I-40 Intersection Continues To Vex

Tonight a fiery five-vehicle accident on Interstate 40 has had traffic at a crawl for over 3 hours now. According to reports, an eastbound car swerved after missing the Wade Avenue Exit on Interstate 40. After cutting across multiple lanes, the car collided with an 18-wheeler, two other cars, and a garbage truck. The garbage truck overturned (spilling garbage all over the road) and burst into flames.

map it

I40swerve1 It’s a wonder that this kind of accident doesn’t happen more frequently. It seems that at least once every three times I approach the intersection I see a vehicle swerve at the last moment possible. I was so curious about the frequency of this move that I sat on the right shoulder of the road and observed several dangerous swerving instances.

I40swerve2 I sat for 6:00 minutes and counted 12 vehicles swerving at the last moment. Think about that: once every thirty seconds, someone is performing an incredibly dangerous maneuver at 70-80mph. Many were cars, but even more disturbing was the number of trucks swerving.

The question is why: why is this intersection so vexing to people? NCDOT has re-signed the intersection a few times since widening was completed nearly 20 years ago. Still, though, there is something horribly wrong with the design and or signage that is causing some extremely risky behavior.

I40Sign1 Sign 1: Moving eastbound, we pass the crest of Harrison Avenue hill, and proceed downhill, seeing well in advance that an intersection is ahead. The first sign shows a four-laned road splitting to two-and-two. The pair to the left is labeled “40, Raleigh, Wilmington” while the right pair is labeled “440, Wade Ave”.

While the sign is accurate, and stays true to the signage rules of labeling routes to downtowns, the sign is confusing. Wade Avenue is part of “Raleigh”. Additionally, to a motorist moving 70-80mph, “40” and “440” are extremely similar. Let’s do a simple exercise. Tell a friend that you are going to say five numbers to them. Say this tongue-twister out loud to them:”40-440-440-40-440″. Then ask which one was in the middle. Ask them which was said more times. Now say this “40-840-840-40-840”. Ask the same questions and see how much more accurate the response is.

I40Sign2 Sign 2: This sign was placed after years of confusion. It tells motorists that “Downtown Raleigh” is straight, and North Raleigh is to the right. Well, that’s not that accurate, either. What about West and East Raleigh? How do we get there? Wade Avenue one of West Raleigh’s signature roadways, not one of North Raleigh’s.

I40Sign3 Sign 3: This is the original signage. It states the information from Sign 1. Raleigh, Wilmington, and “40” are in the left two lanes. The right two lanes are “Wade Ave” and “440”. An additional clue is given with this sign, though. It informs that the right lanes are exiting the highway.

I40Sign4 Sign 4: This little bitty sign tells sports fans and concert-goers that they need to take Exit 289. I like this one, though it should be a brown sign, like those for Walnut Creek Amphitheatre.

I40Sign5 Sign 5: A repeat of sign 3. At this point some driver around you is in a sheer state of panic. 40-440-440-40-440…Which one!??

To me the main problem lies in calling Raleigh’s beltline “440”. Once again it stays true to the Federal Highway Administration’s rules for naming interstates. However it begs the question: Why do we have these rules? Isn’t it for clarity? Why do we need clarity? ahhh yes, to prevent accidents, of course.

There are a few inexpensive signage improvements that should be tried. The bracket for Sign 4 should also have a large yellow “RIGHT LANES EXIT” sign, with two arrows pointing to the lanes.

Also, Sign 2 should not show a simple “Y”. Rather, it show the true shape of the intersection. The sign should let people know that the left two lanes actually turn to the south while the right two lanes bypass the intersection and ultimately end up straight ahead. Anyone with a decent inner compass is going to assume that the right two lanes veer off and head south, while the left two continue east. This sign should also carry the “40” badge next to “Downtown Raleigh”, but should not carry a “440” badge. Interstate 40 is the dominant highway, and some distinction needs to be drawn between the two roads to passing motorists. Finally, the right half of the sign should read “West and North Raleigh”.

I40swerve3 Perhaps those two improvements would help. However the best solution is to rename 440 to something else. 240, 640, 840 are all taken, supposedly. What do they do in states with more than 4 loop highways? Duplicates should be allowed. I prefer duplicates within a state to…say…flaming garbage.

Let’s also get away from calling it “The Beltline”, which incorrectly implies a closed loop. (A more correct name would be the Midtown Arc, but nobody is going to seriously accept that!)

The high level of danger and confusion in such an intense situation is going to lead to far more accidents. The DOT and the FHA need to spend more time fixing this problem and less time trying to explain how wonderful their pointless nomenclature is.


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  • eg Said:

    I drive this way almost every weekday and one thing I’ve noticed is drivers yakking or texting on their phones & not paying attention until they’re in too deep. Wouldn’t be surprised if the cellphone records of the Isuzu were seen that the driver was distracted and not paying attention to where they were.

    FWIW, was the driver from out of town or a local?


  • Magnus Said:

    I can’t even begin to imagine what a burning garbage truck must smell like.

    Well, then again, I *have* been to New Jersey.

  • Chris Said:

    The merging traffic off Harrison Avenue doesn’t help much either.

    Those coming from Harrison must get over 2 lanes to continue on 40, while everyone else is jostling around figuring out which lane to be in.

    In a perfect world with unlimited transportation funds, the Harrison Ave merge would be split with one lane dedicated to those going onto Wade Ave. and a new flyover created so that those coming from Harrison to 40 fly over Eastbound lanes and get their own dedicated lane at the far left that continues onto 40.

    Splitting out that traffic will help tremendously, but Dana, as you pointed out, the signage needs to be improved first.

  • Matt W Said:

    My problem with this intersection, as someone who recently moved here and had to learn this confusing piece of garbage, is that the right exit takes you “left”. If you are looking at a map (or a GPS, like many drivers do now), it would seem that staying left on 40 would take you on the highway that goes left and takes you up and around. That’s the part I always had trouble with anyway.

  • VaNC Said:

    I think Matt has hit on the main point. Even if you read the signs, it just doesn’t “feel” right,

  • Kevin G Said:

    I know when I drove through the 40/Wade interchange every day I was one of the last second swervers often. I’m not particularly proud of it, and I tried not to be so much a swerve as a quick merge. Primarily it was because the lane that I wanted to be in wasn’t traveling as fast as the other lane. I’m pretty sure I’ve had the discussion with others, too, who did the last minute merge for the same reasons.

  • RaleighRob Said:

    Chris’s point about Harrison is an important one. That’s always my trouble with trying to exit on Wade…fighting with Harrison folks for space in the lane.

    And MattW’s point about the conflict of maps vs the ground has merit.

    I think the only easy way would be to put another sign, billboard-sized….far far ahead. Say, right after Aviation. Put it really really big with bright, screaming flashing multicolor LED lights all over it: “I-40 Traffic Stay in Left Lanes! Harrison and Wade Ave Traffic move to the Right!!” Make it to where you’d have to be blind to not notice it.

  • Ken Metzger Said:

    I really think it comes down to people just not paying attention. The signs does say where each lane is going and the signs are HUGE.
    There could be a little more information on the signs, like the “North” and “Downtown” distinction. The “North” one is rarely accurate, because that sign existed before 540, and people going to North Raleigh should have already exited 40. Not to mention that I find Wade to be the quicker route to Downtown.
    So I think the signs could use a little updating, but I don’t think changing the signs would create many more drivers aware of what they are doing. Regular commuters and drivers of 40 probably make up a majority of late lane shifters.

  • Tom Woolf Said:

    The highway administration (city? county? state? federal? probably a combination of two or more of them) will be changing the name of the 440 Beltline. In fact, the Beltline will no longer exist as an official name of the road(s).

    I-40 will only have the name of I-40, not I-40/I-440 south of the city. There will be no combination road name. What is now the Beltline that is independent of I-40 (what’s referred to as the “Midtown Arch” in the article) will still be called I-440, but I-440 will no longer be a complete loop.

    I’m not sure when this will take place, but it was reported in the News & Observer a couple of months ago.

  • Daria Said:

    Regardless of the signage, which probably could be improved, the bottom line is some jerk who missed his exit decided to swerve into traffic. Caused a huge accident and now innocent people are hurt. All because he or she couldn’t just continue on and turn around later.

    Some drivers are too impatient and reckless because they are trying to save a few precious minutes, but they don’t get where they are going if they wind up in a hospital.

    You can change the signage all you want, but you can’t fix stupid.

  • Rob E. Said:

    I think I’ve been here long enough to be “local” — 8 years, and half of that living one exit off that intersection, I still find it a little confusing when giving directions. Taking the south fork to go north still doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, and the signs are not all that helpful. My solution has been to tell people exactly what signs they need to follow, even though what the signs say and where the roads seem to go don’t always mesh with their, or my, idea of what they should say and where they should go. Also following the Wade exit looks and feels as if you’re leaving the freeway behind until you turn on to 440. It seems like there should be a more seamless transition from 40 to 440.

    As Tom said, the “Beltline” issue is also a little confusing. In other cities I’ve visited and lived in, the main interstate runs right through town and is usually a two digit number. The beltline is a three digit number, based on the interstate number, that circles the town. In Raleigh there is no interstate that actually goes down town, in spite of signs that might indicate otherwise, and the “beltline” is used synonymously with 440, even though the southern border is actually 40. I think that oddity of downtown Raleigh’s relationship to 40, 440, and the beltline creates confusion in general for visitors and new transplants. That particular intersection is just one of the most obnoxious examples.

  • Dana Said:

    I forgot to add this to the story. Certainly, with 4 lanes dividing into 2-and-2, the traffic doesn’t split evenly. Almost all of the late swervers are those going from Wade Ave. Exit lanes into I-40 lanes. These late swervers in moderate to heavy traffic cause a brake-tap event. Brake tap events usually cause a ripple effect of traffic slowing 2-5 mph each tap. So, I whole-heartedly believe that late-swerving in the 4 o’clock hour is the seed to I-40 afternoon problems.

    There are some good comments above. I want to address two of them:
    * Yes, I-440 is getting new directional naming, but the section between Jones Franklin around northward and eastward to Poole Road, etc will still be “I-440”. The southern portion of the Beltline (that shares the name with I-40) is not referred to in the signage approaching the Wade Ave exit. Therefor the signage approaching Wade Ave will not change with I-440’s changes. (see an earlier post – search for 440)

    * Yes, yesterday’s accident was caused by “some asshole” (as I’ve heard several times at work today). I wonder if the guy was being selfish, or would he have been in the right place if signage were clear.

    * DOT would probably argue that something like 120,000 cars pass that point per day and the accident rate is low. However as I mentioned in my first point of this comment, I bet that many of I-40’s accidents were seeded in problems cascading backward from late-swervers.

    * Bottom line – don’t late swerve. If you are doing it intentionally, I want to ask why you feel like you deserve to get in front of people who were out on the road before you. I see this a lot on I-440 outer between Lake Boone and Wade in the morning. People don’t feel like getting in line for the Wade Ave exit so they break in line closer to the actual exit. Selfish and dangerous. That’s what that is.

  • Scott Said:

    After having worked in the park for 15 years now, I can say that Kevin G’s reason is the most prevalent. People can continue down 40 in the right two lanes much faster as the majority of cars must continue in the left two lanes. I see this every day which eventually causes problems in the middle right lane as a car can’t find a spot to ‘merge’ into the left lanes. I also agree that during rush hour, coming from Harrison to continue east on I-40 is a dangerous but necessary move for some.

    I for one thing the signage is abundantly clear from two miles away and don’t feel it has anything to do with the problem. And while some jackhole on a phone can cause problems on the road, it’s not specific to this intersection.

    This is one place I’d like to see law enforcement step in to regularly ticket the last second lane changers. It really is the seed to a lot of congestion in after work traffic.

  • Lisa Jeffries Said:

    A lot of the problem is not from signage at all and is with the attitudes and lack of safe driving practiced. Case in point, “I know when I drove through the 40/Wade interchange every day I was one of the last second swervers often. I’m not particularly proud of it, and I tried not to be so much a swerve as a quick merge. Primarily it was because the lane that I wanted to be in wasn’t traveling as fast as the other lane. I’m pretty sure I’ve had the discussion with others, too, who did the last minute merge for the same reasons.”.

    At least Kevin G. was honest about it.

  • Dana Said:

    I really appreciate people’s observations. I have luckily not had to live the I-40 experience, so I don’t have eyes on that situation.

    On the other hand, my experiences through that corridor were not during the veteran rush-hour traffic. My formal observation period was at 11:40am one weekday. Many of my passes through there are after 6pm when traffic isn’t so heavy that staying in the 2nd lane gains any advantage.

    What’s kind of strange is that to the east of that area, traffic on I-40 remains heavy, but constantly accelerating. By the time it gets to Cary Town Blvd it seems to be cruising well above 60mph in 5 o’clock traffic. Does anyone who travels that corridor during these periods have any thoughts?

    Nobody has any comments on that swerving 18-wheeler in the photo? :) The only reason I sat there for 6 minutes was because I couldn’t stay any longer. It felt incredibly dangerous sitting there.

  • Kevin Said:

    I agree with many, I don’t think all these swervers are by accident. They do it on purpose, every day.

    I am proud to be the guy behind them blasting his horn as loud as possible because they’re stopping in the right lane of 40 to get left. If you blow it, keep going, and take another exit. Lucky for them, I don’t need to take this route anymore.

    Anyhow, they should put up some of those yellow pole dividers, and prevent people from going through the solid white triangle portion of the split. Maybe a little further back.

  • Ron T Said:

    Ah the unfortunate pictured person who needs to trash (pun intended) New Jersey. Being proud of where I grew up – in close proximity to NYC and Philadelphia (not that the cultural hotbeds of Myrtle Beach and Norfolk that NC is between are second rate…more like third or fourth) rocked! And I would take most average ethnic restaurants in NJ over NC. And I do love living here, just have grown tired of the tired NJ references.

    As for this post – zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, sorry Dana, just what I thought when I first saw it.

  • Subway Scoundrel Said:

    I drive this road every night and the issue is people think they can jump lanes and drive on this road at 80 to 90 mph and then they realize I need to get over. The signs are clear and not “the feel” is not the OK. Only after you get through it does it feel a little differnet.

    Just a bunch of bozos talking on the phone or jumping 3 lanes without hitting the breaks and not paying attention.

  • Dennis Said:

    There is no excuse for swerving in front of one or more vehicles if you are about to miss your exit. Period. You drive until you can turn around and then make the exit. I have been driving for 32 years and never have I seen such horrible driving. You swerve in front of three lanes of traffic just because you think that “you” might miss the exit (not caring or thinking of the well being of drivers around you) and cause an accident, then you lose your license. That is why our society is approaching chaos, too many excuses for blatant crimes whether it’s careless and wreckless driving or murder. This fool was driving at an estimated speed of 90 miles per hour in a posted 55 mph zone. I have no sympathy for this driver who caused this accident.

  • Dana Said:

    The pendejo in this instance does not have a license and doesn’t speak English. Guess who will be paying for his medical and legal bills…

  • RaleighRob Said:

    Supposedly within the next two years, the stretch of I-40 from Wade to US 1 is going to finally get that much-needed third lane. (Well, that was before the budget and financial mess…may be longer.)
    Hopefully then with three lanes staying on I-40 instead of two, it’d be more clear to people. Maybe…I’m trying to be optimistic.

  • steelcity36 Said:

    Let’s address Dana’s last comments. The driver who caused this accident was unlicensed and possibly an illegal alien. This is not a discussion about immigration as a whole, but the danger of giving those who don’t have a command of the English language drivers licenses. It seems to me that in recent years the most horrific crashes have been caused by those who are either unlicensed, here illegally or both. I’m not saying send everybody back to where they came from, but I am saying that a better system has to be implemented. A start would be to hire more bi-lingual DMV examiners and require those who do not speak English as a primary language to take the Road Skills Test before receiving a NC Drivers License. Also, law enforcement needs verify insurance coverage at every traffic stop and throw people in jail and confiscate their vehicle if they are driving without insurance. Why NC doesn’t do this is beyond me.

  • Zach Said:

    Way to go Raleigh, I’ve always loved the Exit Right to go straight (Wade Ave.) and the Stay left to go Right (I-40) concept…. regardless of the signs put there, it will always be confusion because of this.

  • polthereal Said:

    Zach is right. It’ll always be confusing no matter the signage. But the signs could help.

    Things would be better if there were two simple signs repeated twice.

    One sign should point to the left and say:
    40 East to Wilmington | south Raleigh | Outer 440/US 1 South

    The other sign should point to the right and say:
    Wade Avenue to west and north Raleigh | Inner 440/US 1 North

    Repeat this twice with large overhead signs, yellow “exit only” under the Wade Ave sign. Leave minor signs on the right side where they belong (like “downtown” Raleigh).

    The difference this signage would make would be pointing out how to get onto the different parts of 440 (whatever they’re to be called). The current signs suggest you can take 440 in one direction but not in the other (i.e. south and east around Raleigh, which in fact 40 takes you to), and would go along way in helping people who are expecting a traditional loop.

    In addition, as pointed out, since there are different parts of Raleigh here, one “Raleigh” word is confusing. Say what parts of Raleigh are most immediately accessed, and leave the next major city (Wilmington) in its appropriate place. If Wilmington were listed first, people would know that that’s the main continuation of 40.

  • orulz Said:

    As Zach said, for out-of-towners, it’s counterintuitive to have to exit right to take the left fork and vice-versa. Before I moved to Raleigh, every time I drove through, it confused the crap out of me. But I do think this could be fixed with better signage.

    First of all, the signs that say “I-40 – Raleigh” should be ditched. By this point, everyone, even out of towners, should know that they’re in Raleigh. Change them to “I-40:
    South Raleigh”
    “Wade Avenue to I-440: North Raleigh”

    Second of all, there should be clear signage, starting perhaps 2 or 3 miles ahead of time, saying that I-40 through traffic should use the left two lanes.

    Lastly, I agree about Harrison- there should be a separate ramp for Harrison drivers getting to I-40 east. But it wouldn’t have to be an expensive flyover at all. It could just be a simple, 1.5 mile long ramp:


  • Matt K. Said:

    I’m late to the discussion here, but a few comments I want to contribute – I’m one of the many others who finds the “stay left to go right” configuration confusing (I went the wrong way on a few occasions when I was new to the area). It’s probably worth a mention that once upon a time, 440 was indeed a closed loop before I-40 was extended east (or south, as it may be) to Wilmington – but that’s another topic altogether.

    I like polthereal’s idea of a yellow “exit only” warning bar for the Wade Ave. lanes. Not only is it eye-catching, but it also helps emphasize the difference between I-40 thru traffic and others exiting off to I-40. It also makes sense to me to list Wilmington on the signs as an I-40 destination, since it provides a better sense of direction. (Or I could be tongue-in-cheek and suggest that it should just say, “Beaches”!) I’ve never quite understood NCDOT’s fascination with listing two-pony towns on some signage when there are much larger destinations along the way.

    There are supposed to be added travel lanes coming to I-40 between Wade Avenue and US 1 in the next couple of years, which should help alleviate congestion a little – hopefully reducing afternoon traffic backups coming from RTP. orulz’s suggestion for extending the Harrison Ave onramp to 40 eastbound seems like a great idea to me – it could be incorporated into the new project, I’d think it would not only reduce lane-changing and swerving, but make for much smoother traffic flow.

    That whole accident was just an unfortunate and awful thing, it and it seems to me that guilty driver should not have even been on the road. I’m not sure better signage would have prevented it.

    On the other hand, I’m glad we don’t have the signage problems that exist along I-85/40 in Greensboro. That whole area there seems to be the creme de la creme of NCDOT signage screwups.

  • JP Said:

    I believe that southeast of Raleigh where US 70 splits from 1-40 there are reminders painted on the 2 right-side roadway lanes that are exiting. I’ve always thought this secondary reminder would be a big help for the absent minded driver.

  • Lew Said:

    Dana – I see what you mean! In driving there over the weekend no less than 2 cars swerved to get onto Wade and that signage is very confusing. Fact is “Wade” directional goes to Raleigh and “Raleigh” goes more to Cary/Apex … just very poor and dangerous design flaw.

  • Lee L Said:

    I used to go to work that way every day and I live in Morrisville so I still hit that intersection plenty. Here are a few things I notice.

    One thing is that trucks are often in the right 2 lanes. You can pretty much count on the fact that if a large truck is in those lanes, they do not really want to be there and they will need to get over to the left. Some truck drivers, being human, like car drivers, are more attentive than others and do it sooner, but I have seen plenty that waited till the very last second.

    There is the issue with Harrison Ave people needing to get on over to the I-40 lanes. This is made worse IMO due to being a long uphill grade, which causes them to get up to speed more slowly if they do not make a concerted effort, which means they are not moving over until later.

    The signage could be better. Personally, I think it is adequate for most people, but if they just added the continuation of the arrow like someone else mentioned, showing that it crosses back over, it would help some that do not beleive or understand the signage.

    There are some late mergers who are trying to get around people who are going slow or are confused. Personally, from what I have seen, the late mergers are not the main problem as they typically know exactly what they are doing and check the space around them properly before making a move.

    Then, finally, you have people that are just not paying attention. They seem oblivious all the time. You see them at other intersections and on other roads, causing backups because they missed a turn (they stop or slow down rather than move to a safe place or parking lot to figure things out). You see them in the mall, stopping at the top of the escalatior to adjust something or talk about where they are going with the rest of their party while others have nowhere to go (rather than taking 10 steps away or off to teh side to do it). They are in the grocery store, with the cart on one side of the aisle and ethey are on the other, mindlessly looking for a certain can of beans, blocking everythign up.

    These people just don’t seem to understand instinctively that others are around them and they zone out. These people are the ones who give cell phones a bad name as they would be a menace without a phone, but give them one and they cause an accident. When they do realize where they are going, they tend to make sudden, unpredictable changes in what they are doing without regard for those around them because somehow, they just don;t realize what they are doing. Every day, how many people drive through that intersection that are new to the area and are doing it for the first time or even the 5 or 10th time and you can say are legitimately confused by signage? Even with lots of newcomers, it can’t be that many. IMO, It is repeat drivers that just don’t pay attention that cause these issues.

  • Frank White Said:

    Suggestions for signs:
    large arrows showing visually what the road does:
    right two lanes veering right and then straigtening out
    left two lanes veering straight and crossing over the right fork

    label them on the left as:
    Points South and East
    to downtown Raleigh via S. Saunders
    Cary, Apex via US 1 and 64
    to US 1 South, US 64
    Continue I-40 Eastbound

    label them on the right as:
    Points North
    RBC Arena
    downtown Raleigh via Wade Avenue
    North Raleigh
    West Raleigh

    Coming in from the West as a newcomer trying to get to Crossroads, I remember thinking at that intersection, “well I sure don’t want to go to downtown Raleigh, so this must be the wrong fork”

    one thing that always confused me about this sign was the US 1 North sign…take that part off because you can pick up US 1 North OR South at Crossroads. That always used to make me second guess my lane choice.

    Also, Signs that say Caution: Use Left two lanes to continue I-40 East

  • Matt K. Said:

    I hadn’t even given a thought to the truck traffic, but Lee L. makes an awesome point. Truck traffic on I-40 is restricted from the leftmost lane, and most normal truck traffic does tend to stay in the far right lanes – but almost all of those trucks have to fight the traffic to move to the left to continue east on I-40 – that can be problematic.

    I think the improved directional visualization that Frank mentions is a great idea too. I would tend to keep the verbage on the signs minimal, though – there can be such a thing as too much information, then the signage itself becomes a big distraction. I would think “Downtown, Wilmington, Cary” would suit the left lane traffic, while the other half could read “Wade Avenue, North Raleigh, RBC Center (or Sports Arenas)”. I still also like the idea of an yellow “exit only” warning bar for the right hand lanes as well.

  • Christine “Christine Rosboroug Said:

    My sister died at this intersection in 2005 supposedly because her tire blew out causing it to cross the median and hit a tractor-trailer. But could there have been an alternate reason? I think what you have written here is very persuasive.

  • Dana Said:

    So sorry to hear about your sister. The level of complacency about our highways is really disturbing.

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