Spotlight: Highway Crusader

Joseph Linko


A stark contrast to Ralph Nader is another highway safety advocate, a quiet, unassuming 61-year-old former TV repairman from the Bronx. With no money, no charisma, and no ideological axe to grind, Joseph Linko has nevertheless done much to identify and eliminate highway booby traps that take between 10,000 and 20,000 lives each year.

Were Joseph Linko a lawyer or engineer, his accomplishments in taking on highway bureaucracies would still be noteworthy. But his achievements seem nothing short of amazing when you realize that this man has only an eighth-grade education and no formal technical training. But he does have good common sense, a sharp eye for hazards, and the determination not to accept bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo as an excuse for inaction.

Linko's one-man campaign for safer highways began in 1962 when he noticed a monstrous concrete footing for a no-longer-existing sign, plunked just six inches from the edge of the pavement on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. He notified city and state engineers and officials, but nothing happened. Angered and frustrated, Linko began observing New York-area highways more closely—and found such booby traps all over the place.

"At my own expense I began to spend all my spare time taking photographs," he recalls. "I figured if I accumulated enough evidence, somebody would have to listen to me. It got to a point where I was taking pictures six to eight hours a day and weekends. There were so many serious hazards built into the highways that it seemed senseless. I mean, here we are spending so much of the taxpayers' money to construct expensive death traps, when we could spend so much less and do the job right."

Eventually Linko gave up on state officials and began writing to congressman and federal highway people. When two officials of the Bureau of Public Roads arranged for him to show his slides at a meeting of the American Association of State Highway Officials, all hell broke loose. Here was a private citizen denouncing highway builders for incorporating death traps into the new interstate highway system—and documenting his charges. That led to Linko's appearance in May, June, and July of 1967 before the Blatnik Committee of the US House—which led, in turn, to changes in design standards for the interstate system.

Unfortunately, Linko's fame was short lived, and the reforms had no effect on state and local highways—or on already existing interstates. Having been sensitized to the problem, though, Linko was unwilling to give up. He continued taking photos, giving slide presentations, and writing letters to anyone who would listen. And here and there professors of safety engineering, insurance researchers, and occasional public officials began to listen.

Why are the highways festooned with death traps—steel signposts placed in front of guardrails, guardrails that end abruptly (thereby impaling off-course autos) instead of angling into the ground, signs mounted on separate posts when a bridge is readily available at the same location? It boils down to the lack of a single, responsible party operating a highway and assuming responsibility for its safety. As Linko puts it "No one is operating these highways; nobody knows what the other guy is doing."

Although an economist might suggest privatizing highways to correct this problem, Linko was on the right track in the early '70s when he proposed, in an interview with the Weekly Underwriter, that insurance companies refuse to reimburse the state government for damages to the highway from crashes when the cause is found to be improper highway design. "If the accident was the direct result of a built-in highway hazard, then the state should be held responsible. I think that if enough insurers would refuse to pay for highway damage and sue the state for the amount of the claim paid to the injured party, then maybe state officials might begin working faster to make the necessary changes."

Linko even went to the trouble of following up numerous accidents in the New York area, photographing the scene, and in cases of highway defects writing the insurance company involved, advising them not to pay the state and to countersue for the claims. But to no avail. He speculates that insurers are reluctant to challenge the states which regulate them.

With his safety crusade having displaced his TV repair job, Linko could no longer afford a car and began using public transportation. That led to his growing interest in the safety problems of buses and subways. At the same time his expanding network of contacts with safety professionals led several of them to create an institutional framework in which to carry on Linko's work—and to begin to reimburse some of his expenses. Thus was born, in 1976, the nonprofit Institute for Safety in Transportation, of which Linko is a director and vice-president. Its advisory board includes some of Linko's supporters in places like the Transportation Research Board, the Flight Safety Foundation, the National Transportation Safety Board, and various universities and consulting firms.

The institute carries out research on safety-related problems, issuing short and pointed Advisory Memoranda on such topics as the hazards of wooden guardrails on steel posts (Garden State Parkway) and detailed Hazard Reports (its first one covered diesel-fuel spillage and absence of right-hand mirrors on New York City buses, illegal conditions that have persisted despite seven years of Linko efforts). And this summer the institute will hold its First International Symposium on Transportation Safety in Anaheim, California, coordinated by the institute's Prof. Edmund Cantilli of the Polytechnic Institute of New York.

Despite the backing of an organization, Linko remains unbureaucratized. And one expects that he will remain so if Polytechnic awards him an honorary degree this June, as Professor Cantilli has urged. He continues his relentless field work, armed with camera, clipboard, and a quiet determination to expose the killer details that lack of responsibility has embedded in our highways.