ROADWAY RESURFACING: OIL AND LOOSE GRAVEL
by Bob Soetebier
St. Louis Metro Area
Bicycling Advocacy Coordinator
Imagine that ideal day forecast with little or no wind and clear
skies, along with perfect temperature and humidity. You're looking
forward to just such a day to leisurely stretch your legs by riding
one of your favorite smooth-surfaced roads. Nothing could possibly
ruin a day and ride like this... Right? Welllll...
The Bad News: More and more, many municipal, county and state
street and highway departments are utilizing an inferior roadway
resurfacing method known as "chip and seal", or in the layman's term:
Oil and Loose Gravel!
What this term refers to is the initial spraying of a layer of
oil with a fairly thick (usually one- to 3- inches) layer of loose
gravel atop the oil. This is left "as is" upon the roadway for a
period usually ranging from a couple of weeks to a month. During this
time auto traffic is "allowed" to "wear in" the gravel into the oil.
Later a roadway crew then attempts to mechanically "sweep up" the
"excess" loose gravel that is left over.
Unfortunately, rarely does
this attempt at "sweeping up" the excess gravel fully succeed. Quite
frequently there still is a considerable amount of excess gravel left
over along the roadway. The gravel that IS left over tends to remain
in precisely the areas that most bicyclists ride: Along the right
side of the traffic lane; not to mention in the middle of the lane.
This excess gravel is also an extreme hazard on downhills and curves!
This is in addition to the loose gravel that builds up at
intersections and driveways, thus making regular and emergency stops
Surface cracks and holes tend to open back up within a relatively
short period of time as a result of poor adhesion to their edges with
this type of resurfacing. Adding insult to injury (pardon the pun!),
the excess loose gravel is usually the exact same color of the rest of
the roadway, thus rendering it almost impossible to tell what is
"solid" surface, AND what is NOT. The final result is a MUCH rougher
surface, requiring increased effort and slower speeds, along with
bumpier riding for bicyclists... not to mention increased tire wear.
When you throw in frequently shaded roadway areas, this excess loose
gravel (which can persist for up to a year or more) poses an extremely
dangerous condition to bicyclists who are, by law, legitimate roadway
More Bad News: At last check, the St. Louis County Dept. of
Highways and Traffic plans were to employ this "oil and loose gravel"
method of roadway resurfacing on one-third of its roadways annually,
with the goal of having treated all county-maintained roads in this
manner within a 5-year period! Additionally, many municipalities
within the St. Louis Metro Area (along with the Missouri and Illinois
State Highway Depts.) are rationalizing the use of this vastly
inferior roadway resurfacing method due to its lower "initial" cost.
Some Good News: Last year, as a former member of the St. Louis
County Board of Highways and Traffic, I mailed off a few dozen letters
to the Directors of both the Missouri and St. Louis County Highway
Depts., and to the mayors of many of the major Metro Area
municipalities protesting the use of "oil and loose gravel" on our
roadways. In these letters I highlighted the hazards (that I
mentioned above) to bicyclists, along with the attendant potential
financial liabilities to the taxpayers (which these agencies neglect
to factor in as part of their "cost" rationalization!) I concluded my
comments to them by stressing their legal obligation to maintain the
streets and roads in a such a manner as to be safe for ALL
legitimate roadway users (which, off course, includes bicyclists!)
More Semi-Good News: Contrary to general presupposition, just
because temporary warning signs (which typically read: "CAUTION!
Loose Stone! Travel At Own Risk!") may have been placed in the area
resurfaced in this manner, this does NOT relieve the responsible
agency from liability over an extended period (such as after the
typically inadequate attempt to "sweep up" the excess loose gravel.)
This is particularly true if they have already been notified that a
specific hazard at a specific location exists.
This is where YOU come in! --- I would like to strongly urge each
and every one of you to (without delay) send certified letters
("Return Receipt Requested": This is absolutely necessary as legal
evidence that they did receive your letter!) to your mayors, county
council person, and the heads of the appropriate street and/or highway
departments, and possibly your state representatives, protesting the
use of "chip and seal"/oil and loose gravel as a roadway resurfacing
method. In these letters be sure to note the hazards posed to you and
other bicyclists, AND the financial liabilities to the taxpayers
should you or other bicyclists be injured due to the existence of such
hazards. It is also VERY important to specifically cite exact roadway
locations that you are personally aware of, AND that their receipt of
your letter will serve as legal notification to these specific areas
In these same letters, it is imperative that you ask them to
cease and desist in using such inferior roadway resurfacing methods
which pose such a significant safety hazard to you as a bicyclist and
legitimate roadway user. At the same time, be sure to ask them to
retain the better quality (and less expensive in the long run
considering the financial liability factor), and smoother-surfaced,
standard overlay method of roadway resurfacing.
Until next time... See you ON the road!