Atlanta bus crash spurs new national policy for road signs

A fatal 2007 bus crash at Northside Drive and I-75 in Atlanta has led to nationwide changes in rules for road signs that serve left-hand exits and HOV lanes.

Federal officials had already recommended the changes, and the Georgia Department of Transportation has replaced its own signs with clearer ones in response.  On Wednesday, U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood made the them national requirements in the new federal manual on road signs, pavement markings and traffic signals.

In the Atlanta bus crash, investigators said the driver mistook the left-hand HOV exit ramp for a continuing HOV lane, and climbed it at highway speed.  He realized his mistake too late, and the bus slammed into the concrete barrier wall ahead and jumped back onto the highway below.  Five Bluffton University baseball players, the driver and his wife were killed.  Georgia's inadequate road signs played a role, investigators found.

Experts say signs must clearly warn drivers that an approaching exit will be on the left, because they expect exits to be on the right.  Georgia’s old signs didn’t.  In addition, when the signs were installed, a sign that was planned to point out the through lane was moved off the exit following a mistake in DOT’s drawings.

The new federal rules address those issues.

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Georgia DOT officials pointed out that there was an “exit” sign at the exit at the time of the crash.

They steadfastly defended the state’s signs, even as they agreed to change them, pointing to vague guidance in the old federal rules.

In the years before the bus crash several drivers at the exit made the same mistake as the bus driver, and at least two other people were killed in crashes there. But none of those events garnered publicity, drew the interest of the National Transportation Safety Board, or roused public pressure as the bus crash did.

The changes may come in time to give clearer guidance to officials across the country who are planning new HOV toll lane projects.

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