Mini Object Lesson: The Steel Road Plate, Accidental Traffic Calmer

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Google Street View, 51st/9th in Manhattan

Infrastructure in America is decaying. Normally when we lament this fact, we cite big targets, such as bridges, dams, water systems, and so forth. And not without reason: High-profile disasters, like the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and the lead leeching into the water supply in Flint, Michigan, show how grave the impact of this decline can be.

But other, more mundane infrastructural nuisances plague our cities far more regularly. Among them: the increasingly ubiquitous steel road plate. These rectangular sheets range in size from about five feet to as much as twenty feet in each dimension. Even the smaller ones can weigh well over a ton.

In many cases, steel road plates are installed to cover potholes that have not yet been repaired by a city or regional authority. Thanks to reductions in tax receipts leading to political turmoil and subsequent changes to maintenance schedules, municipalities take much longer than they once did to repair ordinary road wear and damage. Many cities have massive backlogs to work through before getting to the one that’s been afflicting your commute.

But not all of these plates are installed by government authorities. Just as often, utility companies are allowed, with proper permits, to dig into roadways to access pipes and cables. Until the road gets repaired, these companies often slap down metal plates over their incisions.

Whether they cover weather damage or purposeful cuts made to access still other forms of infrastructure, drivers mostly notice road plates when they drive over them. Ka-thunk. The noise can be distressing, but the plates can also pose a hazard, especially to low-profile tires that could puncture or blow when striking the plates—particularly at edges and corners, and particularly when driving over them at high speed.

Drivers (and their insurance companies) can file claims against state or local authorities for damage to tires and rims, but the rate of success is often fairly low—just as it is when filing claims for damage from the potholes that the steel plates might cover up.

Like potholes, steel plates can become a semi-permanent feature of roads. A municipality might take a long time to fix the underlying damage, and in the case of a utility service, the plate might get lost in the shuffle of construction and remediation. But unlike potholes, which tend to disappear into the asphalt, steel plates stand out against the surrounding pavement.

Given their obviousness and potential danger (real or perceived), steel plates play a curious, secondary role on American roads today: calming traffic. As roads become more congested and as drivers traverse them at higher speeds while increasingly distracted by smartphones, steel plates have become an accidental, ad-hoc speed limiting service on our roadways.

It’s hardly systemic or strategic solution, and it’s certainly not an attractive one. But as long as we have to put up with steel road plates, we might as well appreciate the small role they can play in encouraging us to use our cars less hastily—and maybe even just less, overall.

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