A view looking eastward along Highway 401 from the Westminster Drive overpass, located just west of London, Ontario, on the late afternoon of Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

Gorski Consulting has collected data regarding the change in volume and composition of traffic on Highway 401 since the COVID-19 pandemic has taken effect.

In the fall of 2018 Gorski Consulting conducted a number of 2-hour, videotaping sessions along Highway 401 between London and Tilbury, Ontario. Two of these sessions occurred on Tuesday, October 30th and Sunday, December 2nd.

Location of four sites along Highway 401 where videotaping was conducted by Gorski Consulting in the fall of 2018.

Subsequently another videotaping session was conducted on Wednesday, March 25th, 2020 at a time when social distancing and various closures took effect throughout Ontario.  In the 2018 sessions the numbers of vehicles travelling westbound  past the Westminster Drive overpass were tabulated along with the numbers of large trucks and buses. This was also done during the March 25, 2020 session. The results of these three sessions are shown in the table below.

Previous articles were posted to the Gorski Consulting website discussing the 2018 videotaping sessions. One of the observations from these sessions was that the volume of heavy trucks on Highway 401 was greatly reduced on weekends and holidays. This reduction can be seen in the above table. The October 30th session occurred on a weekday (Tuesday) and this resulted in observations of 738 westbound trucks, whereas the December 2nd session occurred on a Sunday and it resulted in observations of only 417 trucks. This is a 45 % percent reduction in truck traffic over weekday totals.

View, looking east, showing the traffic conditions on Highway 401 at Westminster Drive on October 30, 2018.

View looking east from the overpass of the Westminster Drive location on Highway 401 showing a video camera that was used to document the volume and composition of westbound traffic on December 2, 2018.

What is interesting is the data for March 25th, which was a weekday (Wednesday) and therefore we should have observed heavy truck traffic similar to the Oct 30th data (738 total trucks). Instead we observed only 417 heavy trucks. This is particularly revealing because the March 25th data was obtained during rush hour, between 1530 and 1730 hours. The October 30th session commenced at about 1320 hours and thus should have been positioned at a time of day when traffic volumes should have been less than rush hour. So the finding of the reduced numbers of heavy trucks in the March 25th session is even more significant.

We can also observe the total number of westbound vehicles in the two 2018 videotaping sessions, 1827 and 1965. These totals include all westbound traffic regardless of whether it is heavy truck traffic or passengers, pick-up trucks, SUVs, vans, etc. Yet the total westbound vehicles in the March 25th session was only 1228. This is a reduction of about 33 to 37 %.

The US-Canadian border was closed about a week before the March 25th session. Only essential truck traffic was being allowed to pass through the border. Any personal trips by private citizens were disallowed. The Westminster Drive location on Highway 401 should represent all those heavy trucks that are travelling toward the US border at the Windsor-Detroit crossing. Furthermore the Westminster Drive location on Highway 401 is just west of the Highway 402 separation from Highway 401. So all those vehicles that might be travelling toward the Sarnia area and its border crossing to the US would be removed from the totals.

This dataset is very small compared to the vast data that is collected by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) at its traffic counters which are located at every interchange of Highway 401. Yet the MTO data is not publicly available so the public remains in the dark about what effects are being experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gorski Consulting data is a flashlight, shining into this enormous, dark cave.

At a time when citizens of Ontario and eastern Canada are shut down in their homes, they are reliant on the movement of goods to keep them fed and safe. When the volume of goods being carried by heavy trucks is reduced by 45% we need to consider what effects this may have over the long term. What goods are not being delivered and will there be shortages that could cause a chain reaction affecting other parts of the economy?

Certainly in the realm of road motor vehicle safety the reduction in all traffic volumes is likely to result in reductions in collisions. That may be so but there is one hiccup in this good news. When traffic volumes are low, those persons who like to travel above the speed limit are likely to increase their speed because there is less interference with their actions. Thus we could see an increase in speeds in that segment of the population of drivers and a possible increase in the number of high-speed, single-vehicle collisions. It remains to be seen whether those speed increases can be detected in any data and how this might change the collision statistics.