Meet US 40, the most dangerous highway in Indiana.
Waiiiiit…. it looks pretty harmless, actually. Like a pleasant Sunday-afternoon drive.
But there was a time when it had the most traffic fatalities per mile in the state. That time was 1967. Here’s proof from an Indianapolis newspaper, probably The Indianapolis News.
It’s hard to imagine now that US 40 was ever busy enough to be that dangerous. Today, when it’s busy along its original path it’s only because of local traffic in the cities. My church, for example, is steps off old US 40 on Indianapolis’s Near Westside, and at 5 pm on a weekday it’s challenging to turn left onto our street from this road.
But I-70 hadn’t opened yet when this article was written. Years ago I was interviewed for an article in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star about US 40’s importance in that city. The reporter spoke to people who owned businesses along US 40, and one of them recounted that the day I-70 opened, traffic immediately slowed to a trickle as if “someone had closed a faucet.”
All of that traffic has been on I-70 ever since. And the traffic has done nothing but get heavier year over year. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’ve driven the US 40/I-70 corridor a lot over the last 30 years.
It’s probably no surprise that I prefer driving US 40. I take I-70 only when time is of the essence — its 70 mph speed limit gets me there a lot faster than US 40’s 55 mph limit. But US 40 is so much more pleasant to drive. I always arrive far less stressed when I take US 40.
I’ve been in correspondence with Roger Green, who grew up on US 40 in Harmony, a tiny town near Brazil in western Indiana. He’s embarking on his own US 40/National Road exploratory journey and is learning as much as he can about the road. His Google searches led him here. Roger shared the newspaper clipping above with me, as well as clear memories of accidents in front of his house in those days:
Yes, US 40 with all its glory had a sad side with many accidents. We were so glad when I-70 opened to relieve the traffic as it was getting difficult for us to pull out of our driveway. We had so many accidents near our house that our response became routine. We would be watching TV and hear screeching tires and then the crash. Mother would go directly to the phone and call the sheriff and dad would run out the front door to see what he could do to help the injured. Part of the problem was a speed transition which started in front of our house with 65 MPH dropping to 45 MPH if coming from the east. Many people just didn’t slow down. Added to that were all of the cross roads and private driveways adjoining the road and you had the recipe.
I stopped in Harmony on my last tour of this road, which was in 2009. Hard to believe it was that long ago now. I am overdue for another tour. Much is sure to have changed.
US 40 boasts many tiny towns across western Indiana, but few of them have as much going on as Harmony. There’s still a “there” there.
Harmony’s side streets are narrow and its buildings often have shallow setbacks from the highway. It looks like it might still be challenging sometimes to turn safely onto US 40. Indeed, on the day I visited this corner street sign had met its fate under a car’s wheels.
So a little danger still lurks on US 40.