According to federal policy, about every half-hour of driving or so there should be a place to take a break. This includes state-run rest stops, commercial rest stops, and regular city exits—in other words, the placement of official rest stops is calculated against the existence of other, non-state-run opportunities to pull over.
The official purpose of a rest area is for safety and convenience, as stipulated in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the national interstate system. The act recognized that in some rural parts of the interstate opportunities to exit the highway would be few and far between. Since shoulders were meant only for emergencies and vehicle breakdowns, occasional rest areas were necessary. The half-hour rule of thumb was set out in a 1958 policy by the American Association of State Highway Officials that laid out detailed standards for the design and placement of rest areas in the national interstate system. The vast majority of rest sites were developed concurrently with the highway system itself in the two decades following the 1956 act.
Although the 1958 policy did not designate minimum or average distances between sites—that would be too complicated given the many variable factors on a highway like traffic volume, topography, and climate—it broadly stated that there should be enough rest areas to “reasonably accommodate the safety rest needs of Interstate highway travelers” and “encourage drivers to use them as a safety measure to break long periods of travel.”…
Before the federal intervention in 1956, drivers couldn’t count on a place to stop at all. The character of early rest areas (then called roadside parks) ranged widely and most had sprung up organically. The first unofficial rest stop is believed to have appeared in Michigan in 1929, where a road engineer noticed people who had pulled over to picnic on a tree stump, albeit with difficulty. The engineer was inspired to create some roadside picnic tables at the spot, and the idea spread. Early roadside parks were usually found by long stretches of road, particularly near scenic vistas or historic landmarks, and were often very rustic, with no running water or flushing toilets.
Additionally, some states combined rest areas with commercial properties (gas stations, restaurants) to have a stop that could meet all needs (exercise, rest, bathrooms, gas, food). Yet, the initial goal was to provide commercial free stops according to Federal Highway Administration:
Can I set up a business in safety rest areas or welcome centers selling food or other products to motorists?
No. Section 111 of Title 23 (“Highways”), United States Code, prohibits the States from commercializing the right-of-way along the Interstate System. The commercial prohibition in Section 111 dates to 1956 when Congress was considering the legislation that launched the Interstate Highway Program. The Members considered following the model of the toll turnpikes that provided commercial facilities in service areas for motorists who would otherwise have to leave the facility and pay a toll to continue their journey. Congress rejected this model by enacting the Section 111 prohibition on commercialization. The intent was to avoid State approved or supported monopolies for traveler services, such as those provided on toll roads. During the debate, Representative Charles A. Vanik (D-OH) explained what Congress had in mind: “Let the highway traveler turn off the Interstate system if he requires food, motor-vehicle service, lodging or Stuckey’s pecans.”
The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 modified the commercial restriction by permitting vending machines in rest and recreation areas constructed or located on the Interstate right-of-way.
Safety rest areas are intended to serve motorists by allowing them to take a short break, use the rest rooms, shake off drowsiness, and then move on. The absence of commercial services (except for vending machines) means motorists can stop without any pressure to make purchases. For food, gasoline, lodging, and other commercial services, motorists can leave the highway and return to it without a toll charge.
Interesting to see an interest in protecting drivers from commercialism along the road. This was also aided by the Highway Beautification Act.
Since rest areas are intended to break up long travel, I wonder if the average highway driver goes too long without stopping. For example, here is the recommendation from one AAA club:
Stop every 100 miles or every two hours to get out of the car and walk around; exercise helps to combat fatigue. (p.5)
Perhaps rest areas should be even more crowded. But, stopping more often means interfering with the American obsession with time.