Roads scolars

| October 05, 2001

Truckers have long enjoyed a love-hate relationship with America’s highways: They love the lure of the open road, its stretches of majestic beauty and the freedom of miles of unwinding asphalt. They hate potholes, rough pavement, cracks, washboarding and over-zealous law enforcement.

It’s a relationship that goes back as long as there have been trucks and roads on which to drive them. And it’s one that Overdrive has followed closely for four decades, starting with a “Bad Roads” list in its inaugural September 1961 issue. Coverage of our nation’s highways continues today with the Worst Roads survey, an annual report widely publicized in print and broadcast media around the nation. In it, readers identify the bad, the good and the downright undriveable segments of our nation’s more than 45,000 miles of interstate.

From the beginning, reader involvement was key to Overdrive‘s road coverage. The September 1961 issue included a form truckers could use to nominate “roads, cities and areas to avoid.” The “Bad Roads” list advised truckers to “not even think about” driving through Texarkana, Ark. “You are liable to be picked up for breathing too hard, and the cops can and will hold and question you for hours,” one reader commented. “You can’t do anything about it: They have nothing better to do since they lost the instruction book on how to build streets.”

The next month, Overdrive editors berated Newark, N.J., for its poorly marked truck routes. “When, oh when, will towns like this put up adequate signs for truckers?” they asked.

Unsafe highways also drew criticism. In February 1977, for example, an article titled “Pennsylvania’s Route 22: A Death Trap!” detailed the dangers of a road commonly called “the coffin trail.”

Unsafe highways also drew criticism. In February 1977, for example, an article titled “Pennsylvania’s Route 22: A Death Trap!” detailed the dangers of a road commonly called “the coffin trail.” The article even questioned whether the Keystone State deliberately failed to improve Route 22 to encourage revenue-generating tollway traffic.

In 1991, Overdrive took its criticism of our nation’s roads beyond the pages of the magazine. That year, Congress was working on renewing the Highway Trust Fund. During the ensuing debate, Overdrive editors decided to identify highways in America that truly needed federal funds to make badly needed improvements and repairs.

“If anybody knew roads, we reasoned,” wrote former Editor G.C. Skipper, “it was the men and women who drove trucks every day coast-to-coast. So, we asked our readers to tell us which roads needed work.”

And they did: 2,500 truckers listed their five top choices for the worst roads on mail-in cards in the March 1991 issue. In return, Overdrive entered the states with the worst roads into the Congressional Record on Oct. 22, 1991. Topping the list was Pennsylvania – “by a country mile” – over second-place New York. New York’s Cross Bronx Expressway took home honors as the worst stretch of road in the nation. Overdrive‘s Worst Roads opinion poll was born.

Pennsylvania took home the prize for overall worst roads in the nation for eight consecutive years.

Later years saw Pennsylvania’s roads continuing to garner criticism. After its win in Overdrive‘s inaugural 1991 opinion poll, Pennsylvania took home the prize for overall worst roads in the nation for eight consecutive years. Such coverage focused national attention on the condition of Pennsylvania’s roads. The results of the Worst Roads poll have appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, network radio and in national newspapers, among them The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times.

Pennsylvania did not appreciate the attention. State authorities called Overdrive‘s opinion poll a publicity stunt and criticized it as unscientific. So in 1995, Overdrive contacted the research firm of Martin Labbe Associates, which sent 4,000 questionnaires to truckers nationwide and received a 20 percent response rate. The result? Pennsylvania won again. In his column in the November 1995 issue, then-editor Skipper quipped: “Preachers say, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ We’d like to add, ‘Amen brother, and it runs through Pennsylvania.’”

It wasn’t until 1999 that the Keystone State finally handed over its crown. Readers named Arkansas the state with the worst roads in the nation; two years earlier Arkansas I-40 took top honors for the worst stretch of road. In 2000, Arkansas held on to its trophy, taking first place both for overall worst roads and worst stretch of road. After his maiden voyage on Arkansas I-40, Neal Holsomback of Sugar Valley, Ga., told Overdrive, “All of the bolts came out of my lights, and my lights fell off. We needed to take a parts inventory when we got home.”

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