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Technology can make Northern roads safer, slower: report

Report from Northern Policy Institute recommends new ways to make roads and highway traveling safer in the North
A new report from the Northern Policy Institute speaks to using technology to make roads safer for driving. Ashley/Pexels

Technology can be used to make Northern Ontario roads safer with such things as sensors that will automatically create a lower speed limit if the roads are too snowy or ice-covered. 

Using the technology can reduce crashes and save lives according to a detailed report published by the Northern Policy Institute (NPI), — Smart Solutions for Northern Roads authored by William Dunstan.

Dunstan argued that by using existing technology to change accepted driving practises, fewer crashes would occur and lives could be saved. It would also reduce the number of driving disruptions from closed highways.  

"Roads in Northern Ontario are often dangerous, in poor shape, or non-existent. A new briefing note from NPI finds that these shortcomings can be addressed by using innovative technologies in road construction and design. Several “smart road” technologies already implemented in other areas represent cost-effective options to improve safety. As well, innovative road construction techniques could make it cheaper and easier to build and maintain roads in Northern Ontario," Dunstan wrote.

The 14-page report outlines there are several options open to the government to bring about changes. One of the options is called FAST, or Fixed Automated Spray Technology. FAST is already being used in a handful of locations in Southern Ontario. 

The FAST option would automatically spray anti-icing liquids when sensors detect that atmospheric conditions are likely to form ice or bonded snow on the road surface. 

"The technology is best suited for bridges that freeze before the rest of the road, especially those in remote locations that are costly to service manually," said the report. 

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) currently maintains eight FAST installations across the province, but only one in its northern regions: at Burk’s Falls, near the southern boundary of the northeastern region, said the report.

Another option would use sensors to determine a safer — and slower — speed limit when the weather is bad. The system is known as a Dynamic Speed Limit (DSL), which would adjust the speed limit to match the prevailing road conditions. Drivers would be forced to slow down and therefore reduce crashes. The report said the system could send weather information to an operator who would manually adjust the speed limit, or it would use technology to automatically change the speed limits. 

The report said DSLs have been implemented successfully in British Columbia on roads similar to those in Northern Ontario.  One study done in 2021 examined the impact of DSLs on a section of a rural, undivided, two-lane highway and a divided, four-lane freeway during the winter season (October–March). It was found that DSLs reduced collision frequency by 35 per cent, said the report. 

Dunstan argued that DSLs could be implemented easily enough given that weather sensors are already in place on highways throughout Northern Ontario. Dunstan noted in this report that "on some northern highways, half of all collisions and an equal share of fatal crashes occur during periods of snow and ice cover on roads." 

Section speed control is another option described in the report. It said instead of using speed cameras to monitor the speed of a vehicle at one location, the cameras could be spaced apart over several kilometres to monitor a vehicle's speed over that section of highway.

Studies done in other jurisdictions found that section control was able to reduce the incidence of serious auto crashes, injuries and deaths from 30 to 50 per cent.

"If drivers know that their speed will be monitored across an extended road segment, they are more likely to adhere to the lower speed limit," said the report.

The fourth option outlined in the report was about the creation of wooden mat roads. This option speaks to the need of more all-weather roads to serve small and rural communities in the Far North. The report said the many existing winter roads do not last long enough and with climate change, most winter roads will be in place for weeks, instead of months. This would be especially important in areas that have wetlands and muskeg.

This would make mat roads viable, said the report, because they have less environmental impact than a traditional gravel road, and are far less expensive to build and maintain. 

The report concluded that the Ontario government should take a serious look at the options for improving safety as well as commit to more funding for research. 

"To improve road safety in the North, the Ontario government should implement proven smart road technologies on many sections of highways. Furthermore, government support ought to be provided for further research and trials to assist the development of equally promising but less proven road construction techniques."

This is the second report in as many months where NPI is recommending changes to government policy to improve Northern Ontario highways. A report released in September — Saving Lives and Money: 2 + 1 Roads — spoke to the importance of twin-laning major highways across the North in a move aimed at saving lives. 

This story was originally published on TimminsToday on Oct. 18.

Len Gillis

About the Author: Len Gillis

Graduating from the Journalism program at Canadore College in the 1970s, Gillis has spent most of his career reporting on news events across Northern Ontario with several radio, television and newspaper companies. He also spent time as a hardrock miner.
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