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Road safety in Nova Scotia: Not just a problem, it’s a crisis

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A day does not go by without news of a very serious injury or death on our roads. During just one week over the month of August in Nova Scotia there were six fatal and six serious injuries due to collisions, four involving motorcycles.

Then, news of the death of a young motorcyclist tragically killed in Dartmouth. Matt Whitman’s unfortunate incident on his motorbike looked very nasty but perhaps in context of this horrific month, he was lucky.  

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This is an unacceptable situation for a sparsely populated and large province which relies on its road network to function.

Who in local and provincial governance will stand up and admit that road safety in Nova Scotia is not a problem, it is a crisis? And announce that we need to roll out emergency measures, plans and funding which will enable us to travel safely?

This isn’t a safety lecture. We do what we can to avoid accidents and stay safe. Neither is it a rant about what drivers can get away with without facing enforcement consequences – the police do what they can within their allocated resources to prevent dangerous behaviour on our roads.

Our traffic police face the most difficult conditions to deliver effective enforcement – no camera enforcement, virtually no physical traffic calming measures, and many dangerous wide and multiple lane roads with high speed limits in built up areas which are often light on traffic. Result: Speeding, red light running, dangerous overtaking, pedestrians who are not seen on wide and poorly marked crosswalks, and traffic moving too quickly and closely around cyclists and bikers.

Hence this plea recently issued by Halifax Regional Police to drivers regarding Joseph Howe Road after clocking drivers moving at around double the speed limit: Don’t judge your speed based on the design of the road. While this area allows four lanes of traffic, the speed limit is still 50km/h.

Do road accidents just happen to careless people?

We must get to work, go to the shops, visit friends and family and get on with our lives despite the situation on our roads. But don’t the regular deaths and severe injuries just affect those who are not taking enough care?

Reckless road users exist everywhere, but what the statistics reveal is a very disproportionate amount of accidents and fatalities which affect vulnerable road users (cyclists, bikers and pedestrians), which Transport Canada say account for over a quarter of traffic fatalities in Canada. And if you happen to be a pedestrian who is also a senior citizen, sadly the chances of being hit on our roads is even greater.

How about locally? Halifax has the highest rate of collisions in Canada for several years running, according to insurance data. And Nova Scotia’s most severe collisions involve pedestrians and cyclists.

The situation on our roads especially for vulnerable users is not normal or safe. They are much more likely to be involved in severe accidents compared to drivers, not because they are being careless, but because they lack an appropriate environment on our roads; safe crossing points, lower traffic speeds, safe intersections, traffic law which minimizes conflict and danger, and appropriate space to walk or cycle separated from traffic – sidewalks or cycle lanes.

Intersections: The key to safer roads for all

In the Halifax Regional Municipality, more than three times the number of collisions involving pedestrians happen at signalized intersection crosswalks compared to other locations, including mid-block crosswalks with overhead lights. Our traffic lights do not prevent traffic from turning left when pedestrians cross on a walk sign, a conflict which leads to HRM’s most common cause of vehicles hitting pedestrians.  

Our Provincial law allows traffic to turn right on a red, another common cause of traffic hitting pedestrians, also a cause of collisions with oncoming traffic including bikers and cyclists. And where intersections lack a protected turn enabled through a directional/arrow traffic light, traffic turning left must find a gap to cut through oncoming traffic – a very dangerous maneuver and regular cause of accidents involving all road users.  

In the UK, turning traffic has a red light at signalized intersections throughout the duration the walk sign is on, permitting a “protected” crossing where pedestrians do not rely just on a legal right of way. In North America, that is often unfortunately unthinkable due to the greater priority given to traffic flow over safety, so instead some cities have introduced “Leading Pedestrian Intervals” at signalized intersections, which give pedestrians a 3 to 7 second head start to cross before turning traffic gets a green light to proceed. Although this is an insulting “head start” if you happen to be elderly or disabled, these have resulted in a 40% reduction in severe accidents involving bikes and pedestrians where introduced in New York. What a difference this would make in Halifax and Nova Scotia!

To make travel safer for vulnerable road users, Nova Scotia must focus on locations where there is conflict between traffic flows, particularly at our wide and dangerous signalized intersections. Upgrading and re-adjusting our existing traffic lights alone should lead to a very significant reduction in collisions, and would enable us to get about safely without dodging turning traffic coming from all angles. Or, something like this raised crosswalk at an intersection in Amherst, Nova Scotia, should make a significant difference to slow traffic and make crossing points much more visible.

What else is a priority? Everyone who uses our roads as a pedestrian, cyclist and driver is often affected by speeding. Many cities in North America, Australia and Europe now have 20mph (32kph) speed limits on residential and downtown roads. For the next article we will examine speed, and how we could  address this phenomenon that has taken so many lives and ruined so many others.

See also:
Road safety plan offers fabulous graphics but fails to make Halifax roads safer
We can do better than Nova Scotia’s no frills crosswalks

If you walk, cycle or use a wheelchair and are affected by road safety issues, please join HRM Safe Streets for Everyone. If your local crosswalk needs a crosswalk flag, please contact the Crosswalk Safety Society.


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    1. Thanks Oliver, agreed. The situation is already critical and will get worse unless we act quickly. All we have planned imminently is more education, which is recognised in our road safety framework to be less effective to the infrastructure changes we need. And it’s not all about expensive road and intersection re-designs

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