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:
- 103 from Tantallon to Yarmouth, WSP Canada, March 2015
- 104 from Sutherland’s River to Antigonish, Opus International, March 2015
- 101 from Digby to Weymouth North Road, NSTIR & Griffin Transportation Group, April 2015
- 105 from Port Hastings to South Haven Road, NSTIR, December 2016
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?