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.

Rendering of proposed changes to Gottingen and North intersection, including a cross-ride enabled crosswalk on the north leg, from a July 2017 HRM staff report.

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.

From page 5 of Speed Management, A Road Safety Manual, published by the World Health Organization in 2008. Their source: OECD/ECMT Transport Research Centre: Speed Management report, Paris 2006.

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.

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  1. I’m not sure I agree with the premise that bicycles are ” vehicles “. If a bicycle is to be a vehicle, then we must level the playing field when it comes to licensing and suspending privileges when it comes to operating on public streets. As of right now, there is no way to suspend a cyclists operation privileges when it comes to bad behavior, therefore, in my eyes, if everyone else that shares the road works on a privilege based system, so must cyclists above the age of majority. If you want to secure vehicle status for cycles, I think it’s only fair that they be charged for a license plate, mandatory insurance and the ability to have your privilege revoked through the same point system drivers of actual vehicles are held to.

    I have no problem with sharing the road, I have a problem with everyone else being held to the privilege standard, and cyclists having a right to the road.

  2. Included in the re-write of the law should be the requirement for mandatory safety training for all new motorcyclists just as most provinces have. Safe operation and awareness saves lives.

  3. Lots of room for improvement in the Act, but knowledge and enforcement of the existing Act is lacking. Few drivers seem to be aware that any intersection is a crosswalk, for example, and enforcement of rules like stopping at crosswalks (or when turning right on red) seems non-existent. Charges are laid after accidents, but that’s too late.

    When I held a small bus license, I needed to redo the written test periodically. That would not be a bad idea for all drivers.

  4. I’m not sure if it falls into the rewrite so much as the implementation. I think the slow down to 60 and pull into the far lane if possible when coming across blue lights on the highway is a good rule. There were a bunch of advertisements letting people know but I have yet to see a sign on the highway. I’ve never seen a parking sign in HRM describing the winter parking ban. There’s a burnside company doing some amazing tech to prevent texting while driving – encourage that. In Europe and Montreal if they want drivers to slow down to 40 or less in the city, there’ll be speed bumps and obstacles (traffic circles and flower pots). I think it’s nearly impossible to have speed bumps installed on a residential street in Halifax. In brief, even existing rules could be better implemented.