Why is Route 66 Dangerous? Safety Concerns and Challenges

This iconic highway, once a primary artery in the U.S. Highway System, connects rich  American culture, landscapes, and history. Known affectionately as the “Main Street of America,” it offered an unparalleled pathway from Chicago to Los Angeles, weaving through small towns, bustling cities, and breathtaking natural landscapes.

Highlighting its role in the great migration west during the Dust Bowl, as well as its influence on popular culture through music, literature, and cinema, speaks of its integral place in the American spirit. We will explore the issues that currently affect this famous pathway.

Key Takeaway:

  • Route 66’s danger stems from its varying infrastructure and outdated design, including narrow lanes and insufficient safety features, coupled with remote stretches that lack services and pose risks of wildlife encounters.
  • Mixed traffic and extreme weather conditions contribute to the road’s hazardous nature for travelers.

History and Significance

It’s essential to initiate a discussion with an exploration of its historical and cultural relevance. As one of the inaugural highways in the U.S. Highway System, it has held a place of prominence in American history since its establishment in 1926. Stretching over 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, it has been celebrated in popular culture, inspiring songs, novels, and television shows.

This famous road symbolized freedom and adventure, playing a critical role in the westward migration during the 1930s and the development of the American West. Its path through eight states connected rural and urban communities alike, facilitating economic growth and cultural exchange.

According to a study conducted by The State University of New Jersey, Route 66 significantly boosts the economy, supporting 2,401 jobs, generating $90 million in income, $262 million in output, $127 million in GDP, and $37 million in tax revenues annually from a $132 million investment, highlighting its economic and cultural value.

The Dangers of Route 66

The dangers can be attributed to a combination of factors that span its lengthy trajectory, historical significance, and the varying conditions along its path. Here are the primary reasons:

Varying Infrastructure and Maintenance

Parts of the road suffer from neglect and inadequate maintenance. This includes issues like potholes, faded or absent markings, and outdated signage, which can confuse or mislead drivers. The infrastructure and maintenance of the road significantly contribute to its classification as a hazardous road, presenting a complex challenge for drivers navigating its length.

Because of the inconsistent maintenance and upgrades, it has resulted in a patchwork of road conditions that vary dramatically from one segment to another, affecting driver safety and vehicle performance.

In areas where attention and resources have been scarce, the road’s surface may be marred by potholes, cracks, and uneven pavement, which can lead to tire damage or loss of vehicle control, especially at higher speeds. Certain stretches of Route 66 retain their original narrow, two-lane configuration, lacking the shoulder lanes found on modern highways. This can be particularly perilous for drivers in the event of a breakdown or when needing to maneuver quickly to avoid hazards.

Interesting Fact: A couple renewing their vows found unexpected guests in the form of a local Route 66 motorcycle club, who provided a roaring escort to their roadside ceremony.

Design and Layout of Route 66

The design and layout significantly affect its safety, reflecting the historical period of its original construction in the 1920s. With a design intended for the vehicles and traffic levels of an earlier era, this famous road presents modern drivers with a variety of challenges. The road meanders through the diverse American landscape, from straight, expansive stretches in the Midwest to winding mountainous paths in the Southwest and dense urban sections.

These variations in design — including narrow lanes, tight curves, and a lack of modern safety features like median dividers — can catch today’s drivers off guard. The absence of dividers in many sections increases the risk of head-on collisions, while the tight curves and narrow lanes, designed long before the advent of today’s larger vehicles, heighten the potential for accidents, especially in areas where the road’s layout offers little room for error.

The transition from one type of surface to another, often without warning, poses additional risks. Drivers might find themselves suddenly moving from smooth asphalt to rougher concrete or gravel, potentially leading to a loss of vehicle control under less-than-ideal conditions.

Some sections still have at-grade railroad crossings without contemporary safety measures, presenting a significant danger to those unfamiliar with the surroundings. These design features, while emblematic of its rich history and cultural significance, underscore the need for careful, attentive driving and highlight the ongoing challenges in preserving its legacy while ensuring it remains safe for future generations to explore.

Fun Fact: Oklahoma has more drivable miles of Route 66 than any other state.

Remote and Unpopulated Stretches

The remote and unpopulated stretches offer travelers a sense of adventure and a glimpse into the untouched landscapes of America. These isolated sections also present considerable safety risks that are unique compared to the road’s more urban segments.

The road that traverses through deserts, mountains, and prairies can be as unforgiving as they are beautiful, with services such as gas stations, repair shops, and even cell phone coverage being sparse or nonexistent for miles. This isolation means that travelers who encounter mechanical issues or emergencies may find themselves stranded for hours before help arrives, potentially exposed to harsh weather conditions or other environmental hazards.

The lack of nearby communities contributes to a lower frequency of patrol by law enforcement and emergency services, extending response times for accidents or other crises. The solitude of these areas, while part of this pathway’s charm, can also lead to a sense of complacency or distraction among drivers, increasing the likelihood of accidents due to fatigue or reduced attentiveness.

Weather Conditions

The diverse weather conditions add another layer of complexity to its navigation, presenting challenges that vary greatly with the geography and seasons. Spanning from the Midwest to the West Coast, travelers can experience a wide range of weather phenomena, from intense heat and sun exposure in the desert stretches to heavy snowfall and ice in the higher elevations of the Southwest during winter months.

The summer months can be particularly treacherous in the desert regions, where temperatures can soar to dangerous levels, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses for travelers and the possibility of vehicle overheating.

Winter brings its own set of challenges, particularly in the mountainous areas where snow, ice, and reduced visibility can make driving hazardous. These conditions often require vehicles to be equipped with chains or snow tires, and drivers must be prepared to navigate slick roads and potential closures.

The Midwest and Plains states can experience severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, especially in the spring and early summer, posing threats of high winds, hail, and flash flooding. Given the long stretches, with little shelter, sudden weather changes can catch drivers unprepared, emphasizing the importance of checking weather forecasts and being equipped for emergencies.

Mixed Traffic

The mixed traffic on the road adds a unique dimension to its navigation, blending a variety of vehicles and travelers that can vary widely in speed, size, and purpose, thereby increasing the potential for hazardous situations. It attracts not only local commuters but also long-distance truckers, motorcyclists, RV drivers, and tourists from around the globe drawn by its legendary status.

This eclectic mix creates a dynamic traffic environment where slower-moving vehicles, such as bicycles and vintage cars participating in nostalgia tours, share the road with faster-moving modern automobiles and heavy trucks.

This diversity in traffic can lead to congestion, especially in popular tourist spots or during events celebrating the road’s history, where the influx of visitors can significantly exceed usual traffic volumes. The presence of pedestrians and cyclists visiting landmarks or exploring the local attractions requires drivers to be particularly vigilant to avoid accidents.

Wildlife Crossings

As the highway traverses forests, deserts, and plains, it intersects the migratory paths and living areas of various animal species. These encounters can range from smaller creatures like rabbits and coyotes to larger animals such as deer and, in some southwestern areas, even elk. The presence of wildlife on or near the pathway is especially pronounced during dawn and dusk, times, when animals are most active and visibility for drivers, is reduced, increasing the risk of animal-vehicle collisions.

Such incidents not only threaten the safety of the animals but also pose a significant danger to motorists, potentially leading to property damage, personal injury, or even fatalities. In response, awareness and preventive measures are crucial. For instance, drivers need to heed wildlife crossing signs, remain vigilant in areas known for high animal activity, and adjust their speed accordingly.

The implementation of wildlife corridors and overpasses in some parts of the road demonstrates efforts to mitigate these risks by providing safe passage for animals over or under the highway, thus reducing the likelihood of crossings at the road level.

Fun Fact: Route 66, also known as the “Mother Road,” was one of the first highways in the U.S. Highway System, established in 1926 and stretching over 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica.

Preservation versus Modernization

The discussion on the preservation versus modernization of the road encompasses key points that reflect the tension between maintaining historical integrity and addressing contemporary needs:

Preservation Advocates:

  • Emphasize Route 66’s status as a living museum, showcasing the 20th-century American experience.
  • Argue for the importance of keeping its original features, including neon signs, vintage motels, and original segments, intact for future generations.
  • Support efforts by preservation groups to protect its cultural and historical elements as part of America’s national heritage.

Modernization Proponents:

  • Highlight the need for safety improvements and infrastructure upgrades to accommodate modern vehicles and traffic volumes.
  • Advocate for widening narrow lanes, installing modern signage, and adding safety features, while trying to preserve its historic character.
  • Point out the necessity of making this pathway a safe, navigable way for all users, aligning with current transportation standards.

Balancing Act:

  • The core challenge lies in striking a balance between preserving Route 66’s historical and cultural significance and ensuring it meets contemporary transportation needs.
  • Collaborative efforts are required from state and federal governments, preservation societies, and local communities.
  • The goal is to identify segments of the road that can remain in their original state versus those that require modern safety and infrastructure improvements.

Broader Implications:

The debate reflects larger themes in heritage conservation and the evolution of infrastructure, showcasing the dynamic relationship between historical preservation and modernization.

The ongoing dialogue underscores its enduring significance in American culture and the imagination, representing broader issues of remembering the past while safely moving forward.

According to a study conducted by The State University of New Jersey, Route 66 reveals that the road significantly boosts the economy, supporting 2,401 jobs, generating $90 million in income, $262 million in output, $127 million in GDP, and $37 million in tax revenues annually from a $132 million investment, highlighting its economic and cultural value.

Interesting Fact: Unique attractions dot the landscape of Route 66, including the world’s largest ketchup bottle in Collinsville, Illinois, and the Blue Whale of Catoosa in Oklahoma.


Can you drive on Route 66 today?

Yes, large portions of Route 66 are drivable, with many preserved as State Historic Routes.

What makes Route 66 a cultural icon?

It symbolizes American freedom and adventure, immortalized by its significant impact on pop culture and its representation of the American dream.

Are there any modern safety improvements on Route 66?

Yes, various stretches have seen safety upgrades, including better signage and road surface improvements, though efforts vary by state.

What challenges do drivers face in the desert sections of Route 66?

Drivers in the desert face extreme heat, scarce services, and the potential for vehicle overheating, requiring careful preparation.

How has wildlife affected Route 66 travel?

Wildlife crossings pose hazards, particularly in rural and mountainous sections, where animals on the road can surprise drivers, especially at night.


From its inception as a pioneering road for American exploration and migration to its current status as a symbol of freedom and adventure, it represents the essence of the American dream. The road’s design, marked by varying infrastructure and remote stretches, presents unique challenges that underscore the importance of preservation efforts and modern safety improvements.

Despite facing issues such as weather conditions, mixed traffic, and wildlife crossings, the spirit of Route 66 endures, attracting explorers from around the globe. Balancing the preservation of its rich history with the necessity for modernization emerges as a crucial endeavor to ensure that it remains a safe and cherished pathway for future generations.

This journey through the heart of America illustrates not only the physical road that stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica but also the enduring legacy of Route 66 as a testament to the American spirit of resilience, exploration, and community.