Horrific crashes raise questions about rural road design

Collision that killed 11 in southwestern Ontario was 'an accident waiting to happen,' says engineering expert.
Surveyors take measurements at the scene in Hampstead, Ont., where a van and truck collision killed 11 people on Feb. 7. Experts say the visibility of signage can be an important factor in accidents on rural roads. (Frank Gunn/CP)

In a week that has seen two serious accidents kill 16 people on roadways in rural areas, some are saying it's a sign we should revisit the way roads are designed in Canada.

Five people were killed outside McLeese Lake, B.C., on Feb. 9 after an SUV collided head on with a semi-trailer and caught fire. And a crash involving a van and a truck killed 11 people in Hampstead, Ont., on Feb. 6.

'I would suggest it was an accident waiting to happen.'—Lionell Rudd, engineering technologist

Driver error is being cited after initial investigations into the Ontario crash — police say the van carrying 13 farm workers ran a stop sign before being hit by a Freightliner truck. But retired Laurentian University engineering technologist Lionell Rudd says there are other factors to consider as well.

"I would suggest it was an accident waiting to happen," said Rudd of the Feb. 6 crash.

According to Rudd, regardless of whether the driver of the van stopped at the stop sign or not, the road design in the area where the accident happened may have contributed to the problem. 

He said the high speed at which cars travel on the road, as well as the undulating or wavelike shape of the road, could have made it hard for the driver to judge oncoming traffic, for example.

"The driver could have looked both ways, misjudged the distance, [or] misjudged the vehicle coming towards them," he said. "And then, boom, you’re done."

Dr. Tarek Sayed, a civil engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, agrees that safety is a factor that needs to be first and foremost in the design of roads.

'We need to change our ways of design to make [roads] safety oriented.'—Civil engineering professor

"We need to change our ways of design to make [roads] safety oriented," he said.

Sayed explained that the current way that roads are designed is based on standards that focus more on mobility than driver safety.

"These standards were never designed with safety as the first priority," he said.

While Sayed said he can’t comment specifically on the Hampstead accident, he does say there are particular risks inherent in the design of rural roads and highways, including factors such as the speed permitted on the roads and the visibility of signage.

"Was [the driver of the van] able to see the stop sign [that he ran], was he able to see the other vehicle approaching?," he said.

A fiery crash claimed the lives of five people when an SUV collided with a tractor trailer Feb. 9 on Highway 97 near McLeese Lake B.C. (Wolf FM/CP)

Lionel Rudd said one way to reduce the risk of collisions would be to better regulate speed on highways in bad weather conditions such as snowstorms by dropping the speed limit by 10 or 20 kilometres per hour. Those limits could be enforced by using radar cameras.

"The fact is, the faster you’re going, the worse it is," when road conditions are already tricky, he said.

Rudd said another part of the problem is that accident investigators are often too quick to write off traffic accidents as driver error, without taking a more serious look at the causes that led to the error.

"There are all kind of mitigating factors that only an inquest would show," he said.

Rudd contrasts the brevity of most car accident investigations with the millions of dollars spent when an airplane crashes. He points out that since 2009 there have been 9,000 fatalities on Canada's highways.

"If we had that many airline fatalities, we’d shut down Pearson airport."

Dangerous drives

In 2009, the CAA released a list of the most dangerous highways in Canada. These are the top 5:

  • A section of Highway 11 in Manitoba was called the most dangerous stretch of highway in the province by an RCMP representative in 2007. It’s notable because the 50 km stretch of road between Lac du Bonnet and Traverse is fairly short, but the number of fatalities is high.
  • Highway 103 in Nova Scotia claimed the lives of 29 people between 2006 and 2009. The most dangerous part of the highway is a 127 km stretch between Exit 5 at Tantallon and Exit 20A at Liverpool.
  • Headingly, Man., is home to an extremely busy 6 km section of the Trans-Canada Highway. In 2009 both the provincial and federal governments committed to improving sections of the highway, which saw more than 100 accidents between 2002 and 2009.
  • Alberta’s Highway 63 is one of the most dangerous in the province. Police point to a number of factors, including an increased number of drivers on the road, aggression and speed, that combine to make the 400 km roadway so dangerous. In 2007 alone, 22 people died in accidents on the highway.
  • A 14 km stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that connects Banff National Park and B.C. had a 2008 accident rate that was 17 times higher than the average in Alberta, prompting the government to announce a plan to improve safety on the road. The highway has seen an increase in passenger traffic, and also serves as a key trade route between B.C and Alberta.