Morgan Pritchett
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What’s the Deal with Rest Areas in America?

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northbound i-75 rest area sign

Who put this here?
Photo: DanTD

I’ve traveled cross country quite a few times in my life and have had to make many urgent stops at rest areas along major highways. As I’ve traveled, I never really thought about the frequency of rest areas or if there was any pattern associated with their locations across the nation. So, to go full Seinfeld on this very random thing, I must ask: What’s the deal with rest areas in America?

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After a very quick Google search (the internet is a beautiful thing), I’ve discovered that rest areas vary by jurisdiction. This includes the location, standards, upkeep, and amenities included in each stop. In places like Wyoming, I noticed the rest stops were very bare minimum; as in, a building with a toilet in it. But when you cross into the magical land of California, you’re greeted by enormous, beautifully designed buildings with playgrounds for children, pet zones, and picnic areas. And I’m not just talking about the Welcome Center, either.

interstate 10 rest area next right sign vending machines

Photo: Michael Rivera

I suppose what got my attention the most about rest areas was the seemingly arbitrary distances between each one along major highways, especially in sketchy places where I would rather not stop at a local gas station with a giant key for that one stall in the back.

The original purpose of rest areas was for safety, per the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, to ensure drivers were resting during long trips. According to federal policy, there should be a place to take a break approximately every half hour along a highway. This can include rest areas, but can unfortunately also include the sketchy gas station bathroom that was previously mentioned. However, because each state can determine its own rest area stipulations, there’s no set rule on how many should be dotted along each roadway.

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To sum it all up, each state and its funding determines the number, quality, and frequency of rest areas available to drivers. While this doesn’t really do a lot for me in the larger sense, it does give a little insight on what the deal is with rest areas in America.