Car Crash Tragedies – Author’s Opinion

EZRA HAUER, Professor (emeritus), Department of Civil Engineering, University of Toronto. B.Sc., Technion, Israel; M.Sc. Technion, Israel; Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley. Active in road safety research and consulting since 1970. Author of more than 200 scientific papers. Recipient of R. Crum Award, U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Engineering (1999) and ITE Transportation Safety Award (1993). Director, Transportation Safety Council, Institute of Transportation Engineers(1993-1995); Member 407 Safety Review (1997), Coordinator of "Safety Research Group Ontario" (1981-1993).Vice President, Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals (1987-88); President, Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals (1985-86); Member, Advisory Board, International Association of Traffic Safety Sciences, Japan, (1986-); Member, International Committee of Symposia on Traffic and Transportation Theory (1983-), Convener (1996-2000); Associate Editor of "Accident Analysis & Prevention (1982-1995); Chairman, Committee on Methodology for Evaluating Highway Improvements, Transportation Research Board (1982-), Chairman (1993-1995); Member, Committee to Study Geometric Design Standards, U.S. National Research Council (1984-1987). Current publications downloadable from RoadSafetyReearch.com.

Preamble: This article was published with minor modifications in the Opinion section of the Globe and Mail on 9/23/2023

What do we do when tragedy strikes? We are sad, we try to comfort the bereaved, we pray for the injured, and we seek solace in the community. That is how it should be, initially. But would it also not be natural to talk about what to do so that we do not find ourselves in the future lighting candles again? 

It would, wouldn’t it? But as I listen to the radio, read the papers, watch the news, I see little of it happening. Media coverage is extensive, mournful, and compassionate, but questioning is rare. It is as if the deaths of young hockey players (2018) and of gray-haired grandparents (2023) were something that is bound to happen from time to time, as if what could have been reasonably done has been done, as if there was merit in polite acquiescence. What explains this air of resignation, this unquestioning acceptance, this passive docility? 

Part of the explanation stems from the knowledge that had the persons involved in a crash acted differently the crash would not have occurred, that it is we who are the proximate cause of crashes. Another part comes from the admission that humans are fallible, we all err and misjudge. Did it not happen to you that you noticed a pedestrian at the last moment and gasped: “My God, I could have taken a life and destroyed mine”? It did happen to me.  Do you never drive when tired, even sleepy? I do, at times. Did you never just go through a stop sign? With my wife beside me, and without slowing down, I ignored a stop sign. I was not in a rush, I was sober, fully awake, the sun was shining, and the stop sign was not obscured. Till today, decades later, I have no explanation for what happened. Thanks to the alert bus driver coming from my left (who must have uttered some unprintables) I can write about it today. 

It was misjudgment and error that caused the crash in which the Manitoba seniors died and also in the Humboldt Broncos crash. So, it would have been in any crash in which you the readers were involved. Knowing that it is us who cause crashes, knowing that we are fallible, and knowing that in spite of century-old attempts to improve road user behavior we still make mistakes, one can perhaps understand where the collective air of resignation and acceptance come from. If nothing can be done, then what is the point of questioning? 

But there is. There are things that can be done so we err less frequently and for the consequences of our errors to be less injurious. Consider the Manitoba crash. To cross the four-lane divided road the bus driver had to stop, make sure that nothing was coming from the left, cross two lanes of a high-speed road, see that nothing was coming from the right, and then cross two more high-speed lanes. While it is a perfectly doable task, it is also a task that can go wrong. The foot can slip off the brake, it can unintentionally hit the accelerator pedal, the vehicle can stall, the driver may misperceive the speed of the oncoming vehicle and misjudge the time needed to cross safely. Indeed, so ergonomists tell me, people are really bad at judging the speed of fast oncoming vehicles. The maneuver can go wrong and occasionally it does. This intersection design has the dubious distinction of having the highest proportion of injury crashes of all at-grade intersections. Why then was it built this way and could one not make it safer? One could.

Had there been an overpass these seniors would be alive today. Yes, building grade-separated intersections (interchanges) is expensive. But look south of the Manitoba border. There are no at-grade intersections on the Interstates in Minnesota and North Dakota. The builders of the Interstate system decided to build a safer system than did the builders of the Trans-Canada Highway in Manitoba. Should one not ask why? 

If building overpasses is too costly, there are cheaper options. One could install an ‘Intersection Conflict Warning System’ that warns the main road driver about minor road vehicles intending to cross and warns the other driver of a high-speed vehicle approaching.  It is cheap and reduces injury crashes by 15%-20%. Was this option considered and rejected? Rejected on what grounds? Alternatively, one could signalize the intersection with the light resting on green for the main road and turning red only when vehicles on the minor road actuate a detector, making such intersections even safer. Was that not an option? And if signalization is not practical because traffic on the minor road is too heavy and would significantly delay main road vehicles, one could build a roundabout or consolidate minor road traffic to nearby interchanges by service roads. Was that possibility considered and discarded? There always are several design options and we know how to predict how many crashes of what severity to expect with each. 

There really is no escape from the realization that roads can be built to be safer or less safe. And this realization leads to another important truth that while the proximate cause of nearly all crashes are road user actions, it is also true that the number and severity of crashes on our roads is largely determined by those who decide how roads are built and how operated. It is therefore not idle to ask whether the right decision was made when the Manitoba intersection was built. Nor is it idle to inquire whether this and other intersections can be made safer. I find it strange that this kind of questioning is largely absent from the public discourse. For, if these questions are not asked, we will again and again find ourselves helplessly reciting the tired formula about thoughts and prayers being with the victims, only that the victims will be new every time.

Five years before the sixteen Manitoba seniors died the nation was shocked by the death of sixteen Humboldt Bronco youngsters also at an at-grade intersection, this time in Saskatchewan. Here too the proximate cause was human error; the truck driver ran the stop sign on the minor road when on the main road the bus carrying the hockey team was too close to the intersection to stop. As is usual, attention focused on the offending driver; was he speeding, impaired, tired, texting, with previous offences? None of these applied. The truck driver was 29 with only one year of truck-driving experience and no special training. In Ontario, at that time, truck drivers had to have ‘Mandatory Entry Level Training’ (MELT) but the same was not required in other provinces. Not that one needs special training to know what a stop sign means. Nor, as we now know, does the MELT (as implemented in Ontario) reduce truck crashes; the opposite seems to be closer to the truth.  But, since it makes common sense that driving a heavy rig requires training, mandating MELT was the principal governmental response to that tragedy.

There was grieving, anger, coming together, offers of help — there still is. But there was very little discussion about how to prevent such future tragedies by making roads safer. Is there nothing else that could be done, nothing that should be done?

Yes, there is. 

Of several such actions but I will mention only one. There were trees on one corner of that intersection so that the truck driver could not see the bus on the main road and the bus driver could not see the fast-approaching truck on the minor road till it was much too late. Had the sight distance been 130m as the Saskatchewan standard requires and not about 10m as it actually was, the outcome might have been different.  

By now those trees have been removed. But there are many other intersections with insufficient sight distances. A program to bring sight- distances up to standard could be costly and infringe on property rights. Many would object. They would argue that long sight distances are not really necessary, that all one has to do is to obey the stop signs. True, but beside the point. Except for those bent on suicide, people do not intentionally put themselves in the path of an oncoming vehicle. They may err, misjudge, be tired, distracted, impaired etc., but neither they nor those entirely blameless in the crash deserve to die. Research shows that short intersection sight distances cause injuries. Not providing adequate sight distances amounts to saying that, on balance, the lives of the seniors, of the hockey players, and of the many others killed and maimed at such intersections are less important than the money and freedom costs of such a program. Is that the right balance?

I cannot say. Engineers can predict how many injuries there will be, can estimate minutes of delay, can compute construction and maintenance costs, but there is nothing in their training and experience enabling and empowering them to balance lives and injuries against time, against dollars and against freedoms. That balance should represent long-term societal values with guidance coming from enlightened elected representatives. It is they who, in the final account, determine how many will be injured, how many killed. And so, rather than helplessly wringing our hands when tragedy strikes, rather than blaming and seeking revenge, we should ask whether our government is doing its job, whether the right amount of safety is being built into this man-made system.