The province has put out an open call for input on a new Traffic Safety Act to replace the much-amended and much-maligned Motor Vehicle Act (MVA). The call-out is remarkably open ended, simply asking people to read over the current MVA and “tell us what changes we should consider to the rules of the road,” by June 8.
The province says we can expect a new Traffic Safety Act to be introduced in the legislature this fall. That might be an ambitious timeline considering the complexity of the act, which though it has been amended many, many times, dates back to the 1920s.
Here’s a look at some of the items that are or should be up for consideration in Nova Scotia’s new Traffic Safety Act.
What is a bike, anyway?
One can only hope that a new Traffic Safety Act will eliminate the confusion over where and how bicycles are defined in the act.
Crown prosecutor William Mathers recently decided to drop a failure to yield charge against a driver who hit and injured a cyclist because the language of the act is ambiguous on whether a bike is a vehicle. Mathers told the Chronicle Herald, “I went through the legislation, as far as I could tell I couldn’t have proven that offence… A vehicle is expressly defined in Section 2 of the Motor Vehicle Act. A bicyclist is defined elsewhere.”
This is an alarming conclusion for a public prosecutor to come to. Essentially, if we go with William Mathers’ interpretation of the MVA, drivers are not obligated to yield to people on bikes, even though cyclists are obligated to yield to people in cars. It’s cuckoo-bananas, to use a technical legal term, and it needs to be fixed.
Hopefully the new Traffic Safety Act will clearly define bicycles and where they fit in the rules of road. It probably should read something like the provincial government’s own pamphlet on bike safety, which (erroneously, we now understand) states: “According to the Nova Scotia Motor Vehicle Act cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists.”
Free the flag people
As it stands in Nova Scotia, you can hire a trained “traffic control person” to direct traffic on a road as long as it’s “for the purpose of construction, maintenance or utility operation.” This means that the organizers of parades, races, or open streets events like Switch Dartmouth happening on June 3 cannot.
So, your cousin Darlene can make $12 to $17/hour waving a stop sign at high-speed 100-series highway traffic, but cops must be paid overtime to stand beside barricades in downtown Dartmouth on a Sunday afternoon for a street party.
Hopefully the new Traffic Safety Act will broaden the scope of where trained “traffic control persons” are allowed to ply their trade, so that our event organizers can spend more money on festivities and less on the Halifax Regional Police.
City council already has a request in to the province about this change. No wonder, since councillors often hear the brunt of the complaints. Of course, the city is also part of the problem. Last year their hyper-cautious Special Events Task Force asked Switch Halifax to spend roughly $20,000 erecting a six-foot high fence in order to close down two blocks of Brunswick Street in one direction for a single Sunday afternoon.
Here comes cross-riding
Full confession: I used to coast my bike through crosswalks, illegally. In certain circumstances, it just seemed more expedient for everyone: I wouldn’t have to dismount and remount my bike, would get through faster, and the waiting drivers would spend less time waiting. I gave it up after a couple of drivers honked in anger, clearly upset that I was saving both of us a few seconds on our respective trips.
Well, the new Traffic Safety Act could make this controversial practice legal, by allowing something called cross-rides. (Think crosswalks that work for bikes, too.)
There’s a bunch of possibilities as to how the province could do this. In Seattle, cyclists in a crosswalk take on the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians, with the important caveat that they must yield to pedestrians. That would be the simplest way to go about introducing cross-rides, but you gotta wonder if Nova Scotia technocrats and politicians have the stomach for it.
In their 2016 MVA wish list, the Halifax Cycling Coalition identified the more specific need for cyclists to be able to use crosswalks to connect streets to trails. HCC proposed that some crosswalks be given “trail” status to allow riding across them.
The city is also asking for cross-ride consideration. In 2017, council requested permission to conduct a pilot for up to five years looking at not only cross-rides but also dedicated bike signals. In fact, some of the projects that Halifax active transportation staff are working on actually depend on the ability to use cross-rides and bike signals, such as the re-design of the North and Gottingen intersection to coincide with the construction of the bike bridge extension off the Macdonald bridge.
Slowing it down
One of the big requests out there is for a lowering of the “prima facie” speed limit. In 2017, Halifax council formally asked the province to lower it to 40 kph in residential areas. The HCC is asking for the province to simply allow cities and towns to set lower speed limits without approval of the provincial traffic authority, something the provincial NDP put forward as a bill in March.
Now here’s a chance for the province to create the impression that it’s not being dragged kicking and screaming, but rather leading the way forward on controlling speed in mixed-mode communities, where people walk, bike, roll, and drive on their streets.
The message from the provincial traffic authority, Michael Croft, so far has been that on the one hand, speed limits don’t affect speed that much, and on the other, speed limits need to be consistent for safety’s sake, so we can’t let municipalities change them. Croft places a lot of faith in the 85th percentile method of determining upper speed limit, which lets the driving habits of 85 per cent of drivers set the limit. Other jurisdictions are starting to eschew the old fashioned 85th percentile in favour of what the Swedes call a “safe systems” approach to speed control. Setting limits at levels whereby collisions yield the least harm is part of that.
Define your terms
HCC is also asking for clear definitions and prohibitions on things like “dooring” (the careless opening of car doors into traffic causing collisions), the “right hook” (a careless right turn without warning across the path of a moving cyclist or pedestrian), and the “left cross” (a careless left turn into oncoming cyclist or pedestrian traffic). HCC is also hoping to see a definition of “vulnerable road user” introduced in the new act.
This is a real “get with the times” moment for Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. If only the political and technocratic stars can align to bring us a Traffic Safety Act which enables cities to properly design and build efficient and safe transportation networks. A new MVA is badly needed. Let’s just hope that the government won’t waste this opportunity to write one that reflects our changing needs.