Road blog No. 1: Murderous road signs

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

Academic research is rarely nauseating, and I did not expect to get sick to my stomach from a research project we have with Boston University called “Safeguarding Sustainable Development.” The project is simply trying to find out whether the social and environmental safeguards of the institutions that finance major infrastructure projects in Latin America (e.g. CAF, IDB, WB) help secure the successful implementation of the projects with minimal environmental harm and minimal harm to the people living in the affected areas. The project covers several countries, but at INESAD we just have to evaluate three Bolivian road projects.

Last week we visited the first of our road projects, which is the double-road between La Paz and Oruro (Bolivia’s Highway No. 1). Most people appreciate this new road because it makes travelling between La Paz and Oruro much quicker and safer. It also created lots of local jobs during construction, and local communities have generally been adequately consulted and well compensated for the direct adverse effects of the road construction project. Local people quickly figured out how to get from A to B using this new road (even if it means driving in the wrong lane in the wrong direction for a stretch), so for them the lack of, or highly confusing, road signs were not considered a big problem.

But if you are a truck-driver or a bus-driver coming from Chile and trying to get to La Paz with your goods or passengers, then you are in big trouble. This main international road takes you to Patacamaya, the biggest city on the La Paz-Oruro road. When you arrive to Patacamaya, there is a sign that says La Paz to the left and Oruro to the right, which is geographically correct. But just 20 meters further ahead you see another sign, which says La Paz and Oruro both to the right. So your first dilemma is whether to follow the first sign and your instincts and turn left, or follow the second sign and turn right. We tried both. If you go right, you and your heavy load will go right through downtown Patacamaya, and after dodging hundreds of pedestrians and making a detour of about 7 km, you will eventually find an access to the highway to La Paz, although it is not marked.

If instead you turn left, you will avoid downtown Patacamaya, and you will quickly get to the access bridge connecting you to Highway No. 1 towards La Paz. This is clearly the best way, so the first sign was right. However, the access is dangerously marked. At a fork in the road it says La Paz straight ahead and Oruro sharply to the right. The fork has three options ahead, though, so one inevitably gets confused. The sign clearly says La Paz straight ahead, but to us that looked like the old road to La Paz, and we were trying to get to a meeting with the Mayor of Calamarca 15 minutes later, so we wanted to get on the new road, so we chose the middle fork slightly to the right, although that was not marked at all. It took us over the bridge in a steep curve, and down to the highway in the right direction, so it was the correct choice. A few hundred meters ahead, however, we saw where the old road (that we didn’t take, despite the signs telling us to do so) merged with the new road, but against the flow of vehicles towards Oruro. That is when I started feeling sick. If we had followed the signs, we would likely have caused a fatal accident, as would anyone following the signs uncritically.

As it were, we followed our instincts and took another route, and it saved our lives. However, a bus from Chile did the same thing two years ago just after the highway was inaugurated and they were not so lucky.  Due to the confusion about the signs and the very steep curve over the highway, the bus driver lost control of the vehicle and it fell off the bridge. Six people were killed and 29 injured in the accident (1).

Many other accidents have occurred recently in Patacamaya on the access roads to the new highway. Indeed, we had just met with the Mayor of Patacamaya and his Council of Advisors half an hour before, and their main request was a bigger and better hospital in Patacamaya to treat all the traffic injuries. At this rate of accidents, Patacamaya, which means One Hundred Dead Souls in Aymara (2), will soon have to be renamed Papacatamaya (Two Hundred Dead Souls).

In our opinion, all that suffering, and a lot of similar suffering along the entire road, could be avoided by more sensible road signs. Clearly, a generous budget for road signs was available, because the entire road is littered with completely irrational signs of crossing cows (most where no cow could possibly cross) and “no overtaking” signs (although the whole point of the double-road is to make sure that faster vehicles can pass slower vehicles without putting everybody in danger).

But almost none of the current signs actually help guide you to the place you want to go to, or warn you about any potential dangers. There were many elaborate and expensive pedestrian and livestock overpasses, valued at several hundred thousand dollars each (3), but nobody ever seems to use them. At best, they help signal where to expect crossing people and animals, because people usually cross right below the pedestrian overpass, but that is obviously not an efficient use of public money. In one case, the overpass even caused a deadly accident, as a truck driver and his 13-year-old daughter died from driving into the central pillar of the pedestrian overpass in Lahuachaca earlier this year (4).

We have several other issues with this road (these will be thoroughly documented in our up-coming report), but the completely senseless, useless, or outright murderous signalling along the road is what hit us most strongly. Whoever is responsible for the signs along this road has a lot of dead souls on his conscience.

* Senior Researcher at INESAD. The viewpoints expressed in this blog are the responsibility of the author and may not reflect the viewpoints of all members of Fundación INESAD.

(3) According to this news article, a standard pedestrian overpass on the La Paz – Oruro road costs 350.000 – 600.000 dollars: That seems ridiculously expensive, but I have not been able to find any other estimate.



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One comment

  1. We suffer a lot of these same confusions in Costa Rica. None of the maps match the actual roads. Y intersections have 3 or 4 possibilities, not 2. “Straight ahead” often involves a sharp turn, while going straight ahead takes you onto the wrong road.

    Where a sign in the city informs of your upcoming turnoff to the right, there will be at least 2 turnoffs visible within a short distance from each other, and the correct one is the second one that loops around. If you take the first one, you end up going the wrong way, hopelessly lost in a maze of streets overflowing with heavy traffic and your view of road signs blocked by high walls of trucks and buses. I gave up trying to drive in the city. When we have to go to the city we park on the easily accessible outskirts and take cabs or ride with drivers who drive every day and know their way around.

    The new 4 lane divided highway to Liberia — with access roads few and far between — provides the same incentive for locals to drive the wrong way rather than go 5 miles up and 6 miles back to get to the sideroad they want that is only 1 mile from their original position. The new highway is wide and smooth, quite straight and flat with excellent visibility, and “autobahn” suited to 100 mph driving. But the speed limit is artificially low so drivers who drive a “normal” speed have become “ticket fodder”.

    The engineers and road builders are capable of building excellent roads. Now if they could only figure out how to do access roads and “signs”, our ability to enjoy “using” those excellent and expensive roads would be complete.


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