Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Fatal crash reignites intersection debate

The fatal collision that left an elderly Albertan couple dead sparked Gull Lake’s on-again off-again debate over safety measures for the intersection of Hwy. #1 and #37. This in-depth look into the statistics and nature of past collisions reveals that most of the solutions put forward have little to do with the actual problem.

BY CHRIS SIMPSON

gull_lake_accidentStatistics, despite their bad rep, can be wonderfully revealing.

They can also be slippery, contrary, and completely irrelevant.

The recent collision at the junction of Hwy. #1 and Hwy. #37 has revived the recurring debate about how to make the intersection safer. Some residents are already setting out to petition for various changes, which range from subtle signage to heavy construction.

But what we need are facts.

In 2009, citizens of Gull Lake requested that the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure conduct a safety study on the intersection. The Ministry found the markings, road condition, lighting and signage all appropriate to the conditions and up to Ministry standards. The Ministry’s only real concern appeared to be that a “corridor of signs” along the south side of Highway 1 to the west of Gull Lake, had the potential to limit visibility and create an unnecessary distraction.  A secondary concern was the 80 km/h advisory sign, which they felt might cause excessive “speed differential.” To no one’s surprise, the report also found the majority of accidents were right-angle collisions (65%) with rear end collisions making a distant second (23%).

What the report doesn’t show, however, is a relationship between the actual collisions and the Ministry’s recommendations. For instance, the Ministry notes that “almost half of the collisions are southbound vehicles crossing Highway No. 1, pulling out in front of eastbound vehicles, and causing a right angle collision.” This obviously cannot be caused by a “corridor of signs.”

But this leads to the question, “If almost half the collisions are southbound crossings of the eastbound lanes then what constitutes the other half?” Unfortunately the report doesn’t delve into this, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the rest of the collisions come from northbound crossings of the westbound lane. If so, the corridor of signs would have had even less effect on the outcome.

Likewise, the Ministry’s concern over the 80 km/h advisory sign would seem misplaced. Any problems caused by “speed differential” (some traffic slowing down to heed the advisory while others continue at a higher rate) would affect traffic moving in the same direction. While it might contribute to some rear end collisions involving east or westbound traffic, it hardly makes a difference to the right angle collisions that make up the majority.

So while the recommendations may have some vague, feel-good merit, they in no way address the reality of the situation.

It’s a little like having a fire inspector trying to discover the cause for a series of mysterious fires in the laundry room of an apartment building, and having him conclude that you should move the wastebasket in the third floor hallway because it’s is a potential fire hazard. Yes, maybe it is – but it’s not the reason for the fires in the laundry room.

The report’s lack of concrete suggestions, however, may well be due to the fact that they see little that can be done. Its unstated conclusion is essentially that the intersection is as safe as they can make it, and that we should drive carefully.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been follow-up changes. The report suggested the addition of acceleration lanes in the future, and we now have one for joining the eastbound traffic. But while this is unquestionably appreciated, it cannot have any significant effect upon reducing the right angle collisions that make up the majority of the collisions.

A  favourite solution among some residents is the installation of an overpass. The appeal, of course, is that it would put an end to these right angle collisions once and for all.

The problem, of course, is cost.

Doug Wakabayashi, Assitant Director of Communications with the Ministries Highway and Infrastructure, points out that, “Depending on the configuration, an overpass can cost anywhere from $30 to $50 million.”

“A basic diamond-shaped interchange costs approximately $30 million,” he says, adding that anything extra will add to the cost. “If you wanted to accommodate a left-hand turn flyover, the overpass would be more expensive.”

This is not to say that overpasses aren’t planned for the future, but they’re being targeted for the higher volume areas. “An interchange is being considered for the 20-kilometer stretch of Trans-Canada east of Regina that will accommodate a projected population growth of 20,000 to 30,000 in the next 10 or so years,” says Wakabayashi.

In other words, reality rears its inconvenient head. The greater the population, the greater the flow of traffic. The greater the flow of traffic, the greater the risk of accidents. The greater the risk of accidents, the greater the need for expensive roadwork.

There are, of course, other options.

One is to make the 80 km/h limit mandatory rather than advisory. Aside from any concerns about the speed differential this might cause, however, the real problem is enforcement. The Ministry acknowledges this, but provides no solution, saying only: “The Ministry recommends that local RCMP be contacted to provide enforcement [of the reduced speed advisory] to reduce the difference in motoring vehicles at this location.” In short: “Try to get your local police to stretch themselves a bit further.” In the end, however, the Ministry recommends removing the 80 km/h limit entirely: “The Ministry is also looking at removing advisory 80 km/h signs as this may add to the speed differentials.”

Another possibility is the installation of traffic lights, but unless they are near a built-up urban area, traffic lights on highways pose their own problems, especially when there is a large volume of heavy trucks using the road. Stopping isn’t an easy task, and bringing them back up to speed takes a lot of time.

The claim that the Gull Lake intersection is more collision prone than equivalent junctions is often made, but seldom backed by statistics. This is partly because comparisons between individual areas is so tricky.

But – in the midst of a pile of statistics from a source other than the safety report there may just be some evidence to back it up.

SIG’s Traffic Accident Information System (TIAS) has been collecting detailed statistics on accidents across Saskatchewan for over 20 years and is a gold mine of information – for those with the stomach to wade through it.

Their map showing “Collision Rate by Rural Municipality” is colour coded. Each rural municipality is coloured a darker colour according to the rate of collisions. Looking closely at the map reveals that Gull Lake’s rural area, 139, is black. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that the adjacent rural areas of 109 (Carmichael) and 110 (Piapot) are also black. In a sea of white or light-coloured rural areas, these three stand together as a blotch of darkness.

While this map doesn’t give any new information about the Gull Lake junction, it does go some ways to suggest that resident beliefs about the intersection may not be entirely misplaced.

We all want solutions, but these can only be effective if they address the actual problems. The “right” solution may be simple or complex, but without knowing all the facts, we will never find it and our efforts will only succeed in implementing feel-good but useless programs.

The TAIS 2010 Annual Report, entitled “2010 Saskatchewan Traffic Accident Facts” can be downloaded at this URL: http://www.sgi.sk.ca/pdf/tais/TAIS_2010_Annual_Report.pdf

Originally published in The Gull Lake Advance, 2012

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