Environment featured Inclusion

Martyn Williams: New rules of the road: Public feedback invited until January 8

Herring Cove Road crosswalk.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Nova Scotia government is asking for public feedback by January 8 on 65 pages of regulations which will dictate how roads should be used by the public, and also potentially allow for some safer controls and infrastructure for vulnerable road users. 

Currently, the public is not aware of many key safety rules which concern how they should behave around pedestrians, for example the legal requirement to continue yielding to pedestrians until they have reached either a physical median or the sidewalk. 

So could new rules of the road really result in safer streets for vulnerable road users? Won’t things really be just the same, regardless of what rules are in place?

That obviously depends on how rules are enforced, and how information about some of the incomprehensible rules is presented to the public. 

At some locations, such as the highly dangerous crosswalk on Herring Cove Road shown in the above photo (the same crosswalk where Sarah Richardson was hit in December) only crosswalk adaptations and improvements can make a real difference to the safety of users, such as narrowed lanes, refuge islands, a raised crosswalk and/or lights.

However there are some key changes which could make a tangible difference to the safety of vulnerable road users, and undoubtedly will prevent incidents and even deaths. 

Here are key changes needed to the draft proposed rules:

1 – Directional (arrow) traffic lights which turn red, not just amber and green.

This may seem like an obscure and technical provision to start off with, but it could actually be the most significant change in terms of reducing the most common cause of pedestrians using crosswalks legally being hit in Halifax by drivers.

Our directional/arrow traffic lights are in place at many signalised intersections to effect a protected left turning phase for drivers, when oncoming traffic is halted with a red light. This is far safer because drivers do not have to carefully judge their turn through a gap in oncoming traffic. 

However, after that directional light switches off, the main traffic light “ball” light stays green. Drivers continue to turn left during this phase, watching carefully for a gap in oncoming traffic to make their turn. However they are not looking to their left for pedestrians, who began crossing legally on a walk sign. 

This is a recipe for constant incidents and every year, the most common cause of pedestrians being hit in Halifax. The result of this dangerous infrastructure-related conflict can be seen here in this video, at the intersection between Keshen Goodman public library and the Canada Games Centre, in which I was wearing bright clothing but not using civil language. This (the close call, not the swearing) is not at all unusual.

The two pedestrians hit in Bedford at Convoy Run and the Bedford Highway in June last year, leaving one with serious injuries, were hit by a driver turning left on a green light, although there are no directional traffic lights at that location.

A directional light which turns red (seen below in a photo taken by Norm Collins in Panama City) would stop drivers from making this dangerous left turn while pedestrians are crossing, and it would also prevent crashes between the left turning driver and oncoming traffic. However, traffic going straight can continue doing so, therefore the impact on traffic flow is minimal.

Panama City. Photo Norm Collins

This just requires a draft regulation which currently permits only green and amber directional lights to also permit red directional lights. Local traffic light technician Kyle Miller says that the current lights can be easily changed so that a red directional phase is visible, so this really would be an inexpensive change that would make our signalised intersections safer to use, by all.

2 – Safe speeds in school zones, all the time

What if speeds in school zones were safe, all the time? At present the regulations require drivers to keep to 30 km/h, at any time when children are present. However every parent (and child) knows that drivers often do not see children, and often drive over the 30 km/h limit. 

In the UK, school zones are adapted to support a maximum speed of 20mph (32 km/h) and safety for vulnerable road users 24/7, with measures such as road narrowing, no parking zones, pedestrian refuge islands, speed humps and raised crosswalks.

A permanent lower speed limit in school zones that applies all the time, irrespective of whether children are present, would allow the municipality to make similar adaptations that support lower speeds all the time, and ensure the safety of children is prioritized. This may help turn the disturbing trend in Canada where a survey by Parachute Canada found that the majority (75%) of parents prevent their children from walking to school due to concerns about speeding cars and traffic.

Permanent lower speeds in residential and school areas are linked to many positive changes – including lower levels of vulnerable road user incidents and a shift towards choosing active transport for local journeys.

3 – Safe and prioritized journeys for e-bikes, cyclists and micro-mobility users.

Cycling in Halifax is incredibly challenging and dangerous. To avoid considerable danger from fast moving traffic on artery and collector roads, cyclists often hop on the sidewalk to avoid treacherous passing, and use crosswalks to avoid risking the middle of wide and dangerous intersections. Most incidents involving cyclists in Halifax (65%) are within intersections. In October 2020, all eight incidents involving cyclists were at an intersection. 

While micro-mobility, e-bike and cycling revolutions have hit Europe and transformed the way people travel, and even how commercial goods are delivered, that cannot happen in Nova Scotia until our road rules and space considers the safety needs of vulnerable road users on wheels. 

There are several provisions with the proposed draft rules which should be adapted to allow for the safer cycling:

  • The minimum legal passing distance for cyclists should be increased from 1 metre to 1.5 metres, as recommended by cycling advocacy groups and actively enforced by police in some jurisdictions.
  • Crossrides should be legalised, which provide a separated area of a crosswalk specifically for cyclists and micro-mobility users.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, cycling two abreast can actually be safer for all road users, hence why this is legal in many countries. Internationally renowned cyclists Chris Boardman explains why here.
  • There should be a wider discretion for cyclists to “take the lane”, or move towards the centre of the lane, required for safe cycling in most urban areas for many reasons, commonly due to parked vehicles presenting a major hazard to cyclists when the door is opened suddenly by the driver or passenger in front of them, as they are passing the vehicle. This has happened to me three times, resulting in permanent injury.

Regarding proposed changes to the draft rules relating to cyclists, please also review Bicycle Nova Scotia and Halifax Cycling Coalition’s excellent summaries and submissions.

My full submission to the Nova Scotian government on the draft Using the Road Regulations can be reviewed here. Please consider how changes to the rules may help make your journey safer, and provide your own feedback by January 8th.

See also: 2020: Another year of preventable crosswalk fatalities in Halifax

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. Please remember to report issues affecting your safety to our municipal authorities using the 311 service.

With a special thanks to our generous donors who make publication of the Nova Scotia Advocate possible.

Subscribe to the Nova Scotia Advocate weekly digest and never miss an article again. It’s free!