We recently heard about a harrowing drive along the Chilcotin Highway to a remote, world-class salmon fishing destination in British Columbia. This highway, which features a narrow road with multiple hair-pin turns alongside a mountain edge is not for the faint of heart, as Wikipedia explains further:
“The road is winding, in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and in many places bordered on one side by cliffs and on the other side by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) unprotected by guardrails. Tourists who have driven to Bella Coola from Williams Lake have been known to refuse to drive back and have had to be taken out by boat or float plane.”
While it seems, for people into fishing at least, that the rewards at the end of the road to Bella Coola are worth the risks, hearing of the adventure not only made us crave wild salmon for dinner, it also reminded us of a 99% Invisible podcast that introduced us to concept of “breakaway” design in highway infrastructure.
It turns out that while things like guardrails are full-purpose safety features (especially on mountain roads), most objects surrounding our roadways are actually quite hazardous. For instance, driving straight into something even as innocuous as a stop sign post can cause significant harm to the vehicle and its passengers. As a result, such objects are actually engineered (and mandated) to “breakaway” when struck by a vehicle. Highway Safety Corp explains further:
“Rigid objects close to a roadway can become deadly hazards when struck by a vehicle that strays off the pavement. Supports for road signs, frequently placed close to the roadway, are hazards if they are not designed, manufactured, and constructed to break away upon impact. Even relatively small and innocent looking road sign supports can be deadly if they are not designed to break away.”
Most of the time, road infrastructure is required to perform its duties (i.e., stand-up straight and support that sign, darn it!) regardless of weather conditions (i.e., we can’t have all our stop signs blow away in every Nor’easter). However, in times of acute crisis (i.e, being hit by a car) signs must not only maintain some rigidity in order to slow the velocity of the impacting vehicle, they must be designed to break perfectly in order to minimize damage to the vehicle and its passengers. 99% Invisible explains in more depth how engineers have designed these posts to break properly:
“Instead of a single post ris[ing] continuously up out of the ground, a slip base approach joins two separate posts via connector plates. This joint allows the pair to break apart at an intended juncture… Breakaway points are generally located close to ground level. When the upper post is impacted, the plates slip and bolts sever (or pop out). This allows the above-ground piece [to] get knocked out of the way while the vehicle passes over its underground counterpart.”
While this design not only significantly reduces vehicle damage and human injury from crashes, it also allows for easier repairs since the base post generally remains undamaged and a new upper post can be installed fairly easily. That said, these systems are not perfect. Installation requires an assumption of what direction the impact will come from, and if hit from an unexpected angle, the post may not break as intended. Furthermore, the supportive bolts require proper torquing upon installation: too loose, and posts may fail from inclement weather; too tight, and posts may not break properly upon impact.
Lest our readers think we are becoming road safety fanatics, our reading this week actually got us to thinking about how breakaway systems may have some relevance to our portfolio companies. While it’s not perfect, we can with some level of confidence foresee areas where “crashes” may happen in our portfolio and build governance processes and capital structures to allow for those who veer off track to walk away with minimal bruising. As for the road to Bella Coola, it may be worth it for a great fishing vacation, but at work, we will continue to shy away from the investment equivalent of high risk mountain passes.