A lot of crosses but no answers.

Numerous concerns have been expressed over the collisions along the Red Hill Valley Parkway (RHVP) in Hamilton, Ontario. It did not help that the City lost or hid an engineering report that showed the surface of the Parkway was substandard. Once this became public a class action lawsuit of about $250 million dollars was launched against the City – to be paid by its taxpayers.

The City of Hamilton had a plan to bring back the public’s trust. A judicial inquiry would be held. And so on March 20, 2019 began the formal process of creating the inquiry. A year later the Judicial Inquiry spent close to $2 million dollars. The participants in the inquiry have been narrowed to just 4 while, as yet, no members of the public have received official standing. And the process drags on.

A fatal collision occurred once again at a troublesome location of the RHVP – the northbound section approaching the King Street overpass. The fatal collision occurred in the afternoon of January 2, 2021. No photos are available of the actual crash site because those are copyright. So the public does deserve to know, except what official news entities would like them to know. What can be seen in the news media photos is that a car struck the bridge abutment of the King Street overpass with its front end. This is not supposed to happen on a well-designed, high-volume expressway. Various barriers are supposed to be installed to redirect traffic from impacts with such immovable objects. So what happened this time?

A look at site photos in the vicinity of the rest position of the car shows that a guardrail exists but that rail does not appear to be damaged. In the wisdom of news media no photos were shown further back along the guardrail to see if the vehicle made contact. So the public may never know if the guardrail was involved.

It is known however that previous impacts to the guardrail have occurred. For example, in collision reported on November 22, 2018, a northbound tanker truck struck the guardrail as it approached the bridge abutment. The truck tipped over the rail and the abutment was struck. A large quantity of liquid asphalt was spilt on the highway while the tanker truck came to rest on its left side. Gorski Consulting has continued to warn the public of the incompatibility of typical guardrail heights with heavy trucks. When the rail is too low it can accentuate the rollover of a heavy vehicle, sometimes making collision results more severe than if no rail existed. Was the City of Hamilton aware of this? We will never know.

Gorski Consulting has reached back into its historic photo library to pull out some views of the troublesome site. For example the photo below shows a northward view along the RHVP looking toward the bridge abutment at the King Street overpass. This photo was taken on July 19, 2016.  Here you can see the short length of guardrail that precedes the location of the abutment.

But still, looking at the above photo, how goes a vehicle pass by the guardrail and strike the bridge abutment? Clearly the guardrail would prevent a vehicle from impacting the abutment. Yet in the fatal collision of January 2, 2021 the vehicle showed no obvious evidence of being disturbed in an initial guardrail impact.

But let us pull ourselves back a little as shown in the next photo. The photo below was also taken on July 19, 2016 but it is taken from several hundred metres back and we can see another bridge abutment from the Mount Albion Road overpass and, in the background, you can see the King Street overpass. From this angle the guardrail at the King Street overpass is no longer in a position to protect from an impact to the abutment.

And the view below, also taken on July 19, 2106, shows the situation looking toward the King Street overpass from just under the Mount Albion overpass. Here we can see that the guardrail at the King Street overpass is not long enough to protect a vehicle from striking the abutment. There is a clear path between the position of the camera (taken from a moving vehicle in the right lane) to the bridge abutment. Why would engineers from the City of Hamilton not detect this?

It is not that the City of Hamilton was unaware of safety problems at the site. The local newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator produced several articles about the problem. In a July 17, 2017 article entitled “Highway traffic tragedies: Why are there so many crashes on the Red Hill?” Nicole O’Reilly of the Hamilton Spectator, showed a map of the area and overlaid the numbers of collisions documented in by the City of Hamilton. The segment approaching King Street showed the second most number of collisions and the highest number of fatal collisions throughout the whole length of the expressway system including the Lincoln Alexander and the RHVP. Surely you would think the City of Hamilton would take a close look at their own data and consider what needed changing.

Even high-priced expert reports were prepared by CIMA in 2015 and 2019 explaining what some of the issues might be. For example in their 2015 report CIMA indicated the following:

“Out of the 249 northbound collisions shown in Figure 8, 78 (31%) are concentrated in a 600 metre section around the King Street interchange (between 250 metres south of the King Street off-ramp and the King Street on-ramp), a relatively short section of the 81 km study area. There were also 16 (6.4%) northbound collisions over a short 100-metre section near the Mud Street on-ramp.”

Was that not enough warning for City officials to think about some solutions?

It is now inevitable that the Judicial Inquiry will take a long time to be completed, likely with much more cost than the $2 million dollars spent in the last notification. When the Inquiry put out a general invitation to persons who wanted to participate Gorski Consulting submitted a request. We offered our services free of charge except for travel expenses. To this date no response has been received, not even a denial. Our participation might not have been earth shattering. But with over 40 years of experience in providing independent documentation of road safety issues we would have provided an alternative viewpoint to what the official entities provide. Regrettably the citizens of Hamilton may only receive a narrow viewpoint from the small group of participants officially approved. The citizens of Hamilton deserve better and all those travelers who use the RHVP deserve better.

UPDATE: January 3, 2021; 1155 Hours

Upon further review of the on-site photos the circular characteristics of the struck bridge abutment suggests that this was the abutment to the Mount Albion Road overpass and not the King Street overpass. The news media has also not reported the travel direction of the striking vehicle although it appears the direction is northward.

Looking at our historical photos of the Mount Albion Road overpass, the angle of approach is better such that the abutment would be somewhat protected by the guardrail. However a quick measurement of the guardrail using Googlemaps suggests that it is only about 30 metres in length. A vehicle that goes out of control at highway speed could travel several hundred metres before arriving at a final area of impact. Thus when a highway contains substantial horizontal curves such as the RHVP engineers should recognize a vehicle could enter a median much earlier than the 30-metre distance of guardrail. Thus, regardless of which bridge abutment was struck, both guardrails are not sufficient to prevent the impacts with abutments such as the one shown from yesterday afternoon.

UPDATE: January 4, 2021; 1300 Hours

CHCH-TV has reported that the impact was with a railway bridge abutment. Such a railway overpass would be located south of the Albion and King Street overpasses. Given the dark conditions of some on-site photos and the lack of clear landmarks it is difficult to tell which abutment was struck. Until further information is provided, and that is not guarantee, it may not be possible to resolve these basic facts. And no one has yet  reported which direction the impacting vehicle was travelling. The lack of such basic information is not helpful.

UPDATE: January 4, 2021; 2130 Hours

Now other media sources such as the Hamilton Spectator Newspaper have reported that a railway bridge abutment was struck. This abutment would likely be the one south of the Albion and King Street overpasses. The Spectator also confirmed that the vehicle was northbound and that it entered the median approximately 100 metres south of the area of impact. Hopefully these facts are correct. An earlier report provided by the CP24 News in Toronto indicated that the impact had occurred near the King Street overpass. It should not have been difficult for investigating police to provide a specific location of the impact and the travel direction of the vehicle. While the OPP also provide on-site photos of major collisions on their Twitter account nothing similar has been seen from the Hamilton Police.

As shown in the GoogleMaps view below the railway bridge is located about 500 metres south of the King Street bridge. While that may be “near” to some persons it does not provide a very precise description the site location.

As shown below, a guardrail exists on the northbound side of the RHVP leading up to the railway bridge. This guardrail is about 45 metres long so it is longer than the guardrail at Albion and King Street bridges. The GoogleMaps view also shows that there is a second guardrail on the southbound side of the median. Yet in the site photo of the vehicle in the present collision that southbound guardrail does not appear to exist. And this could be important. 

In the GoogleMaps view shown below we show how a lateral measurement is taken across the two guardrails and this lateral distance is just 4 metres. Thus if that second (southbound) guardrail was present it would have been more difficult for the car to pass between the two guardrails and reach the impact of the immovable bridge abutment. So one of the important inquiries would be to confirm that this second guardrail was indeed not present at the time of this collision and, if so, why was it removed?

As expected the information about the vehicle entering the median at about 100 metres south of the impact with the bridge abutment is not surprising. From our examination of hundreds of high-speed, single-vehicle, loss-of-control collisions this distance would be expected. We would add further that that the initial point where the vehicle commenced its loss-of-control actions would be at least another 100 metres further to the south, if not further.

We are saying the the vehicle went out of control because it is the more likely scenario versus a purposeful attempt at suicide. In earlier times before the introduction of electronic stability control (ESC) we would often suspect a suicide whenever a vehicle struck an immovable object with its front end. However, now-a-days, ESC systems will straighten out the pointing angle of a loss-of-control vehicle such that frontal impact is no longer a rarity.

Thus, even though we have a 45 metre long guardrail preceding the abutment this would not be sufficient in most high speed events to prevent a vehicle from exiting into a median and striking an unprotected bridge abutment. As seen in the present case, there is a substantial horizontal curve leading up to the area of impact. It is also accompanied by a downgrade. The combination of these two curves increases the likelihood that vehicles will go out of control and enter the median. This fact is known to anyone who conducts a large number of such investigations. Thus the guardrails at all three bridges, the railway bridge, the Albion overpass and the King Street overpass should have their guardrails lengthened. The rail heights should also be raised and strengthened to match the likelihood that an impact will occur with by heavy truck. Substandard road surfaces may contribute to collisions at curves but they are not the only factors involved. Proper roadside protections can improve the collision consequences when a loss-of-control cannot be avoided.