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Median Barriers

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A guardrail median barrier separating opposing highway lanes
Source: FHWA

In the time it takes for the driver to yawn, a vehicle traveling at highway speeds can cross a highway median and strike opposing traffic head-on. Head-on crashes at highway speed are generally more severe than other types of highway crashes. In 2006, on the National Highway System alone, there were 821 median crossover crashes that resulted in fatalities.

Median barriers are longitudinal barriers most commonly used to separate opposing directions of traffic on a divided highway. While these systems may not reduce the frequency of crashes due to roadway departure, they can definitely help prevent a median crash from becoming a median crossover head-on collision.

Barrier Design and Placement Considerations

Barrier design and placement needs to effectively protect motorists traveling in opposing lanes, while also considering the safety of the occupants of the errant vehicle. Among the factors involved in selection of a barrier system are the types of vehicles using the roadway, the roadway geometry, and the potential severity of a median crossover crash. Standard barriers capable of redirecting passenger cars, light vans and trucks are considered cost effective for most situations. However, at locations with adverse geometrics, high traffic volumes and speeds, significant amounts of heavy truck traffic, or special environmental considerations, a higher performance median barrier may be more appropriate.

Pros and Cons of Barrier System Options

There are three basic categories of median barriers: rigid barrier systems, semi-rigid barrier systems, and flexible barrier systems.

A cable barrier between opposing highway lanes
Source: FHWA

Ease of maintenance and repair for these barrier systems is an important consideration. When several posts are hit during a single crash, the barrier system may then be vulnerable to subsequent crossovers until the damaged section is repaired. Some high tension systems are designed to reduce deflection and resist impact forces. These high tension systems can be easier to repair when posts are hit, and have the added advantage of being practical for use in narrower spaces.

For More Information

AASHTO-AGC-ARTBA Online Barrier Hardware Guide: http://aashtotf13.tamu.edu/

AASHTO's Technology Implementation Group Cable Median Barriers Website: http://tig.transportation.org/?siteid=57&pageid=2197

Charles F. McDevitt: "Basics of Concrete Barriers," Public Roads, Vol. 63 No. 5, March/April 2000: http://fhwicsint01.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/00marapr/concrete.cfm

FHWA Crash Test Eligibility Letters for Longitudinal Barriers: http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/roadway_dept/policy_guide/road_hardware/barriers/

Frequently Asked Questions: Barriers, Terminals, Transitions, Attenuators, and Bridge Railings: http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/roadway_dept/policy_guide/road_hardware/qa_bttabr.cfm

Roadside Design Guide, AASHTO, 2006: https://bookstore.transportation.org/collection_detail.aspx?ID=105

Median Barriers: A Solution to Cross-Median Crashes, DVD, FHWA-SA-08-007.

Nicholas Artimovich
FHWA Office of Safety
Roadway Departure Team


Page last modified on September 30, 2015.
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