Reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that between 2001 and 2010 nearly 70 people were killed in Bay Area car crashes resulting from problems with the roadway. Causes ranged from uneven pavement to poor signage, with conditions such as severe potholes, ruts, and gaps posing additional hazards for cyclists. In fact, Bay Area roads scored an embarrassing D+ grade in a 2011 assessment conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Now, with approximately 1,500 drivers a year filing claims against the state, Caltrans faces the unenviable task of weighing the cost effectiveness of repairing roads versus paying drivers for damages.

It’s estimated that the poor quality of Bay Area roads is costing the average driver in excess of $700 per year due to additional vehicle maintenance; more than double the national average. What’s even more disturbing is the impact these poorly maintained roads have on the safety of Bay Area residents.

53-year-old Al Lee was killed last year when his tire slipped into a pothole while Lee was cycling along Grizzly Peak Boulevard in Oakland. Despite a long history of complaints about the road’s condition, nothing had been done, and when Lee’s tire got caught in a pothole he was flung from his bike into oncoming traffic. His widow, Nancy Lee, has filed a lawsuit against the city claiming they knew the road was dangerous and had failed to make the necessary improvements. With a lawsuit pending, work crews have now repaired the stretch of Grizzly Peak Boulevard where the accident occurred.

Tragically, it took Lee’s death to compel the city to take action. But unfortunately, with the estimated cost of upgrading the Bay Area’s roads from “poor” to “good” hovering around $975 million annually, it’s cheaper to offer compensation for damages incurred due to poor road conditions. Caltrans spokeswoman Traci Ruth says, “We have only 40-percent of the funds that are needed for us to maintain and rehabilitate our roadways. Our crews go out on a daily basis and repair what they can repair daily.”

Despite records showing an increase in the number of potholes repaired over the last decade, it’s still not enough to keep up with deteriorating roads. In 2011, requests for pothole maintenance increased by approximately 33 percent.

The biggest concern is that people have an expectation the roads they’re using are safe and well maintained: a belief that is increasingly proving false. Traffic engineer Harry Krueper suggests that regardless of budgetary constraints, the city could be doing more to warn the public where hazards exist. Krueper also criticized the city for taking way too long to install a median along a section of Highway 12 near Fairfield where the accident rate almost tripled over a five year period.

Without dramatically increasing the city’s budget it would appear there’s no easy solution. However, motorists and cyclists alike need to exercise extreme caution and continue to report potential safety hazards to the city whenever they find one. Even if often feels like a losing battle, doing whatever we can to keep our roads safe is still a battle worth fighting.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lulutoo/2951107695/