A fire and two collisions, one involving a fatality, that occurred on Highway 401 near Chatham, Ontario on March 4, 2019, have now been given some scant publicity by local news agencies. The Chatham Daily News newspaper has been the most prominent and the London Free Press has also made mention of these incidents. But essentially nothing has been reported by the CTV News which informs a large sector of the public through its TV coverage throughout Canada.

A photo provided by the OPP shows the aftermath of a fatal rear end collision on Highway 401 west of Victoria Road on March 4, 2019.

Despite these mentions in the news media nothing of substance has been learned. Certainly the public knows that a truck caught fire somewhere east of Chatham. This prompted a shut down of the busy Highway 401. This eventually led to two collisions, one of them resulting in a fatality. That is about the extent of what is known.

It is important to examine why two major collisions occurred on Highway 401 after it was closed due to the truck fire. The information provided by police during this, and many previous similar incidents, is that drivers were not paying attention and this led to the two collisions. But no evidence was provided to support that conclusion. Someone may have discovered that a cell phone was being used in one of the vehicles, or something else that is specific. But we do not know. Very often investigators will simply make the observation that traffic ahead had stopped and, because the road is flat, and environmental conditions were reasonably good, drivers should have been able to see the traffic ahead. That could be the extent of the evidence. Reviews of past investigations have shown that this lack of depth in understanding and analysis is not uncommon.

A vast number of police officers do not have an in-depth education in human behaviour. So it is not uncommon for them to draw conclusions that appear to them to be common sense. Yet how and why humans perform like they do is far more complicated. What may appear to be common sense to the untrained investigator may be far from reality. This is vitally important because, in recent times, police are the only ones who gather the collision evidence and report their conclusions to the news media. There is no independent checking and balancing to make certain that whatever the police do or say is correct and accurate. Whenever we rely on a sole entity to perform a function without accountability, regardless of what it involves, our society suffers from that unhealthy monopoly. That fact has been proven many times over through history.

In fact there is a vast amount of research that has been carried out that could be helpful to investigators in determining whether a driver performed inappropriately or was simply performing in a way most humans do. But the proper application of  those research findings requires that the collision be documented thoroughly for those factors that are important in the assessment. When an investigator is not properly trained he/she will not know what those important factors are that need to be considered.

Based on the limited facts, a truck caught fire around 1100 hours. This truck as located in the eastbound lanes of Highway 401, somewhere near Orford Road. Then, at approximately 1430 hours a fatal, rear-end collision occurred between two trucks, somewhere west of Victoria Road. There are interchanges at both Victoria and Orford Roads but no interchange between them. The distance between this two interchanges is about 7.5 kilometres as shown in the GoogleMaps image below.

A truck fire at 1100 hours at Orford Rd (Upper right) was followed by a fatal rear-end collision at 1430 hours at Victoria Rd (Lower left).

It would stand to reason that, if the eastbound lanes of the highway were closed, eastbound traffic would be diverted from the highway at the Victoria Road exit and this is near to where the fatal collision occurred.

The problem with such closures is that they are often not well announced with respect to signage and other warnings. Drivers are used to being informed for several kilometres ahead before such closures because a high percentage of such closures occur due to road construction which is planned for many months in advance. It is not uncommon to see signs of upcoming lane or highway closures for at least 5 kilometres in advance, or further. But when an unplanned incident such as a fire or collision require shutting down of the highway there is often not enough time or resources to place warnings like is done for pre-planned construction. When drivers see warnings well in advance of road or lane closures this develops an expectation that these warnings will exist whenever such closures occur. When those warnings unexpectedly do not exist a driver’s expectations are violated and a collision may occur.

Driver expectation is one of the key elements in road safety that need to be understood. As discussed in a detailed text by Dewar & Olson, 2007, entitled “Human Factors in Traffic Safety”:

“The term (Expectancy) refers to a predisposition on the part of persons to believe that things will be configured or happen in a certain way. Drivers operate with a set of expectancies. For example, freeway exits will be on the right side of the roadway…advance warning will be given of hazards on the road, and other drivers will obey traffic rules. If these expectations are violated there is an increase in driver perception-response time, more driver errors and increased potential for an accident. Therefore, information from traffic control devices, the roadway environment, and so on must be provided  when and where it is expected. Advance warning signs, as one example, are intended to create in the driver the expectancy of a potential hazard on the road ahead.”

Police investigators also need to understand how typical drivers drive along Highway 401. Studies by Gorski Consulting in the fall of 2018 showed that, out of 532 vehicles observed travelling in the right lane, the average time gap between the rear of one vehicle and the front of a following one was about 6.3 seconds. However, in 98 instances, or about 18.4 percent, the time gap was less than 2 seconds. Many persons would comment that such “tailgating” is performed by the drivers of heavy trucks. However in our studies 58 of the 98 tailgaters, or over 59%, were drivers of light duty vehicles like passenger cars, SUVs, Pick-up trucks and vans. While police may say that this tailgating is a sign of drivers’ lack of judgment such comments are often made because there is a lack of knowledge about how traffic volumes relate to following distances.

For example, traffic volume data from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation show that, in the road segment between Orford and Victoria Roads, the volume (AADT) of traffic in 1988 was 15,100 vehicles. By the year 2016 that volume had risen to 23,000, or a 52% increase. This increased traffic volume can only mean that, at any local point, the number of vehicles has increased resulting in a lowing of the time gap between those vehicles.

At the same time the Ontario government instituted a law causing the limiting of maximum speeds of heavy trucks to about 105 km/h. It was believed that this would improve traffic safety. Yet no such governing occurred for light vehicles. The result is that, while today’s heavy trucks are travelling close to the maximum of 105 km/h, the rest of the traffic is travelling much faster. Data from our studies indicate average speeds of light duty vehicles in the median lane are in the range of 116 to 119 km/h. This leads to conflicts where the faster-moving, smaller vehicles attempt to pass the slower-moving, heavy trucks. During those conflicts the time gaps between the vehicles is greatly reduced. Studies by Gorski Consulting also show that heavy trucks have a propensity to wander and veer out of their travel lanes because of their wider width but also because environmental conditions such as wind have a greater effect on the large areas of truck trailers. Combined with the fact that drivers of heavy trucks have poor visibility of smaller vehicles around them it means that truck drivers must pay particular attention to their mirrors and lane position rather than to the road ahead.

These are just some of the facts that need to be considered, but the issue is even more complicated than that. This is why it requires some detailed knowledge and training to study collisions on Highway 401. Not only to make proper decisions about who was at fault but in identifying the root causes of collisions and how those factors might be changed.

A lack of publicity and information about crashes and other incidents such as what occurred on March 4th does not help to improve the situation. When the public remain uninformed of the important issues that may lead to their death they cannot apply the proper pressure to the system to make corrections. Indeed the direct opposite occurs. Without sufficient information members of the public make judgments and conclusions based on whatever scant information is available. They apply pressure to make adjustments to the roadway system that is not based on scientific fact. This  could actually degrade safety rather than improve it. Yet there is nothing inherently important about maintaining the level of secrecy that currently exists other than to protect Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation from being found liable for deficiencies that may become publicly known.