Rest stops. Where would we be without them?
Restless? Maybe. Tired? Definitely.
To me, a rest stop is more than just a place to stop along a highway, a place to grab a soda and a nap. To me, you can’t really get into road trip mode until you pull into a rest stop and soak up the spirit of comings and goings.
For me, rest stops are crossroads, places where travelers from all over America – and all over the world – cross paths on their way to or from a final destination. They are intersections not just of journeys, but of cultures, languages, ways of living and enjoying life. Like a United Nations, in flip-flops.
For me, they can be a destination in themselves.
In road trip season – summer, primarily, but on into foliage season across the Northeast – rest stops are at their finest.
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The original purpose of a rest stop, of course, was not to people watch but to give drivers a place to rest. The first rest areas were called “roadside parks” – just grassy areas near a highway, with picnic tables their only amenity. It was a case of necessity leading to invention, as automobiles flourished. As roads improved and motorists began traveling farther afield, the need for places to stop became more pressing. Even before the Interstate Highway System was established in 1956, almost every state had a system of roadside parks along highways.
In 1958, shortly after the government established the Interstate system, the federal highway commission created a policy establishing “safety rest areas.” They were, first and foremost, designed to be safe oases for drivers. State officials soon found an opportunity in the rest area – a place to reconnect people with the places they were traveling though. They began adding brochures for attractions. State maps. They made the property itself attractive. By the late 1960s, the development of rest areas nationwide was commonplace and a priority.
Unfortunately, all that upkeep cost money, and over the years, federal funding disappeared. State highway departments became responsible for the building and maintenance of rest areas. The big problem was that the original rest area policy banned commercial businesses, a situation that led to the closing or deterioration of many rest areas around the country.
Luckily for those of us in the Northeast, “closed” roads, such as the New Jersey Turnpike, New York State Thruway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Massachusetts Turnpike, built service areas before the 1958 federal policy banning private businesses to allow drivers to stop for food and fuel without having to go through additional tollbooths and incur higher tolls.
But elsewhere the problem of deterioration and closings has become more pressing over the last decade, according to AAA, especially in light of its newest study on drowsy driving. In the most in-depth study ever conducted on the issue, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that the percentage of crashes involving drowsiness is nearly eight times higher than federal estimates. Using actual footage from dashcams, researchers determined that 9.5 percent of all crashes and 10.8 percent of crashes resulting in significant property damage involved drowsiness. Federal estimates indicate drowsiness is a factor in only 1 to 2 percent of crashes.
Obviously, the need for a place to rest one’s heels and wheels is as important as ever. The good news is that, while some rest stops have been decommissioned, moves are afoot in some states to revamp and possibly privatize the areas. In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced that all 27 rest areas on the Thruway will be renovated, and this summer, AAA is sending surveys to members to determine what features they think should be part of the renovations, said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA Northeast.
And, there are a variety of permutations on the rest-stop theme. Having crossed this country many times in everything from a ’66 Dodge Dart to a 30-foot RV, I’ve come to appreciate the differences, and offerings, of all sorts of stopover spots.
Whatever their bells and whistles, they are all, bottom line, places for a rest from the road – something that AAA says every road-tripper needs every two hours or 100 miles – whichever comes first, or whenever you crave a little bit of the spirit of the crossroads, just beside that long, long highway.