Next month, a coroner’s inquest will investigate one of Canada’s worst-ever highway calamities – the fiery 84-vehicle crash last September on a stretch of the 401 between Windsor and London. That stretch, which took 8 lives on that occasion and many others before and since, is dubbed Death Alley. Other stretches on other Canadian highways have names like Killer Road. All told, 3000 Canadians lose their lives to traffic accidents each year.
But one highway in Canada has never claimed a life – Highway 407, which runs parallel to Highway 401, just a few miles to its north. In part, that’s a coincidence – no highway is immune from fatal car crashes. But Highway 407 does have something going for it. Highway 407 is a toll road, and toll roads are remarkably safe. Highway 407’s accident rate is about one-third that of Highway 401.
U.S. toll roads are also safer than U.S. freeways. In terms of fatalities across North America, your chance of being killed per mile traveled on a freeway is typically 50% to 100% higher than on a toll road.
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 equipment and in other equipment that lets it pounce on small problems before they become big.
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. The tow truck operator will change flat tires, boost batteries, provide a free gallon of gas to cars that have run out – 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.
The operators of Highway 401 and other freeways don’t like to see carnage on the road any more than their for-profit counterparts.
But unlike toll road operators, which are primarily focussed on road profits, government freeway owners have many masters to please. Because road investments come out of the general purse, they compete with medicare, education and other public demands for new spending.
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, they’re a luxury. The question for society: Can we afford the human toll of free roads?
Lawrence Solomon, Executive Director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe, May 4, 2004