Toll roads v. the Canadian Accident Association

You have a flat tire. Or you need a tow. Or a boost. Or you’ve run out of gas. If you’re like millions of Canadians, you call the Canadian Automobile Association to get you going again.

Except if you’re on the 407, the electronic toll road north of Toronto. Highway 407 users don’t need these CAA services because the highway operators look after their customers. They’ll change your tire for you for free if it’s flat, or give you a free gallon of gas if you’ve run out. Or a free boost if you’ve stalled, or free windshield wiper fluid if you can’t see.

Highway 407 users don’t need the CAA for another reason as well: Accidents are relatively rare on the 407, as they are on all well maintained toll roads with vanishingly few accidents, another bread and butter CAA business – endorsing tow trucks and accident repairs as “CAA-Approved” – becomes less profitable.

The motoring public has so warmed to Highway 407 and other toll roads that drivers increasingly opt for them. London, England, loves the toll so much that politicians run for office on promises to toll. The U.K. plans to toll all roads, urban or local. Because of the toll road’s growing popularity, some predict that other Western governments in the future may someday follow suit. With all these developments building momentum over the last decade, little wonder that CAA has been making it its mission to stem the trend in Canada and attempt to block all proposed toll roads.

Last week, for example, the Ontario government announced its intention to expand the provincial toll road system. CAA’s Ontario wing immediately criticized the decision. “It is the wrong approach,” lobbyist Mark Arsenault flatly claimed, never mentioning the lives that a toll road system could save. CAA lobbies instead for more free roads, which don’t need to pass a market test to ensure the government isn’t putting through a pork-barrel project. And, although CAA safety experts know of the toll road’s superior safety record, CAA confines itself to recommending better seat belts, better vehicle inspections, and other safety measures that, although important, wouldn’t cause CAA, itself, to become a casualty.

The lengths to which electronic toll road operators go to keeping their roads safe and free flowing – when cars don’t move, toll roads lose revenue – contrasts with the apathy of government operators who run free roads. Highway crews patrol 24/7 along the 407’s entire 108-kilometres, allowing them to quickly aid any driver in distress – its snowplow drivers actually sleep at nearby company yards to make sure they’re ready to go within minutes. In winter, the crews double their number of patrols between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m., Monday to Friday. At all times, the roaming crews remove debris that can cause accidents, and monitor the road for cars that have pulled off the highway, to keep rubbernecking to a minimum.

Other toll roads go even further to ensure public safety and less stressful driving. The Express Lanes tollway built in the median of a freeway outside Los Angeles, for example, bans tractor trailers and other heavy vehicles (apart from fire trucks and other vehicles needed in an emergency). Reserving those lanes for passenger vehicles only makes good economic sense – it both pleases the motorist and saves maintenance expense by protecting the road from the heavy vehicles that cause most of the damage.

In contrast, CAA tells its members to learn to live with the danger and discomfort of driving next to tractor trailers. “Help that passing truck,” it advises. “Keep your eyes on the road ahead and on your mirrors when a truck tries to pass you.” While CAA pays lip-service to a theoretical possibility that toll roads may some day under some conditions have some place in our society, never does it fight for its members’ right to a choice, always does it obstruct plans by governments or the private sector to provide meaningful options for the driving public.

CAA’s financial statements reveal the extent to which it depends on the bad service on free roads that all Canadians have come to unquestioningly accept. About 95% of CAA’s $20-million in annual revenue comes from “member and roadside assistance services.” CAA might as well stand for Canadian Accident Association.

Lawrence Solomon, Executive Director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe, May 17, 2004
 

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