How to cut highways' human toll
The answer is toll roads, because saving money also saves lives
Lawrence Solomon
National Post

Three thousand people die on Canada's roads each year, with Ontario's
among the most dangerous, but Highway 407, the electronic toll road north
of Toronto that opened three years ago, has yet to log its first fatality.
Highway 407's collision rate -- 0.27 for every million kilometres of
vehicular travel -- is also enviable, about one-third the rate that occurs
on Highway 401, which runs parallel to the toll road just a few miles to
the south.

Yet Highway 407, though extraordinarily safe when compared with the 401
and other major North American freeways, is not remarkable when compared
with other toll roads: The fatality rate on toll roads is typically
one-half to two-thirds that of freeways. In a society whose members put
public safety ahead of their individual pocketbooks, toll roads -- not
freeways -- are the way to go.

Next month, an Ontario coroner's inquest will investigate one of Canada's
worst-ever highway calamities -- the fiery 84-vehicle crash last September
that took eight lives on a Windsor-to-London stretch of the 401 dubbed
Death Alley. "We've got to examine [whether] there are lessons that can be
learned and ways of making roads safer in Ontario," Dr. James Young,
Ontario's Chief Coroner, said two weeks after the crash.

Precisely what the inquest will examine is shrouded in secrecy: The
coroner's office won't reveal which witnesses it will call, or the nature
of evidence to be presented, until the inquest begins. But previous
inquests into deaths on the province's sorry highway system have typically
confined their recommendations to engineering solutions such as better
lighting, median barriers and paved, rather than gravel, shoulders. No
inquest, to the recollection of the coroner's office, has ever examined,
let alone recommended, what could be the biggest safety improvement of all
-- tolling our existing highways.

In part, the toll road has a vastly superior safety record because its
crews tend to be dedicated to the one road, making them more familiar with
its particular characteristics. As a result, they more promptly clear
debris, plow snow and find and treat icy patches.

But more importantly, toll road operators -- whether public or private --
have a bottom line. When traffic isn't moving, a toll road can lose
$30,000 per hour or more, giving it a powerful incentive to invest in
safety and other equipment that lets it pounce on small problems before
they become big. Though preventing blood from being spilled on the highway
may motivate them less than having their own books bleed red ink, the
drive for profits nevertheless pushes toll road operators to find new ways
to boost safety.

One example of such incentives at work is California's Route 91 Express
Lanes, a toll road built in the median of a freeway serving Los Angeles.
Express Lanes employs high-tech cameras -- and a private fleet of tow
trucks on continuous patrol -- to monitor its road. When the control
centre spots trouble, it immediately dispatches the nearest tow truck to
deal with it. The tow truck operator will change flat tires, boost
batteries, provide a free gallon of gas to cars that have run out or, if
necessary, tow them -- anything to get cars off the side of the road,
where they attract the attention of gawking passersby, slow traffic and
create an accident risk.

To prevent congestion -- a chief cause of accidents -- Express Lanes
raises tolls during peak hours. This technique so successfully maintains
free-flowing roads that Express Lanes offers a money-back guarantee to
anyone unable to drive at the legal speed limit of 65 miles per hour.
Other toll roads are developing methods to provide advance warning when
fog suddenly blankets an area -- an often-cited cause of the 401 crash
that the inquest is expected to examine. They plan to warn drivers
entering a hazardous stretch via roadside messages and -- sooner than you
might think -- via messages to the drivers' dashboards.

The operators of Highway 401 and other freeways across North America don't
like to see carnage on the road any more than their for-profit
counterparts do, and many governments have invested impressively in
high-tech equipment, both to improve the efficiency of their freeways and
to save lives.

But unlike toll road operators, which are primarily focused on road
profits, government freeway owners have many masters to please.
Influential communities obtain better traffic enforcement for themselves
at the expense of others. In some jurisdictions, patronage, rather than
merit, determines which road crews are hired. Most of all, because road
investments come out of the general purse, they compete with medicare,
education and other public demands for new spending. As Ezra Hauer,
professor emeritus at the University of Toronto's Department of Civil
Engineering and a fellow of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, put
it to an international road safety conference in Alberta in 1998: "Any
safety initiatives in the transportation infrastructure might be costly
and would have to come from the treasury, with no immediate compensation
by taxation."

For this reason, governments across Canada have allowed our road system to
deteriorate badly, despite persistent warnings from safety-minded
organizations. Although governments and road authorities acknowledge that
necessary upgrades to the national highway infrastructure would save 250
lives a year, they balk at the $17-billion price tag involved. To a toll
road operator, unsafe roads are bad for business. To a government, safe
roads are a luxury. The question for society: Can we afford the human toll
of free roads?

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