stop suddenly.  We all had learned in Driver’s Ed:  the faster the speed of the vehicles, the more space needed to avoid such an accident.  

One of the states along Interstate Highway ten provided the nice graphic above for assured safe distance. 

The Federal Highway Administration has calculations and predictions about the capacity of highways. Here are some interesting links about that:




Do you think, as I do, that we have a carrying-capacity problem on our Interstate Highway system?  What do you think, are we going to have to increase the number of lanes on our Interstates, lower the speed limit, or create alternate routes?

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