SARNIA, Ont. – Nothing gets everybody’s attention like a fatal truck accident.
Such was the case July 11, when Paul Leblanc, 38, of St. Catharines, Ont. died in hospital after the transport truck he was driving rear-ended a tanker truck stopped near the Indian Road overpass shortly before midnight.
The stationary tanker was the last in a line of transports waiting to cross the Blue Water Bridge when it was hit from behind, police said. The impact drove it forward into the rear of a flatbed also stopped in line. The tanker driver, David Carr, 47, of Illinois, was treated for leg and back injuries and released from hospital. The flatbed driver, Jason McKeever, 32, of Latchford, Ont., complained of neck and back pain but did not seek medical help, police said.
Sarnia police said driver inattentiveness was a factor in the collision. The road was dry and flashing warning signs used to signal bridge delays were operating at the time, said investigators.
The crash was the 27th this year directly related to a back-up of trucks in the westbound lane trying to cross into the U.S. via the Blue Water Bridge.
Blue Water Bridge VP, Stan Korosec, a former OPP officer, with plenty of Highway 402 experience (the highway leads up to the bridge), called an emergency meeting shortly after the crash. He invited Ontario Ministry of Transport (MTO) and Ontario Trucking Association officials, as well as Ontario Provincial Police and local police, to an emergency meeting to address safety in the truck queue near the bridge.
Everyone turned up.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten together to look at safety issues surrounding the approach to the Blue Water Bridge,” said Korosec. “But it’s the first fatal collision related to the truck queue in my memory.”
Post 9/11, the queues became a problem when trucks travelling at high speeds on the 402 didn’t realize there was a jam up ahead. That’s why the MTO put in flashing signs to alert drivers to the queue.
But the signs broke in April and were under repair when the accident occurred, said Kevin Bentley, the MTO engineering manager for Ontario’s southwestern region.
“That doesn’t mean they weren’t working though,” Bentley said. “They went into default mode, and they were flashing all the time. Some people have made the argument that when signs are always flashing that means drivers don’t pay attention to them, but that’s like saying stop signs don’t work for the same reason.”
Signage or no, driver inattention is a factor for truck drivers when approaching the bridge, said Korosec – a factor that was addressed at the emergency meeting.
“Studies have been done that show drivers pay less attention to the road as they near their destination,” Korosec said. “And certainly when a truck driver approaches the border, he’s got lots to do, preparing his documents and so forth, so chances are he’s distracted.”
Officials at the meeting decided the best way to improve safety for drivers in the short term is to increase their awareness of traffic conditions as they approach the bridge.
The flashing signs were being fixed (in July), said Bentley. And it’s likely additional signs will go up in the near future, including signs that display real time text messages about queuing conditions on the two-lane approach to the bridge, placed at strategic locations.
“The initial signage shouldn’t take long, in fact something should be done by the end of the month,” said Bentley.
Other proposals include extending the reduced speed zone approaching the bridge, and rumble strips.
But getting these in place could take longer, said Bentley.
“Changing the speed limit takes longer because it requires amending a Highway Traffic Act regulation,” he explained. “That’s a whole legal process in itself. As for the placement of the rumble strips across the highway to get drivers’ attention as they’re approaching the bridge, it’s something that has to be reviewed. First we have to look at other areas where it has been done and whether it has been effective. Then we have to decide where to place the strips. We have to be careful not to place in residential areas where they would cause noise. And we also have to consider that the truck queue isn’t something that remains the same length all the time.”
Bottom line, the bridge approaches will definitely get more signs (eventually), and the flashing sign that was broken is getting fixed.
As for long-term solutions to the growing truck queue at the bridge, Bentley said a study to determine just how Highway 402 should be improved has just begun. The study will include environmental assessments and public consultations (there are adjacent residential areas.) The target date for 402 construction is 2007, Bentley said.
The project is part of a joint $323 million investment by the federal and Ontario governments to fund 14 border infrastructure projects at the busiest traffic sections in Southern Ontario, announced in May. The Border Infrastructure Fund includes $281 million for improvements to highways and border-crossing infrastructure in the Sarnia, Niagara and London areas. The funding aims to support capacity upgrades – as well as improved bridges and abutments, resurfacing of roads and dedicated truck lanes on steep grades – to the Queen Elizabeth Way and Highways 401, 402 and 405 in Southern Ontario, as well as to the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge.
Canada’s second busiest border crossing (after Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge – approximately 6,000 commercial vehicles cross the Sarnia bridge daily) the Blue Water Bridge will undergo six projects.
These include: Widening Hwy. 401 to six lanes approaching Highway 402 and the Wellington Road/Highway 401 interchange; upgrading the 401/402 interchange at a cost of over $20 million; the reconstruction of a 20 km stretch of Highway 402; operational improvements on a nine km stretch of Highway 402; security enhancements at the bridge; and intelligent transportation systems, including the installation of variable message signs on Highway 402.
Intelligent messaging systems using cameras on the 402 should be in place by next spring, added Bentley.
As for ongoing backups due to U.S. Customs, the bridge is planning to expand customs plazas on both the U.S. and Canadian sides, said Korosec. (The bridge is jointly operated by the Canadian and Michigan governments.)
“We already have the funds in place to completely redo both our plazas, and add more customs booths and a truck ramp out of the Canadian compound directly onto the 402,” said Korosec.
“We’re also encouraging the use of FAST and we already have about 600 to 700 trucks per day using the left lane to get to a special toll booth on the centre lane of the bridge reserved for FAST trucks.
“Once they get to customs it only takes them 30 seconds to clear.” Korosec said it’s up to drivers to make sure they have their paperwork in order if they want to clear U.S. customs quickly and avoid causing backups.
“When electronic reporting comes in, crossing the bridge is going to be a lot faster,” he said.
In the meantime, police are patrolling the FAST-dedicated lane to the tollbooth, to make sure line jumpers don’t butt in.
“We’ve heard of guys photocopying FAST placards or trying to skip the line but you don’t get away with that for long,” said Koresec.
“Either we catch you with a fake placard and we call your boss or the other guys in line catch you jumping the line without a placard. That’s when the tire irons come out.”