Road trips

The most dangerous highway in Indiana

Meet US 40, the most dangerous highway in Indiana.

US 40 in Putnam County, 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.

us40dangerous

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.

Harmony, IN

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, IN

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.

Harmony, IN

So a little danger still lurks on US 40.

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25 thoughts on “The most dangerous highway in Indiana

  1. Jason Shafer says:

    Your description of US 40 could also be used two states west of you. From your description and pictures, it’s sadly easy to see why this section was the worst for fatalities in Indiana. It’s a distinction nobody wants.

    I’m not sure I can remember the last time I’ve seen a four-lane road with nonexistent shoulders and the access you describe, combined the speed limit reduction, was a pretty bad combination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This road was a pretty big deal when it opened, in sections, through the 1930s and early 1940s. This post shows a graphic showing when each section was built:

      https://blog.jimgrey.net/2014/03/24/a-survey-of-all-the-old-national-road-and-us-40-alignments-in-indiana/

      US 40 had been a typical narrow two-lane highway before that, but as part of a larger national initiative for a network of multi-lane roads US 40 got this treatment mighty early. I have to assume a lot of things: (1) speed limits were slower then, (2) there was a lot less traffic then, and (3) we were still figuring out how to design a good multi-lane highway.

      I’m sure I-70 was “in the works” for many, many years before ground was broken. I’m sure that there was a strong desire not to improve US 40 further because officials knew that I-70 would take all that traffic and be much safer.

      I have some memories of a 4-lane Route 66 segment in MO, by the way, with light or nonexistent shoulders!!

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  2. Dan Cluley says:

    I can’t remember if I’ve shared this, but seems like something you might be interested in.

    There is a group that does an annual tour of Old US 27 from Northern Indiana all the way up the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, mostly in vintage cars.

    http://www.old27tour.com/

    My Dad grew up near a town along 27, long before the interstate was built. He said on holiday weekends there was enough traffic headed up north, that you simply didn’t go visit people who lived across the highway.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On our last return trip from St. Louis, my Mrs (who doesn’t really like busy interstate highways) finally convinced me to take 40 on the Terre Haute to Indy stretch. I was amazed at how pleasant it was to drive.

    Just like I have become a fan of US 52 over I65 on my trips to Lafayette, I could see 40 becoming the preferred route to Terre Haute.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 40 is *fabulous* across western Indiana until you get to Plainfield. It’s the only fly in the ointment.

      40 is equally nice across eastern Indiana, for those times you need to go to Ohio.

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  4. Andy Umbo says:

    “Ditto” for old highway 57 in Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee, tons of access with farm driveways exiting right into 65 mile an hour traffic. This was eventually relieved by Interstate 43. 57 was the killer highway because in many places, it was actually a three-laner; you were supposed to move into the middle to make cross highway turns. You can imagine this mad design ended up with drunken head-ons where both cars were doing 65, or one was and hit a idling car!

    Keep the local history coming! I love this stuff!

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    • Do you remember the fearmongering “drive carefully” movies they used to show in high school, the ones where people pull off those farm roads onto those simple old highways and get nearly killed?

      The Interstates really did make travel safer.

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      • Andy Umbo says:

        Yeah. I loved those films, especially the music!

        Old 57 had another problem too: back pre-70’s, the drinking age was set by county in Wisconsin! There were drunk kids from Milwaukee, where the age was 21, driving back from the counties north of them, where the drinking age was 18, at 2 in the morning, down these highways. Lots of deaths, until they made everything 18 in the 70’s!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ward Fogelsanger says:

    Growing up in Casey,IL part of the time I lived on E Main, ( old National road) and part on “new 40” . I remember many crashes and have known some of the people killed on 40. Just before I graduated from high school I 70 was complete from Marshall, IL to Baltimore and from Montrose, IL to Denver…at that time accidents on that last remaining stretch of two lane were worse then ever…people forgot they weren’t on the Interstate..

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  6. DougD says:

    To me it looks like a twinned version of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Very pretty, but in Ontario we simply don’t have highways that look like this, everything’s been upgraded with shoulders, guard rails etc. That being said we do have stretches of highway in big cities that don’t have shoulders at all, which maximizes traffic flow until someone breaks down..

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    • It’s been 30 years since I drove in Ontario. I drove whatever the road is from Windsor to Toronto, and this giant nine-billion-lane highway around Toronto, and a highway from there to Niagara Falls. My memory of the first and last of those roads was that while they were four lanes divided, they were narrower than the US standard.

      The highway around Toronto was like nothing else I’d seen before or have seen since, however.

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      • DougD says:

        You should come back, the 401 is now 18 lanes at it’s widest point near Toronto Pearson Airport. As I recall they did a lot of work to improve the 401 between Windsor and Toronto during my student days of pounding back and forth, particularly the sloped gravel shoulders.

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  7. I do think that a lot of people who get romantic about the old two lane highways never drove on them much before the interstates. Imagine having all the interstate traffic moved to those roads. I remember traveling on many of these roads as a child and it wasn’t that much fun. Especially when you were stuck behind a slow-moving car with no way to pass. A lot of people got killed trying to pass when there wasn’t enough space. I do like traveling the old roads today because for the most part they are more scenic and the traffic is light.

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    • I know I’ve felt that romance.

      The great thing about the Interstates is that they leave the old two-lane highways open for low-stress driving for the rest of us.

      I do wonder, however, how long INDOT is going to want to pay to maintain four-lane 40 across Indiana. Seems silly when 70 is so close by. I can see them doing to 40 what IL did to 66 — close down two of the lanes and revert it to a two-lane road.

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  8. Michael McNeill says:

    When in Ireland if you and Margaret drove from Letterkenny to Derry then you’ve been on the Donegal equivalent of US40 back in the day. You might recall, 2 wide lanes, 2 narrow hard shoulders, big open road. It’s a death trap – people drive too fast, overtake both ways, forget about tractors&local traffic.

    But…if ever I’m in S Indiana US40 looks like a great route to take – far nicer than an I-anything route!

    Great post Jim as usual.

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    • I remember that road.

      We had been warned that Irish roads were primitive compared to US roads. I didn’t find that to be quite true, at least on the highways. What I found was that except for the motorways, many of the highways were simply narrow and lacked shoulders, and weren’t as well signed as we are used to in the States. Curves especially are not always announced in advance. But the roads themselves were always in good condition and well maintained. The road system worked great for us.

      If you’re ever in central Indiana look me up and I’ll show you the sights!

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  9. Frank Kalivoda says:

    Reminded me of passing semis at night on the old 2 lane highways – flash your highs and he’d blink his lights if the road ahead was clear. Knights of the road!

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    • I remember turning off my headlights momentarily to tell a passing semi he was past me and could merge back in. But cars today all have automatic headlights and we can’t do that anymore!

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  10. Hi, Jim!

    You may recall that I drove 40 between Rose and Indy fairly regularly in “The Bat” (which I *swear* I’m going to get running again this spring… no, really!). That was a nice road, and I enjoyed it.

    But it seems that the old statistics are flawed in that they don’t account for the quantity of traffic on the road. Aren’t fatalities/accidents reported these days in incidents per vehicle*mile? I wonder if this road truly was the deadliest.

    (Semis still appreciate it if you blink your brights to let them know they’re clear. Give it a try sometime.)

    Like

    • I treasure my one ride in The Bat! It may have been the slowest trip up Wabash Avenue I ever took, but it served to prolong the pleasure.

      I did think that miles per fatality was a weird measure. But it sure made blog post fodder!

      And I wondered if flashing the brights replaced turning the lights off. Guess I’ve been too timid to try.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My family lives in TH and one town over from Harmony in Reelsville. I’ve lived in central IL for 22 years now. One of my favorite things about driving 40 from TH to Reelsville is admiring all the sheds and small buildings made from what my dad calls architectural tile, the mottled orange & yellow clay tiles. They are specific to that part of Indiana (aptly named Clay Co area). They are slowly disappearing and I’ve thought of making a photography trip around there, but my sons are young and my free time is limited.

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    • I don’t think I’ve noticed the “architectural tile” buildings! I’ll have to look next time I’m over there.

      Yeah, I’m at the other end of parenthood. Our youngest is 16. Time does free up here.

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