Calls to ban wire rope median barriers are misguided, says safety campaigner

Wire rope barriers save lives, including the lives of motorcyclists, says an outspoken road safety campaigner.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the car review website, says:

“This is one time when I think the government is right; compelling scientific research suggests wire rope median barriers are actually safer for motorcyclists than most other forms of median barrier."

According to a major report on median barrier accidents involving motorcyclists, wire rope barriers “have around half the fatality rate of [steel] beam barriers and around 0.4 of concrete barriers.” The report concluded that steel and concrete median barriers were the most dangerous to motorcyclists.

Matthew-Wilson says that while median barriers pose a high risk to motorcyclists, it’s still less risk than not having them.

“A speeding motorcyclist who hits a tree, a road sign or another vehicle, is highly likely to be instantly killed. It’s certainly dangerous for that motorcyclist to hit anything, but if I was on a motorcycle and out of control, I’d rather hit a wire median barrier than most of the alternatives.”

However, Matthew-Wilson supports moves to make median barriers friendlier to motorcyclists.

“The fact remains that the engineers who designed median barriers never really had motorcyclists in mind. I think you can make a good case for requiring all new median barriers after a certain date to be proven to be motorcyclist-friendly.”

However, Matthew-Wilson believes the government should not delay installing urgently needed median barriers.

“Any attempt to slow down the installation of median barriers, wire or not, will inevitably end in more dead bodies, usually of the innocent.”


Motorcyclists and median barriers: the facts (source: NZTA)

A study of NZ motorcycle crash data from January 2001 to July 2013 shows that there were 97 fatalities from collisions with posts or poles, 70 from hitting a traffic sign and 93 from crashing into unprotected trees.

By comparison, there were 20 motorcycle fatalities from hitting a median barrier, 13 of which were from steel-beam and three were wire rope.

Of the barrier collisions, the studies show that wire rope safety barriers have around half the fatality rate of steel-beam barriers and that concrete barriers are the most dangerous of all to motorcyclists.

A 3.5km-long wire rope median barrier was installed on SH1 Centennial Highway, just north of Wellington, in 2005. This was a particularly treacherous piece of road – in the four years to 2000 it recorded eight fatalities, two serious injuries and seven minor accidents. Between 2001-2004, the passing lanes were removed and road markings, reflectors and signs were increased yet it still saw four fatalities, two serious injuries and two minor injury accidents.

In the four years from 2005 to 2009, following the installation of a wire rope median barrier and lowering the speed limit to 80kph, there were no fatal and no major injury accidents, and just three minor injuries recorded.

Between 2005 and October 2015, the Centennial Highway barrier has been hit over 100 times without a single death.