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HIGHWAY ENGINEERING
TRICKS AND PITFALLS - part one
(For all highway engineers and designers)
By: T. E. McLaughlin, PE
Note: The materials used for this course include this document and several websites
linked in this document. Only links marked with a red star
are used in the course
and test questions.
A.

INTRODUCTION

This course is a summary of highway engineering details and design standards which are
common to most highway design processes. Examples from Florida practice are used in
this course, but it is applicable to any State or region by considering local laws,
regulations, and design practices.
When you complete this course, you should have learned some common traps and
pitfalls which are common to highway design, how to avoid them, and what standards
apply to certain circumstances which may not be obvious. The course objective is to
give engineers and designers a different perspective on their work, and explain why we
do certain things in this area of professional practice.
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B.

COURSE OBJECTIVES

1.
2.
3.
4.

Why do States adopt highway design standards?


What is the role of FHWA in the adoption of State design standards?
What is sovereign immunity?
What is the responsibility of the Professional Engineer who oversees the design

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5.

and plans preparation?


What are the legal responsibilities and liability of the Engineer of Record?

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C.

DISCLAIMER

Neither the author nor SunCam, Inc. is an attorney. If you need legal advice, consult a
qualified attorney.
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D.

WHY DO STATES ADOPT HIGHWAY DESIGN STANDARDS?

Most State Departments of Transportation have adopted some type of minimum


highway design standards which are applicable to all roads, streets, and highways
located within that respective state. This is accomplished for several reasons:
1. To promote a uniformity in design for driving safety and ease of construction.
2. To promote pedestrian and vehicular safety features.
3. To lower construction bid prices by having uniform construction standards,
and standard unit bid items, with the ability to compare bid prices.
4. To have uniform minimum standards in place for sovereign immunity
against lawsuits.
5. So drivers driving through several states arent confused by a variety of
roadside conditions, signs, and traffic signal systems which send conflicting
and/or different visual signals to the driver for similar conditions.
6. To meet FHWA requirements for Federal Funding.
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E.

HIGHWAY DESIGN STANDARDS - PURPOSE AND APPLICATION

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Lets review the basic types of highways and roadways which are common to all States:
1. Interstate Highways & Toll Roads; [Toll roads may or may not have a Federal
or U.S. Highway designation. For the purpose of this course, it is assumed
that the two have similar design criteria.]
2. U.S. (Federal) Highways, excluding limited-access facilities;
3. State-owned and maintained Highways [not U.S. Highway designation];
4. County-owned and maintained highways and roads
[not U.S. Highway designation];
5. City [municipal] streets and boulevards [not U.S. Highway designation];
6. Military Facilities.
Different design and construction standards apply to each designation listed above. It is
important to know which agency owns the right-of-way in which the facility is located;
which agency claims ownership of the roadway itself; and which agency maintains the
roadway facility. If there is a different agency for each of the three items noted, each
agency may have a differing set of design and maintenance criteria, and may want to
review the design. The paragraphs which follow review the standards applicable to each
type of facility.
Interstate Highway Design Standards:
The FHWA administers the Interstate Highway Design Standards based on the Federal
Aid Highway Act of 1956; these standards were developed by State highway agencies
acting through the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
[AASHTO], and were adopted by FHWA. These standards are available for purchase
from AASHTO in their publication A Policy on Design Standards - Interstate System.
The 5th edition of this publication is currently available from the AASHTO web site:
https://bookstore.transportation.org/category_item.aspx
Continuing this concept of standardized design criteria, the FHWA lists additional
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design requirements for interstate highways on the following website:
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/standards.cfm
Title 23 USC 109 provides that design standards for projects on the National Highway
System (NHS) must be approved by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of
Transportation in cooperation with the State highway departments. The Secretary has
delegated this authority to the Federal Highway Administrator.
The State highway departments, working through the American Association of State
Highway and Transportation Officials, develop design standards through a series of
committees and task forces. FHWA contributes to the development of the design
standards through membership on these working units, sponsoring and participating in
research efforts, and many other initiatives. Following development of the design
standards, FHWA uses a formal rulemaking process to adopt those it considers suitable
for application on the NHS.
The design standards currently adopted by the FHWA can be found at 23 CFR 625.
Additional design guides and references can be found in the Federal-Aid Policy Guide,
Non-regulatory Supplement NS 23 CFR 625, paragraph 16. The CFR and Nonregulatory Supplement do not include the standards themselves, but rather a list of
publications which contain the standards. Probably the most frequently used document
in 23 CFR 625 is A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets. This
1000+ page document, sometimes called the Green Book because of the color of its
cover, is published by AASHTO and can be found in many public libraries. The Green
Book can also be purchased from the AASHTO web site noted above.
Why adopt uniform Interstate Highway design standards? For all of the six reasons
listed in D above; should different States have differing Interstate Highway design
criteria, a confusing and potentially unsafe group of features would be encountered
while driving from State to State along an interstate highway. It would be similar to
driving from Germany to Denmark and encountering different traffic signals, signs, and
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roadside features.
Having a set of design standards for interstate highways also provides sovereign
immunity against lawsuits if the design criteria are followed. Sovereign immunity
prevents lawsuits against a government or governmental agency unless it agrees to be
sued. If a State agency adopts design criteria which have been prepared by experts in
that field, and enforces those criteria, it has sovereign immunity from lawsuits related to
the facility if the facility was designed using the adopted criteria. Usually this immunity
is encoded in the statutes for the State under consideration. Sovereign immunity goes
back to the Middle Ages, and is a concept that the King cant be sued, hence the use of
the word sovereign. Sovereign immunity may also apply to designs for State
highways and other roads and streets in a County or State. If you are designing roads,
you need to be aware of any immunity statutes which apply to the governmental
jurisdiction in which the design is located.
U.S. (Federal) Highway Design Standards:
U.S. Highways are also governed by FHWA Standards, because the right-of-way is
either Federally-owned with State jurisdiction by assignment, or by Federal funding, or
is owned outright by a Federal Agency. These U.S. routes all fall within the National
Highway System, (NHS), and are under FHWA jurisdiction by Federal Statute, 23 USC
109. It is important to know this information when you are working on the design of a
U.S. Highway. More than likely, the agency with whom you are under contract will be
your best source of knowledge for this information. The FHWA has posted links to
State Roadway Design Manuals on its web site:
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/standards.cfm

The AASHTO Green Book [A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets,
5th Edition] is considered to be the source for highway design in all jurisdictions, and is
cited by FHWA on their web site for design criteria, as noted previously. Most
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probably, if you are preparing a design which involves a U.S. Highway, the State
Department of Transportation in the State in which you are working will have been
assigned to oversee all designs prepared for U.S. Highways in that State. If you are not
under the immediate authority of the respective State Department of Transportation, you
will likely need to permit your design through that same State Department of
Transportation, which will represent the Federal Government with respect to designs for
a U.S. Highway.
State Highway Standards:
Title 23 USC 109 provides that projects (other than highway projects on the NHS) shall
be designed, constructed, operated, and maintained in accordance with State laws,
regulations, directives, safety standards, design standards, and construction standards.
Again we refer to State Statutes and Administrative Code specific to the State in which
you are working in order to determine the exact design criteria and standards which
apply to your project. Most States have adopted statutes and regulatory codes pertaining
to State Departments of Transportation. These statutes and codes are commonly
available on the internet and should be used to determine the applicable requirements for
a particular project. For example, in Florida, the State Department of Transportation is
specifically chartered as a decentralized agency under the Executive Branch (Governor)
of the State Government (Fla. Stat. 20.23). What does this mean? The Florida D.O.T.
has a degree of autonomy and is not subject to the whims of individual legislators,
because it does not fall under the Legislative Branch of State Government for direct
management on a year-to-year basis. This same statute gives authority to the Secretary
of Transportation for Design, Construction, Maintenance, and Materials, among other
things, related to transportation in Florida.
Where do you find the State Design Standards for a particular project on a State
Highway? First, look on that States D.O.T. web site for a link to a downloadable
design handbook or set of standard design drawings. The FHWA web site noted above
is a good place to start. The Florida D.O.T. has a very good web site listing all their
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publications, including free downloads of their design standards and other publications:
http://www.dot.state.fl.us/mapsandpublications/manuals/pub-download-list.shtm
In particular we are referring to the following Florida D.O.T publications:
Design Standards,
Drainage Handbooks,
Drainage Manual,
Plans Preparation Manual,
Utility Accommodations Manual, and
Roadway and Traffic Design Standards,
all available as free downloads at the website noted above. They are listed here as
reference sources, not as required study material for this course.
Remember that AASHTOs Green Book has been universally adopted in most States
as the geometric reference for highway design. Depending on your projects particular
circumstances, additional standards and local criteria may apply, such as for walkways,
pedestrian features, landscaping, drainage, etc.
It is particularly important to obtain, prior to commencement of design, agreement from
all the participating agencies, especially on State Highway projects, on the specific
design criteria, standards, and standard drawings to be used for a particular project. This
avoids the critical problems of redesign requests and arguments over which criteria
apply, especially after the 50% completion stage.
The Florida D.O.T. has a variety of manuals and standards for use in design of new
roadway facilities. This is why it is of fundamental importance to come to agreement on
the design criteria to be used on a particular project. For example, the Florida
DESIGN STANDARDS may apply to a new roadway segment under design, which is
funded solely by the State of Florida. Florida also has its own Green Book, which is
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the statutory minimum design criteria for roads, highways, and streets in the State of
Florida, but this Green Book does not apply to every highway project in Florida.
Download this free current Green Book at:
http://www.dot.state.fl.us/rddesign/FloridaGreenbook/FGB.shtm
Check the Table of Contents and find 3 specific design situations to which this manual
and design criteria apply. As a highway designer/engineer, you are ultimately
professionally responsible for choosing and using the appropriate design criteria for your
project if you sign and seal the plans.

County and City Roads, Streets, & Highways:


AASHTOs Green Book is the fundamental reference in this category. Since there are
many different criteria adopted by counties and local municipalities, two issues are
worth repeating:
1. Obtain agreement of the participating agencies on the specific design criteria
to be used for design of the facility in question, prior to commencing design.
2. The design professional is ultimately responsible for choosing and using the
appropriate design criteria for a particular facility. Professional liability
cannot be transferred simply by writing a letter or receiving a letter from a
non-licensed government employee.
As mentioned above, Florida has specific design standards for new highway design in
State-owned rights-of-way. Florida also has its own Green Book for minimum
standards for all roads, streets, and highways in Florida. All the criteria listed here may
apply to a project within the city limits of a municipality in Florida. It is particularly
important not to allow a non-professional employee of a government agency to dictate
the specific design criteria to be used for a road, street, or highway project. As a
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professional, you are responsible for the design criteria used for your design, and if there
is a safety problem later, you will ultimately be held responsible. Should a professional
engineer employed by a local government indicate that an inappropriate design standard
be used for a project which you are designing, you must either refuse to use it, or obtain
his written, signed, sealed letter assuming full responsibility for use of such criteria. If
this design criteria is obviously incorrect, you will most likely be held responsible for its
use as designer, regardless of any documents obtained.
Military Facilities (Roads, Streets, Soil Mechanics):
The Department of Defense has a number of excellent technical manuals applicable to
highways. Some are dated and may have been superseded by recent FHWA or other
publications, but contain good basic information useful for highway and other facility
design. All are available as free downloads from:
http://www.wbdg.org/references/pa_dod.php
You can also download NAVFAC Publications from:
https://portal.navfac.navy.mil/portal/page/portal/navfac/navfac_docs_pp
From the Whole Building Design Guide website, download the following:
Unified Facilities Criteria: UFC 3-250-01FA
Pavement Design for Roads, Streets, Walks, and Open Storage Areas
as a pdf file, ( 01-16-2004 ). This document is located at:
http://www.wbdg.org/ccb/browse_cat.php?o=29&c=4
This manual goes into great detail regarding the design of pavements for military
facilities; it also provides a lot of information concerning concrete pavement. It should
be noted that this information is 20+ years old and may not be up to date. This manual
is referenced in this course to illustrate the type of free documents available from the
Department of Defense and the type of information presented. If you are preparing a
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design for a military facility, the specific contracting officer may instruct you or your
firm to use a more current set of design criteria, especially if the design concerns a large
facility or heavy vehicle traffic. This criteria, as noted previously, MUST be agreed
upon in writing in advance of the start of the design process.
Review this handbook in detail and be prepared to answer the following types of
questions:
a.
b.
c.
d.

Who or what agency prepared this document?


Under what category is it available?
Can anyone use this manual?
What types of preliminary investigations are made prior to commencing
a highway design?
e. Traffic evaluation and analysis are performed for what reason?
f. Is subgrade a consideration in pavement design?
g. What is CBR ? Why is it important?
h. How is flexible pavement thickness determined in this manual?
i. When is frost action a consideration? See Chapter 18.
j. How does this manual address the design of rigid pavement?
k. Does the manual address the repair of flexible pavement with a rigid overlay?
l. Why are geotextiles used in the design and construction of pavement?
m. What is an RCC pavement?
n. What does Figure 18-2 illustrate, and why is this important for design?
o. What is mentioned regarding use of state highway design criteria?
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F.

INTEGRATED HIGHWAY DESIGN - CONSIDERATIONS

A final design of a highway should integrate all the design features considered by the
scope of services of the contracting agency, as well as providing full safety elements for
pedestrians and vehicles. As a professional, it is incumbent upon you to offer the design
services you know will be required to provide a complete and safe design. Most
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agencies have a predetermined budget and may try to cut services in order to force
budget compliance, but this does not mean they always know what they are doing. This
is a critical issue. You cannot design a highway without proper drainage; neither can
you omit pedestrian or vehicular safety features just because the contracting agency does
not want to pay for these services.
Underground Utilities
Underground utilities are always a major consideration on a large highway design
project, especially in urban areas where the existing right-of-way is being reused for an
expanded facility. This underground design work will be a major expense and cannot be
ignored during the design process. If there are underground utility conflicts (there
always are), it is much cheaper to deal with them during design, than wait for the
contractor to dig them up during the construction phase. Some extra engineering time
is always less expensive than paying a contractor for a couple of idle work crews. These
conflicts can sometimes be characterized as unforeseen conditions, which may lead to
a design fee supplement if the agency is open-minded about the project. If not, it is
always better to provide the services anyway in order to avoid a potentially expensive
construction claim later. This issue is a recurring problem with highway projects.
Centerline of Construction
Another issue which seems to be often overlooked is the floating centerline of
construction. For some reason, designers appear to make scavenger hunts out of
construction plans for highways. If the construction centerline (it should be the actual
centerline, not just a relabeled baseline of survey) is not dimensioned to the actual rightof-way on either side of the road alignment, the contractor is presented with an unknown
layout puzzle wherein he has to guess where the construction is to be placed within the
right-of-way. The centerline of construction should be dimensioned to the right-of-way
on each page of the plans in an unequivocal way. There should be no confusion. The
right-of-way should be tied to existing reference points on the ground at each end of the
project so the layout crew does not have to do basic land and monument research prior
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to laying out the construction project. This is the initial engineering work which a
design firm is retained to perform. It should not be left to the contractor to finish the
design; as Engineer of Record, you are going to sign and seal those plans.
Signature and Seal of Plans
Dont forget that a chief engineer in overall charge of a highway design has
responsibilities which differ from state to state. Florida has specific requirements
regarding the signing and sealing of different aspects of a highway design. State
licensing law must be checked prior to applying your signature and seal to any sheet of a
set of highway plans. For Florida, instructions for signing and sealing plan sets are
found in Florida Administrative Code Chapter 61G15-23.002, titled:
Seal, Signature and Date Shall Be Affixed. A current copy of 61G15 FAC can be
found at:
http://www.fbpe.org/userfiles/file/61G15%20Document/61G15%20070808.pdf
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G.

POST-DESIGN SERVICES

Should you be involved in the design of a major highway facility, more likely than not
your firm will be asked to provide post-design services of some type, whether it is
actual field inspection, contract management, or just design interpretation and/or shop
drawing review. This is a critical phase of the process because it is where all the
inconsistencies and errors come to light and must be dealt with by someone.
Experienced personnel must be available to assist with this function. In order to
establish the scope of these post-design services, the Department of Defense has
produced a document which includes guidelines for the services being contemplated.
This manual is useful for almost any type of governmental post-design services contract.
Contracting with a Government Agency to Provide Post-Design Services
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Go to the NAVFAC site described in the preceding section above:
https://portal.navfac.navy.mil/portal/page/portal/navfac/navfac_docs_pp
From this NAVFAC site, click on the Complete List of Documents at left side of the
page, and then download:
Guidelines for Architect/Engineer Construction Surveillance & Inspection Services
If the above link is not working then this document may be viewed on SunCams web
site at http://www.suncam.com/authors/007McLaughlin/p1015-const-mgmt-NAVFAC.pdf
document number NAVFAC P-1015, May 1986. This is an excellent general review of
contracting responsibilities for field inspection services for government projects.
Although it is a 1986 document intended for US Navy construction contracts, it applies
almost universally to government inspection contracting. Review Chapter 4,
Administration... You should be prepared to answer who has responsibility for
inspection of construction details, what document assigns those responsibilities, and who
approves monthly construction payments/invoices for the project. Also determine the
construction contract payment types and what or who assigns those payment types.
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H.
ROADSIDE DESIGN ELEMENTS AND SAFETY FEATURES
When a highway or major arterial roadway is being designed, the primary focus is upon
lane configuration, right-of-way, and drainage. Roadside safety is often given a back
seat to these other considerations because it just has to fit in with everything else. You
can be assured an astute attorney will make it a primary consideration in an injury
lawsuit if obstacles have been introduced into the clear recovery area which have
damaged a vehicle in a crash. What do we mean when we discuss roadside safety?
Right-of-way width, slope of shoulders, slope of roadside ditches, utility poles,
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mailboxes, sign supports, and guardrail placement are all examples of issues to be
concerned with when working on roadside safety. Clear recovery area is dependent on
the type of facility under consideration; higher vehicle speeds lead to wider clear
recovery areas. The appropriate width must be determined at the start of design. This
usually leads to a right-of-way width conflict, depending on how carefully the
preliminary alignment study was prepared. If property acquisition was not originally
contemplated, the contracting agency may need to become involved with an inadequate
right-of-way width situation as soon as the problem is discovered, as this will involve
additional property taking, courts, attorneys, and the landowners themselves.
Roadside Obstacles
Roadside obstacles include utility poles, sign supports, fire hydrants, guardrail, concrete
barrier wall, drainage inlets and headwalls, mail boxes, and similar items, which all
present a hazard to vehicles which leave their respective through-lanes and need clear
space to recover trajectory. Each obstacle must be addressed in a way which conforms
to current design criteria and can be defended in court in case of a lawsuit. Do your
designs allow fire hydrants within the clear recovery area of a roadway? If so, you may
want to check your liability insurance. A fire hydrant is a significant obstacle to a
vehicle, and usually you will get no sympathy from the utility owner. It may be possible
to place a fire hydrant in its own easement outside of the clear recovery area.
When considering roadside design, pedestrian and vehicle safety are the primary
considerations. Utility companies which have occupied rights-of-way for many years
are not interested in roadside safety any more than they are interested in preserving your
professional engineers license. There may be difficult negotiations with utility
company representatives over obstacles in the right-of-way; the bottom line is that your
license is at stake.
Another common problem is the use of landscape planters, brick or concrete fountains,
and signs at subdivision entrances which are placed within the clear recovery area of a
highway. Guard booths for restricted-access communities have also been placed within
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clear recovery areas. Substantial trees may be required to be planted by ordinance along
new highways in clear recovery areas. Even though this is a political situation, you may
have to refuse. Roadway construction plans should never show any construction of this
type on the design. Most landscape architects are not aware of the clear recovery area
concept and you may have to educate them as part of your design process. Finally, keep
the landscaping on its own drawing set, separate from anything you sign and seal.
Guardrail
Guardrail is a hazard by itself; it can be useful under certain circumstances, but it should
not be used as a cure-all for unmovable obstacles. Some designers have the mistaken
idea that guardrail is used to protect an unmovable obstacle from errant vehicles. Again,
an attorney will correct this mistaken impression at some point. Guardrail should be
considered as a launching ramp in many situations. The Transportation Research Board
(TRB) has several publications on the use of guardrail at their bookstore web site:
http://books.trbbookstore.org/search.aspx?find=guardrail
If you encounter a situation which appears to require guardrail, there can be no
substitute for the TRB research information and state highway agency standard design
information. Each location requiring the use of guardrail should be examined for
alternatives prior to incorporating guardrail into the design. See the section below on
use of concrete curb for the reference to NCHRP Publication # 537, which includes
guardrail installation.
Break-Away Signs
FHWA has standards for sign mounts along interstate highways which launch the sign
and post upward and out of the way of a striking vehicle. This design is to prevent
windshield impact and driver injury as much as possible. The bolts on these break-away
sign mounts have been chosen to fail in shear when hit by a vehicle. Substitution of the
original bolt with stronger bolts will cause the break-away mount to malfunction. If you
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or your firm is retained to provide construction monitoring services, it is very important
that your field personnel carefully observe and check the bolt installation and applied
tightening torque so that it is all within the design requirements and
specifications.
Use of Concrete Curb as a Roadside Safety Barrier
Highway design firms often encounter roadway improvement projects wherein an
existing highway will be partially redesigned to include new traffic signals, pedestrian
features, and/or drainage improvements without changing the basic lane configuration.
Inserting traffic signal poles, sidewalks, handicap ramps, fire hydrants, and new utility
poles into an existing roadway creates a design nightmare. Usually the right-of-way
width will not allow the new features to be installed while preserving roadside safety.
Some designers have used short, asymmetric sections of 6 concrete curb to artificially
reduce the apparent clear recovery area from perhaps 24 ft. to 4 ft. in the congested area.
However, this unexpected short curb section becomes nothing less than a launching
ramp for a vehicle which is traveling at the speed limit and moves just a few inches off
the lane line. In order to properly reduce the established clear recovery area by use of
curb, the roadway must transition from rural to urban section with clear advance
warning and guidance to the drivers of the vehicles. A short section of curb does
nothing but confuse the driver and present a hazard to all users of the facility. This
situation is a dilemma and must be discussed openly with the owning agency prior to
finalizing the design. There is no easy answer to this type of problem. Usually
additional right-of-way is required.
The TRB has a useful publication listed as NCHRP Report # 537,
Recommended Guidelines for Curb and Curb-Barrier Installations,
which may be of help should you encounter the situation described above.
This is a free downloadable publication at:
http://onlinepubs.trb.org/Onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_537.pdf

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Download this publication and review the Forward carefully. Be prepared to answer
the following questions:
a.
b.
c.
d.
e.
f.

Which agency comments on the use of curbs on high-speed roadways?


What role do curbs play in crashes on high-speed highways?
What effect does restricted right-of-way have on the use of curbs?
What is NCHRP Project 22-17?
How were vehicle impacts with curbs investigated?
What were the recommendations of the study and Report?

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END OF PART ONE

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