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Coroner's inquiry into 87-car crash: puzzling recommendations

By: staff

Date: 2000-07-14

After hearing evidence on a fiery 87-vehicle crash that killed eight people on a fog-bound stretch of Highway 401 in Ontario, Canada, a coroner's jury has made 25 recommendations aimed at cracking down on dangerous and aggressive drivers.

The proposals include increasing the number of police officers dedicated to traffic enforcement and the re-establishment of photo radar, which was introduced on a trial basis several years ago and then abandoned.

However, a leading traffic researcher who has acted as an expert witness in collision litigation and at coroner's inquests, says he's puzzled by the jury's recommendations, none of which appear to have much bearing on the apparent cause of the pile-up-driving in thick fog.

Larry Lonero, a principal of Northport Associates, says he's also surprised by the spin given to the story by local media, which seemed to have focussed on the issue of photo radar.

"Not all the recommendations were published in the media," Lonero says, "but the ones I have seen don't seem to have too much relevance.

"It looks like this thing was turned into an investigation on how can we make Highway 401 safer. I've seen inquests do this before where they jump on a case that has only limited relevance because they feel they have to do something.

"That in itself is fine," Lonero adds, "but it's also a little scary. Does no one have any good idea about what to do about accidents in fog?

"Drivers need to think about how far they can see and how long it will take them to stop. If people are going 100 or 120 kph and they can only see 50 feet ... then if there's something there they are going to hit it. The only sensible thing to do is find an exit and get off the road."

Lonero has worked as a consultant on driver performance for government and private clients, including Canadian and U.S. government projects, as well as the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety project to reinvent driver education. A former Ontario road safety official, he also has specific training in freeway design.

In the wake of the inquest, Ontario's Minister of Transportation, David Turnbull, has rejected the reintroduction of photo radar saying that it doesn't address the root cause of aggressive driving. "It doesn't deter rapid lane changes, or tailgating, or drunk driving, which are things you want to get out with police enforcement."

Lonero says that while photo radar "has some kind of wacky relevance to speed in general" it has no relevance to the fog question. "How do you catch people going fast in fog unless they hit something? There's no way you can detect them."

In addition, he points out that any kind of stepped up police enforcement will be equally useless in preventing crashes in poor visibility.

The jury also called for the installation of signs for fog-prone areas of the province's major highways, but, as Lonero points out, driver's really need some form of advance warning that there is fog so they can stay off the road.

In fact, several parties providing testimony-including the Ontario Trucking Association and the Canadian Automobile Association-urged that the Ontario transportation ministry install electronic message boards to communicate weather and other warnings to drivers.

Lonero does agree with the jury's final recommendation calling for "heightened awareness" as regards safety on the road.

"Drivers can slow down," he says. "With a modern car equipped with seat belts and air bags, you can probably walk away from a 50 kilometre an hour crash. The big problem is getting everyone to drive at 50 kph. You don't want a semi-trailer barrelling up behind you at 120.

"Without a doubt, though, the best idea in conditions of thick fog is to get off the highway as soon as possible."

Asked about the use of infrared technology, such as that now available as an option on some Cadillacs, Lonero said that perhaps all trucks should have infrared equipment that can detect objects on the road ahead at night or in other conditions of reduced visibility.

He also thought consideration should be given to closing down major highways shrouded in thick fog, just as they're currently closed under heavy snow conditions.

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