The city of Boston made truck side guards mandatory on all city-contracted trucks in 2015.
The city of Boston made truck side guards mandatory on all city-contracted trucks in 2015.

City staff have recommended that the municipality “take no further action” on the possibility of installing potentially life-saving truck side guards on city-owned and contractor vehicles.

While the wording seems to indicate that some sort of action has already been taken, staff’s threadbare report shows otherwise.

As a clearly agitated Councillor Waye Mason pointed out at this month’s Transportation Standing Committee meeting, the bulk of this report looks like the results of a Google search on truck side guards. The HRM-specific information requested by council is just absent.

The council request looks like this:

Transportation Standing Committee request a staff report, to investigate the implications of installing side guards on city-owned and contracted vehicles, specifically addressing the following items;
a) the cost of installing side guards on all city-owned heavy trucks, plows, and other heavy equipment,
b) the cost and legal authority of requiring long-term contractors (such as garbage collection and snow removal) to install side guards on all heavy vehicles,
c) the cost and legal authority of requiring all city-contracted (including hourly/daily jobs) vehicles to be equipped with side guards, and
d) the cost of including side guards on all newly-purchased city vehicles

What they got back was a back-of-the-napkin calculation on how much it would cost to put side guards on “approximately” 100 city-owned trucks, at “an expected cost” of $3,500 to $4,000 per vehicle. Spoiler alert! The answer is $350,000 to $400,000.

I kid you not. That is the extent of the cost and feasibility analysis in this staff report that recommends “no further action.”

How much would it cost per year if we started buying only side guard-equipped new trucks? Or what if we decided to convert just 10 trucks a year? How would the cost of our contracts be affected if we required side guards, say, in five years? What if we did this in any other manner than one fell swoop? We don’t know the possibilities, because city staff have refused to do the work and describe them.

But what exactly are side guards, and why are groups like the Halifax Cycling Coalition vociferously advocating for them?

Large trucks are especially dangerous in side collisions with pedestrians or cyclists because people can easily slip under the truck and into the path of the rear tires. Side guards are panels or sets of bars fastened to the side of a truck to cover the gap, and help prevent people being drawn under its wheels.

It’s quite possible that side guards could have prevented the death of Johanna Dean in Dartmouth two years ago. Or perhaps they would have made a difference to Elizabeth Foston, the elderly pedestrian who lost both her legs after being trapped under the wheels of a recycling truck in 2014.

There’s countless reports in city papers across North America that read like the same tragic accident played out over and over.

Twice now, in 2012 and 1998, after investigating cycling deaths in the province, the Ontario coroner asked Transport Canada to make side guards mandatory on heavy trucks in Canada.

Side guards are mandatory in Europe and Japan. The US National Transportation Safety Board has twice recommended they become national policy. In the UK where they’ve been mandatory since 1986, there are now 61 per cent fewer cyclist fatalities in side collisions with trucks.

So why, then, is our city staff reporting that:

At present there is no way to accurately quantify the potential reduction in [vulnerable road users] deaths or serious injuries as a result of side guard installation.

Blame Transport Canada.

Our national transportation regulator has twice refused Ontario’s request to make side guards mandatory. They claim to be waiting for definitive evidence on the potential to prevent deaths and severe injuries, despite numbers coming in from the UK and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they have scrapped their own research exploring the possibility that side skirts, previously used only to improve aerodynamics, may also have some of the accident prevention properties as their sturdier side guards relatives. (Aerodynamics, it seems, fair much better in cost-benefit analyses than do people’s lives.)

Transport Canada’s baffling lack of interest in the possible life-saving properties of side guards might be explained in part by this shockingly absurd sentence, included in our very own HRM staff report on the issue:

Side guards alone will not eliminate serious injuries.

Are we to assume that we shall all simply have to wait until the policy wonks at Transport Canada, or our very own city staffers, actually find the one thing that will, alone, eliminate serious injuries?

The reasoning is irresponsible, and it will cost us lives.

Happily, the Transportation Standing Committee approved Councillor Mason’s motion to send this report back to staff, to be completed as per the committee’s original request. Staff have a month to do it.

Municipalities in Canada have a track record of blazing the trail when it comes to safety regulations that our federal authorities are loathe to take on.  Witness the war on cosmetic pesticide use, which started in small towns, eventually making its way into provincial regulations.

Although the staff report indicated not much interest in side guards from municipalities across Canada, they are being embraced by a small but growing list of cities. St. John’s had installed them on 40 per cent of its vehicles back in 2013. Montreal promised to do its entire fleet of 1,000 vehicles by 2019.

In so many other matters Halifax is safety-obsessed. We can’t even have a public fountain without erecting an eight-foot fence around it. So why the resistance to this common sense measure?

Hopefully when staff reports back for the second time, we’ll have a better idea.

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  1. A strong yes to mandatory side skirts on all big trucks. Pedestrian and cyclist safety in collisions, the first reason; environmental benefits from reduced drag at highway speeds, the second. (I don’t like ads, BUT if ads on the skirts could speed the installations….)

    That said, it is my impression (real data would be nice, here) that most of the collisions and damage to cyclists and pedestrians happens on the RIGHT side of trucks: drivers have poorer views in right-side rearview mirrors, and there’s higher likelihood that the potential victims will be on the right side of the truck. So maybe if the city budget rules all in this, mandate right side skirts immediately. Also the right side ads would be seen at closer range from the sidewalks, and could commmand higher prices…

    And lobby hard to make 2-side skirts mandatory on all trucks on the roads in NS.

    1. You’re right that the biggest risk is on the right side, in part for the reasons you mention.
      The Cycling Coalition has already raised this with the province, they won’t regulate them due to inter-provincial trucking, but once we have approval from the city we will be lobbying the province to follow suit with all trucks under their control.
      We have already started the discussion for a new Transport Canada investigation with some of the local MPs. Our allies across the country are doing the same. We are optimistic that federal side guard legislation will be passed before the next election.
      In the mean time, industry leaders like LafargeHolcim are installing side guards as we speak.

  2. Gloria Macluskey was on the news the other day citing Transport Canada.

    Once again a councillor fails in her responsibilities to the citizens in off loading responsibility elsewhere.

    Vote in October!

  3. It seems that staff first determined their recommendation to do nothing, and then put the level of effort needed to support that recommendation.

    I was hoping that the practice of giving short shrift to Council’s direction was going out the door with Richard Butts. It appears it has not.

    Good on the Committee for sending it back to staff and telling them to get the report right. But this lack of respect for Council direction has to completely stop, and Council has to take action to ensure it does.

    1. It occurred to me that, should he be successful in his bid to return to Council, Steve Streach will get that problem fixed quickly.

  4. This is a question of reasonable due diligence. If there is a chance that serious injury or death might be avoided at least once, then this is reasonable. We spend more than this on rearranging the lettering on bus stop signs.
    Hey. Here is an idea. Use the side panels to carry advertising then they would generate revenue to pay for themselves.

  5. Having so much of our city services (100% residential waste collection and 80% snow clearing) outsourced to private contractors makes this harder to figure out. If more of our services were provided by the city itself, all thatwould be needed to figure out is the cost of installing and maintaining them. Like always, outsourcing our city services complicates something as simple as installing rails on trucks.

    Outsourcing is inefficient and more costly in the end. It’s time we did the right then and gave a hard look at remunicipalizing our city services.

    1. It could be made mandatory in order to do business with the city. Solid side guards have the added benefit of making trucks more fuel efficient at highway speeds, so there could be a savings of more than 5% in some cases. (

      My good friend Corey Mock died in 2001 when a right turning garbage truck ran him over at the approach to the MacDonald bridge bike lane at Gottingen. Corey was an experienced cyclist who rode from Halifax to Burnside and back daily, year round. Side guards might have saved him.

      1. I thought the collision was at Brunswick and North with the truck turning onto Brunswick.
        If we had inquests in Nova Scotia the public would have more accurate information.

      2. It doesn’t take detailed thought to see that the fuel consumption of a vehicle traveling mostly at highway speeds and one traveling almost never at highway speeds are going to be affected differently by this. Not at all in the case of the mostly-idling-while-loading walking pace garbage trucks.

        Not that “spend trivially more on new gear and just have them work their way to 100% over 10 years” isn’t an obvious possibility.

        1. The aerodynamic panels designed for fuel efficiency are called side skirts, and were the subject of a Transport Canada study, the one that they abandoned. They were trying to determine if skirts also proved to keep people from getting pulled under wheels. The Globe and Mail had a great piece about what happened to that report.