Cable barriers on deadly Hwy. 50 stretch won't stop crashes, experts say

A pilot project that would install high-tension cable barriers on a stretch of Highway 50 east of Gatineau isn't in line with North American safety rules and may not prevent head-on collisions, according to transportation experts.

Not enough room between opposite lanes — but province going ahead with plan

There are questions about whether Quebec should install high-tension cable barriers like these along a dangerous stretch of Highway 50, given there's no median between opposing lanes of traffic. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

A pilot project that would install high-tension cable barriers on a deadly stretch of Highway 50 isn't in line with North American safety rules and may not prevent head-on collisions, according to transportation experts.

The five-kilometre stretch from Gatineau to L'Ange-Gardien, Que., has gained a lethal reputation, with two deaths and 15 injured in the last two months. 

Families of collision victims and local elected officials have been demanding something be done to make the undivided highway section safer from now until 2022, when it's expected to be widened to two lanes in each direction.

Earlier this month, Quebec Minister of Transport François Bonnardel confirmed the province will be installing high-tension cable barriers, or HTCBs, in the interim. 

"It's urgent. We have to do something," said the minister in French at a media conference, echoing repeated calls by western Quebec MNAs Mathieu Lacombe and Mathieu Lévesque to implement safety measures.

The Quebec government hopes its pilot project will show the barriers are an innovative, cost-effective solution that could work on other collision-prone roadways.

Engineer Érick Abraham says the Quebec government's plan will be largely unhelpful since the cables will stretch into the oncoming lane when there's a collision. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

Wrong solution, say experts

There are concerns, however, that Quebec is introducing the barriers on a highway that doesn't have enough space between opposing lanes, going against minimum safety standards established across North America.

Engineer Érick Abraham, a road safety specialist at Montreal's École Polytechnique, said the cables won't reduce the risk of a head-on collision.

Nowhere else in Canada and the U.S., said Abraham, are the barriers used to divide opposite directions of a single-lane highway that has no median, grass or otherwise.

"This barrier was not designed for where it will be installed," said Abraham in a French interview with Radio-Canada.

Abraham pointed to a report from Alberta's Ministry of Transportation that examined the use of HTCBs in a province that boasts the longest stretches of the barriers in North America.

That report notes that when a vehicle strikes the cable, it acts like an elastic band, absorbing the vehicle's energy and preventing it from crossing into the oncoming lane.

But the cable needs some room: too little, and the cable stretches into oncoming traffic, taking the vehicle with it.

How HTCBs work — and how they could go wrong

When there's enough space

When there's not enough space

'Not our practice': Alberta

The 20-page report notes HTCBs are unsuitable for medians less than six metres wide.

"When it is struck, the cable barrier can deflect two metres or more," said Peter Mah, an engineer with the ministry. "So that's why it's important to have that allowance for safety for vehicles in the opposite direction."

While Alberta has seen a dramatic decrease in injuries and deaths with the installation of HTCBs, Mah said his province wouldn't allow what Quebec is considering.

"When it comes to installing on a centre line of an undivided highway, that's not our practice," he said.

There's less than one metre of space between the lanes of Highway 50 between Gatineau and L'Ange Gardien, Que. Experts say the cable barriers need significantly more than that to be useful. (Radio-Canada)

No federal guidelines, motorcycle concerns

The five manufacturers that supply HTCBs in the U.S. and Canada report that vehicles that strike the cables continue to travel forward anywhere from two to 3.7 metres before their momentum comes to a halt. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration recently warned that range "is the minimum deflection distance" and can actually be greater, depending on how and where the cables are installed. 

Canada's federal government offers no such guidelines, with each province setting its own standards, according to an email from Transport Canada. 

The U.S. warning also raises concerns about motorcyclist safety when barriers are built with little room between lanes.

A motorcyclist that hits that will literally become mincemeat.- Michel Audy

"The proximity of the barrier to traffic also results in an increase in the number of impacts, but motorcyclists are much more vulnerable and have more reported crashes," it says.

Members of the Outaouais Motorcyclists' Association want Quebec to reconsider the barriers. 

"Any extremity, arms, legs, can get caught up in that at high speeds," said Michel Audy, who deals with safety issues for the association.

"A motorcyclist that hits that will literally become mincemeat. It's as simple as that." 

Michel Audy of the Outaouais Motorcyclists' Association says HTCBs are particularly dangerous for motorcycle riders.

Barriers to be installed quickly

Rosalie Faubert, spokesperson for Quebec's transport ministry, said there are few other options, as the stretch of Highway 50 lacks enough room or adequate visibility to install concrete blocks between the two lanes.

Faubert said the province will try to carve extra space for the cable barriers out of the highway's shoulders. 

She said they're eager to install them quickly, given public safety concerns. The ministry plans to have the HTCBs installed along the five-kilometre route by next spring, before the work on twinning that section begins in spring 2021.




With files from Radio-Canada's Jérôme Bergeron


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