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Cable Median Barriers

This page last updated July 30, 2014


Back in the early part of the last decade, there were a number of serious head-on collisions on San Antonio area freeways that had no center median barrier.  After a rash of these along Loop 1604, TxDOT installed temporary concrete Jersey barriers in the median of 1604 and announced that they would be installing tension-cable barriers in the medians of other area highways.  As is typical, the second-guessing began almost immediately.  Skeptics bellowed that the "flimsy" barriers wouldn't even stop a Yugo, let alone an 18-wheeler.  But TxDOT's engineers defended the barriers and insisted that they would work as advertised.  And indeed, in the first two years that cable barriers were in place in the San Antonio area, they stopped every single vehicle that hit them, including an 18-wheeler on I-35 in Von Ormy.  A before-and-after study in 2007 showed that since cable barriers were installed around the state, the number of fatalities on those roads where the barriers were installed dropped from more than 50 fatalities in the year before installation to just one fatality in the year afterward.  In short, the barriers work and work well.  In fact, they're better than metal guardrails and concrete Jersey barriers because they absorb more energy of the impact than do those traditional barriers, thus reducing the chance of injury and lessening the damage to vehicles that collide with them.  They also reduce the number of "rebound" accidents where a vehicle hits the barrier and then bounces-back into the traffic lanes.  All these benefits come at a cost that is substantially less than the more traditional barriers.

Photo showing how a cable barrier stopped an 18-wheeler
(Courtesy: Washington Department of Transportation)

One concern that seems valid on its face it what happens to motorcyclists who hit the barrier.  It would seem to be common sense that the cables pose a signficant risk of injury to riders.  This has led to some motorcyclists referring to cable barriers as "cheese cutters".  However, several studies have been done in the US, Europe, and Australia on this issue and have generally concluded that the statistical evidence to date shows that cable barriers are no more dangerous to motorcyclists than other barriers.

A while back, a friend told me about someone he knew who had an accident and went into the cable barrier on I-10 near Boerne.  She walked away from the crash uninjured, yet she was upset because the barrier had sliced into her car and had caused significant damage.  I wonder if she realizes that the barrier quite likely saved her life, or at least prevented serious injury.  Had it not been for the barrier, she would gone into the oncoming traffic and probably been struck head-on or T-boned by traffic going 70 mph.  I also wonder if she realizes that her vehicle would've probably suffered equal or greater damage if there had been a traditional barrier instead.

As of late 2009, Texas had about 800 miles of cable median barrier installed.

Other sites of interest

Federal Highway Administration
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
USA Today article

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