How to cut highways’ human toll

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
May 2, 2000

“The answer is toll roads, because saving money also saves lives”

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?

Responses to How to Cut Highways’ Human Toll 

Toll Roads Are Safe Roads

Tollways Newsletter, May/June 2000
Neil Schuster, Executive Director, International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA)

A May 2 opinion editorial in the Financial Post, a Toronto, Ontario, Canada newspaper, points out that toll roads are among the world’s safest. The article was authored by Lawrence Solomon, Executive Director of the Urban Renaissance Institute.

Noting that accidents on Ontario’s toll road, Highway 407, are one-third the rate on a parallel toll-free road, the author suggests, “In a society whose members put public safety ahead of their individual pocketbooks, toll roads – not freeways – are the way to go.” The author adds that Ontario’s safety experience is not unique.

In fact, toll facilities around the world are among the safest roadways, the author states. He notes that Highway 407 is fatality-free, after three years of operation. He adds that California’s 91 Express Lanes, a privately-operated set of lanes in the median of a toll-free road, rely on high-tech cameras to respond quickly to incidents to insure that the road remains safe for all its customers.

The reason our industry enjoys its enviable safety record, according to Mr. Solomon, is that “Toll road operators – whether public or private – have a bottom line,” and therefore “a powerful incentive to invest in safety.”

Mr. Solomon concludes, “To a toll road operator, unsafe roads are bad for business…. The question for society: can we afford the human toll of free roads?”

The road to highways that work: letters

Tuesday, May 23, 2000
National Post

Frank Gray

I read with great interest Lawrence Solomon’s partially accurate column which recommended new tolls to reduce highway fatalities.

While his recommended solution of raising taxes on citizens and businesses who use public roads is utter nonsense, his arguments perfectly articulate the problem: the reality that governments are badly mismanaging our public road infrastructure.

There are, of course, billions of dollars of taxes already being collected from road users that are not spent on making the infrastructure safer and more compatible with today’s traffic volumes. Instead, they spend this money on endless government pet projects and tell us to take government public transit. The 407 is not safer because users get a monthly bill. It is safer because of its modern design, and ability to cope with the traffic volume demands. Our roads are in terrible shape, and overcongested because governments have been negligent in maintaining and expanding highway infrastructure, which has added to our pollution levels and cost Canadian businesses billions in lost productivity.

Government has proven beyond a doubt that it is incapable of managing our roads and highway systems. It is gouging motorists and businesses with high taxes that it uses for its own best interests.

It is time for government and its bloated transportation bureaucracies to step aside, and let the experts in the private sector provide us the highway infracture we need and deserve. The 407/401 comparison says it all. And no new taxes would be required.

Frank Gray, Unionville, Ont.

Basil D. Kingstone

Mr. Solomon’s article floats the silliest proposal I have ever heard of. To begin with, it is false that toll roads are better maintained than public ones. Drive the Pennsylvania turnpike and the (free) Keystone Northway, or the Ohio turnpike and I-94, and compare.

How could toll roads be better maintained? They are in business to make money. Highway 407 is new; wait till it is the age of Highway 401. It will perhaps never be as crowded as the 401, because first, it is further north, and second, many people won’t pay to do something they can do for free.

Toll road operators are in fact dumping traffic on the freeways, keeping those for whom it is worthwhile spending money to save time. This fact explains the lower accident rate alleged for toll roads, though the claim surprises me and I would like to know where it comes from — the operators themselves? The biggest improvements needed on our existing freeways? Widen them, provide more cameras in areas where traffic jams occur, and add more signboards for warning messages. Have tow trucks cruising around. Make work crews responsible for their particular piece of highway so they put some pride into it. Reserve lanes for cars with two or more people in them.

But don’t let governments abdicate their financial responsibilities. Oh yes, and get as much freight traffic as possible back on rail where it belongs. Build new railroads, as they are doing in Europe today. A little less free capitalism and a little more social responsibility from EPRF, please.

Basil D. Kingstone, dept. of French, University of Windsor.

Lionel Albert

Congratulations on your splendid piece. I have taken an interest in transport matters for many years and find there is rarely anything said that adds to the store of human knowledge on the subject.

I had thought that privately owned or leased roads simply make the construction and maintenance more efficient, with only indirect safety benefits.

For example, the system of contracts for construction or maintenance introduced in Britain under Mrs. Thatcher, with penalties for daytime road or lane closures or failure to meet target completion dates (and bonuses for the converse), has produced what look like impressive results. They also include free towing for disabled vehicles, but only in zones under major construction, where there is a long-term lane closure or lane shift to the shoulder.

In the terms of the completely private operation that you describe, the British system can only be called half-measures.

Lionel Albert, Knowlton, Que.

Related articles:
Toll roads v. the Canadian Accident Association
London’s green streets
Toll skeptics be damned: London’s rolling
The toll on business
The take from tolls
Don’t tax, toll: Presentation to the Canadian Home Builders’ Association
London unjammed
Don’t tax, toll
Toll today’s roads, don’t build more
How the free road lobby led us astray
Toll road commentary
Road safety

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