Beautiful Views, Dangerous Distractions

Text: Peter Jones • Photography: Peter Jones

During the five-year period between 1998 and 2002, the number of motorcycle accidents on The Blue Ridge Parkway increased over 60 percent. When Chief Parks Ranger John Garrison cited that statistic, he prefaced it by saying they had noticed a significant rise in accidents. But 60 percent isn't significant, it's catastrophic. And most of those accidents involved cruiser-style motorcycles.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited of all national parks in the U.S., regularly recording yearly visitations of over 18 million people. And, unlike their experiences in every other national park, all of those visitors spend most of their time behind the wheel in cars or riding on motorcycles. A mountain nature park of unending vistas, the Blue Ridge Parkway is also perceived as a celebration of the road itself. Or rather, a celebration of touring nature with motor vehicles, a distinctly American concept that seems at odds with the notion of communing with nature. The Parkway is a mountain trail for motorcycles and cars. It's a road traveled purely for travel's sake, and, for anyone who doesn't live along its route, it is completely impractical for use as the means to get somewhere. Built specifically for fun, it's a recreation highway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived to allow convenient and intimate exploration of the Appalachian heights from the Shenandoah National Park in the north to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south, some 469 miles apart. Because its construction was initiated in the mid-1930s, the Parkway has a number of unique features that would not be considered for a modern roadway. And while other roads are routinely updated, widened and straightened to be safer, doing so with the Blue Ridge Parkway would detract from the beauty and character of the road.

As part of the Parkway's distinctive character, there are no intersections with crossroads, absolutely no advertising allowed on either side of the roadway and minimal traffic signage. But it does have numerous pull-outs for viewing, which are essentially intersections; unfortunately, these turnoffs don't instill the same caution and concern in many motorists that crossroads do. The Parkway is characterized by its curves too, and most of them are intentionally unmarked. It is also a narrow route without shoulders and limited use of guard rails, all to ensure that it provides an unencumbered relationship to the scenery, a connection that few other mountain roads convey. The Parkway also has numerous tunnels, all unlit, and many curve so severely the exit is not in sight from the entrance. Tinted shields or sunglasses make them blindingly dark.

Understandably, maintaining the aesthetic rationale for these design features comes at a cost. Striking the right balance between the preservation of nature and public safety is challenging; but the park personnel are dedicated to ensuring a safe, pleasurable experience for all who visit, and they have implemented changes to make sure that virtually all visitors leave the Parkway in the same condition they arrived. As Chief Park Ranger Garrison says, "We'll never know who they are but we can say with certainty that because of our efforts last year, a whole lot more people went home in their cars and on their bikes rather than in ambulances."

The most dangerous portion of the Parkway's four districts is the southern one, from just north of Grandfather Mountain to the Parkway's terminus in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains. The traffic concerns in that region are overseen by District Ranger Tim Francis.

Ranger Francis led a five-year study to understand the specifics of the increase in motorcycle accidents, and now Parkway personnel have quite a library of evidence. The study findings reveal that most of the accidents were not a result of speed, but had to do with "time and attention" and the characteristics of some of the Parkway's curves. Motoring on the Parkway is associated with gazing at some pretty awesome sights rather than minding the road. The distractions are plentiful and, although there are places to pull over to view them in safety, many motorists try to combine the motoring with the viewing as literally as possible. Most accidents are due to inattention, and therefore the essential message that Parks wants conveyed is: "Please pull over and stop." You're not efficiently getting anywhere anyway.

In its study, the Parkway rangers identified where each accident occurred, pin-pointing them to within a tenth of a mile. Prior to the study, only mile markers were used; so it wasn't possible to evaluate nearly as much in the way of specific causation. The study results catalogued the locations of certain hot spots, and in one short four-mile section of the Parkway near Grandfather Mountain they found so many of them that the park rangers started referring to it as "The Killing Fields."

The study also indicates one type of curve is responsible for the highest number of accidents, a bend known as a "descending radius curve." Curves that decrease and descend double the dangers.

To put the brakes on the increasing accident rate and turn it around, an aggressive signage system was adopted. And though this step contravenes the Park's mission of leaving the roadway as natural as possible, the problem was so serious in the hotspots that exceptions had to be made. Chief Ranger Garrison and his stalwart crew also recognized that too many signs would diffuse their effectiveness, thereby only the most dangerous sites were addressed; and the signs created are purposely dissimilar to those seen on a regular roadway.

First off, the main sign is larger than normal to secure a motorist's attention. Secondly, instead of common curve graphics, signage actually shows the precise shape of a particular curve. Thirdly, unusual phrasing is used: "Spiral Curve," "Sudden Curve," and "High Collision Area." In a few locations signs show a motorcycle rider tossed from his bike. If that can't wake up a rider, nothing will. By the way, those signs have proven so popular that the Parks Department would very much appreciate it if people would stop stealing them.

Still, for all of that, some of the signage doesn't communicate a clear understanding of the specific curve ahead. But that is partly why they work so well. Due to their size and unusual content, they stimulate alertness, and throwing a bit of confusion into the mix normally convinces people to slow down. If a motorcyclist thinks he has a clear picture of a curve ahead, he may not heed the warning as seriously as he should. Having a clear idea there is a danger, combined with an unclear idea of the particular nature of the danger, worries a rider. After all, "Only fools rush in..."

Substantiating the immediate success of the Parkway's signage project, the motorcycle accident rate dropped 11 percent in 2002, the first year of postings. In the next two years, the rate dropped another 11 and then 16 percent. But since public safety will always remain a significant issue for Park personnel, they'd like to see the rates drop even lower.

To plan a ramble along the Blue Ridge Parkway, visit the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation at www.brpfoundation.org or the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway at www.blueridgefriends.org. You can also call (828) 298-0398 for more information.