With the newly re-elected Liberals promising to twin 70 more kilometres of 100 series highways despite the enormous financial costs and the ensuing increase in number of vehicles on our highways (which is proportional to increased numbers of injuries and deaths), it seems worthwhile talking about what else we might be doing to improve safety on our highways. Can we make them safer without spending hundreds of millions of dollars and feeding the driving demand feedback loop?

Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (NSTIR) has a small library of highway safety studies completed by contracted engineers and/or provincial staff for the following 100 series corridors:

According to these reports, here are some of the less expensive fixes we should be considering for the more dangerous sections of our 100 series highways.

Recessed reflectors:

Being used in plenty of jurisdictions around the States and Canada, these road surface reflectors drastically improve lane visibility in the dark. To make them work in our climate, where snowplows wreak havoc every winter, the reflectors are sunk into the pavement. Recommended by Opus in its 104 report two years ago, NSTIR has started to install these “on several sections of highway including 101 near Windsor, 103 near Bridgewater and on 105 in Cape Breton.” According to spokesperson Brian Taylor, NSTIR “is looking at the possibility of installing more this year.”

Rumble strips:

The noise and vibration created by centreline rumble strips help wake up drivers drifting into oncoming traffic, and shoulder strips help prevent drivers from running themselves off the road. NSTIR already has a policy of putting in both centreline and shoulder rumble strips, but all four studies still mentioned the lack of them in sections, and called for them to be put in.

Overhead flashing beacons at intersections:

While the more common recommendation was to remove at-grade intersections altogether and replace them with interchanges, I like the immediate do-ability of this recommendation. Better signage and warning lights at intersections on some stretches of 100 series highways could save us the expense of building cloverleafs, and could accommodate more access points in rural areas. And heck, if people really need reminding to slow down and pay attention to an upcoming intersection, maybe throw down a crossways rumble strip or two to remind drivers what’s coming up.

Animal fencing:

Our New Brunswick neighbours have invested whole hog in this strategy to keep animals off their major highways, and the 103 safety report by WSP recommends two trial sections of animal fencing as a pilot project, presumably to test if Nova Scotia deer respond similarly to their New Brunswick counterparts. Opus International recommended animal warning signs for the 104, and the NSTIR report for the 101 recommends improved lighting where deer tend to be seen. All reports include the recommendation of keeping a wide swath on either side of the highway clear of trees and vegetation, something that takes ongoing maintenance.

From the government of New Brunswick’s website, a map showing locations of wildlife fencing, signing, and brush cutting in the province.

Speed controls:

In their analysis of the 22 fatal collisions on the 103 from 2007-2012, WSP concluded “that lack of driver attention and speed too fast for road conditions were the primary contributing factors to most of the 22 fatal collisions.”

While human behaviour is the main factor in speeding, road design plays a bigger part than people realize. The Opus review of the 104 identifies at least two curves (at James River and Barney’s River) where the design speed is lower than the posted limit. For James River, Opus estimates the design speed to be as much as half the posted limit (50 km/hr.)

Since fixing the design of the highway can be a huge cost, what’s to stop us from implementing lower limits on these more dangerous stretches? For starters, drivers are notorious scofflaws when it comes to speed, which could be why almost all reports recommended increased enforcement, or increased visibility of enforcement. The reports also recommended things like variable message highway signs (like the kind installed by the bridge commission to inform people about current bridge closures) to warn about temporary hazardous conditions, or speed responsive signs (sometimes used on the bridges) to help remind drivers just how much over the limit they are driving.

WSP’s 103 report even recommends using photo radar to issue mailed warnings to car owners, and setting up real-time speeding stats signs in communities along the highway corridor, a sort of scoreboard for speeders versus non-speeders. I’m no fan of photo surveillance in general, but I have to say, there are stretches of our highways where I would happily accept it if it meant all speeding triggered an automatic ticket (if not merely a warning) in the mail.

Of course, NSTIR’s library of safety reports is missing one major component: an implementation plan and budget to complete as many small fixes as possible within a short timeline. Something like one to two years seems reasonable, considering that these are small fixes that might actually start preventing injuries and deaths once implemented.

The Liberal’s massive pre-election spending announcement for twinning was to be spread over seven years, and NSTIR’s own highway construction FAQ estimates five-10 years to complete a twinning project from the time its been identified. Even if twinning is in our future, why should we wait to make the roads we have built safer?

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  1. Erica- rational and consistent; those who announced the twinnings?- inconsistent; wishy-washy; waffling, and convenient in their thinking.

    Now we have four more years of the status quo and four more budgets that will be drawn with the commitments to build bridges and lay asphalt compromising spending in every other area.
    To Erica’s point- why isn’t there a plan to do the things needed to make these roads safer while we wait for the politicians to finally figure out that Nova Scotians did not vote for any party to put twinning projects ahead of health care, affordable housing, or creating the environment for job creation. Nova Scotians were never presented with options that included twinning; why not! It is unlikely that twinning of highways would even be in the top five priorities of Nova Scotians if they had been asked to list their top five.

    Alas, twinning of highways that our government two years ago said would not be twinned, are not only on the radar, but will have to be in the works with RFP’s, bids, and engineering work-ups occupying the civil servants while our more important, and more pressing priorities, that we were never asked about, get put on a wide series of ‘back-burners’.

  2. Driving the TCH through Quebec I’ve noticed they have variable-speed limit signs. These are LED signs displaying the maximum speed which can be changed remotely. So the limit might be 100 normally but can be reduced in poor conditions, or if there’s a hazard ahead.

  3. No no no to photo radar on the 103. Having been in Alberta over the winter, the only thing photo radar seems to do is cause the purchase of radar detectors and faster acceleration/decceleration of vehicles when the detector beeps. Signs encouraging people to use their cruise control on the 103 would be much better. The most aggravating thing about that highway are people who drive slowly until there’s a double lane only to accelerate until it’s a single lane again. Worse still are those who feel it’s a personal affront to be passed and then accelerate. Cruise control is a marvelous thing. Most vehicles come with it nowdays and it’s really not hard to figure out. Just don’t use it when it’s pouring/icy/snowy. Also most vehicle spedometers seem to overestimate speed compared to GPS readings. It seems like ours read consistently 7-9% faster than we’re travelling. Also self-driving cars will resolve this soon. Having done the 103 in one it’s a different experience entirely. Attach them all to breathalizers, regulate them to 5-10% above posted speed limits and we’ll soon be better off. Those reflective indents that you mention in the article are awesome though. It’s like driving in Tron.

      1. DIsclaimer: everything I’m about to tell you is to justify my own speeding and when I’m older I’ll wonder why everyone drives over the limit:

        Because your spedometer exagerates your speed by about that much. Also, those speed limits were established knowing that 95% of drivers will drive 5-10% over the limit with a likely bell curve distribution. I imagine that’s why noone is ticketed unless they’re going 20% or more over. If they set them at 120kph rather than 100 they’d be stuck with people driving 5-10% faster still. Most modern vehicles are capable of much greater speeds and people currently driving the limit (on highways) force others to pass in riskier settings leading to less road safety. Obviously none of this applies when conditions are poor.

        Yes cars are more efficient at slower speeds and less accidents might occur if we were all driving those speeds or even way way slower. We’d also all be late for work -although in this province that is becoming less and less of an issue. Texting, booze and fatigue are often compounding factors.

        If all the vehicles become self driving we might be able to safely have the cars drive at very high speeds and forgoe speed limits entirely (see the NIO EP9 race car). It will also allow many rural seniors to remain at home when they currently lose independance when they lose their licesnse.
        The next 20 years will be a big period of change both in terms of electric cars and shared/self driving cars. I, like the Erica would agree that cheap/quick fixes for road safety rather than twinning are probably the safer bets with such uncertainty on the horizon. Twinning seems to make for good politics/optics though.

        1. Well, until self-driving vehicles are the norm, we’re left with humans (and all their frequent faults, some of which you list) behind the wheel. I appreciate the honesty in your disclaimer, but speed is a factor in more fatal incidents (don’t call them ‘accidents’) than “texting, booze and fatigue” combined. If Nova Scotia really wants to reduce serious/fatal motor vehicle incidents, rigid enforcement of existing speed limits would be a fantastic first step.

  4. Erica, thanks so much for all your work on the transportation front – I really enjoy and appreciate your articles.

    A question about the alternatives to twinning: are the existing highway beds (for the highways mentioned above as in line for twinning) wide enough for “2 + 1” roads? If they are, is this a viable alternative for NS? They would seem to help prevent collisions from ill-advised passing attempts…

    1. I’m very much interested in 2+1 roads, and in particular, the type with cable barrier separation that will bounce errant vehicles back in the right lane. When I asked NSTIR engineers about this, I heard that it would be almost as costly as twinning (because it would require road widening) but quite honestly that was presented as more of a gut feeling than an actual conclusion. To my knowledge they have not produced any formal costing or analysis. Each section of road is different, so you need a team to go out, take measurements, note obstacles, and come up with your rough guess on cost. NSTIR hired CBCL to do this for 8 different sections of 100 series roads, but for twinning only. They left out other possible configurations, although CBCL did end up mentioning both cable barriers and 2+1 road cross sections as possible solutions for sections that just couldn’t seem to support twinning via tolling.

      But to your question… existing beds are probably not wide enough for consistent 2+1 roads, but since this question hasn’t been asked or answered in any engineering reports that I’ve seen, I can’t say for sure. I can say that widening of shoulders was a common recommendation in the four safety reports, meaning that some roads are technically not even wide enough for their current configuration.