In January, 2019 a vehicle struck a guardrail on the QEW in Mississauga causing a wooden anchor post to penetrate a vehicle windshield. The fact that a driver could have been impaired in this incident should be irrelevant as the issue of the guardrail performance should be independent of that issue.

News media reported that a driver has been charged with impaired driving following a single vehicle collision with a guardrail on the Gardiner Expressway near Jameson Ave in Toronto on November 11, 2023. Subsequently it was reported that a passenger in the vehicle passed away. As a result a Toronto Police News Release announced that the charges against the driver were being upgraded to “Impaired operation of conveyance causing death”.

The fact that impaired driving is dangerous is indisputable. What makes this story different is that an occupant of a vehicle sustained fatal injuries after a vehicle struck a guardrail and nothing further was mentioned about it. Regardless of whether a driver is impaired or not is irrelevant in this circumstance. The important fact is that a person died from the (apparent) simple impact of a guardrail. Neither police nor news media provided the public with an explanation that fatal injuries should not be expected from a simple guardrail impact. If the public was properly informed there should have been alarms raised about this lack of reporting. The fact that no alarms were sounded demonstrates how the public remains ignorant of basic road safety issues.

In the 2019 incident on the QEW only minor injuries occurred. But obviously the results could have been far different. This is why fatalities that occur whenever a guardrail is struck should be reported and explained, not ignored.

The reason why roadside barriers are installed is so that, if vehicles go out of control and wander off a roadway, there will be a collision with the barrier which is less dangerous than if no barrier existed at all. This means that, except for unusual circumstances, a vehicle striking a barrier should be re-directed and slowed in a controlled manner and this process should minimize the chances of serious or fatal injuries to vehicle occupants. Unless occupants become ejected from a vehicle there should be no reason to expect major consequences.

The performance of roadside barriers is supposed to be tested and then approved for installation only when these barriers perform properly. And those who install and maintain such barriers are supposed to monitor their performance. When a fatality occurs from impact with a barrier the agency responsible for the roadway must document that fact and an investigation should be carried out to understand why the fatality was not avoided. This must be how it is determined whether the approved roadside barrier performs as intended.

Windshield damage in the QEW collision shows that the block of wood passed through its plastic interlayer and could have struck an occupant, possibly resulting in fatal injuries. This unusual outcome should have been documented and added to the list of outcomes that are used to evaluate the safety performance of that barrier.

Initial news reports were very sketchy about what happened at the Gardiner Expressway collision. In many instances where fatal collisions occur in the vicinity of Toronto police post on-site photos on social media outlets such as Twitter, showing the aftermath. Although such photos do not provide a full explanation of what might have transpired they are far better than no photos at all. In the present case no photos were made available, neither from police nor from official news media. Neither police nor the news media provided any useful information about the circumstances of the collision other than that a guardrail was struck. Initially it was reported that the striking vehicle, a Nissan Maxima, was involved in a rollover but it was not explained how the rollover was related to the guardrail impact. It is doubtful that the rollover occurred before the guardrail impact however, without confirmation, no one can be certain.

If the rollover occurred after the guardrail impact then this suggests that something improper occurred. Guardrail impacts are not supposed to initiate a vehicle rollover, especially if the vehicle has a lower centre-of-gravity such as the Maxima. Matters become more complicated when a vehicle with a higher centre-of-gravity is involved. Vehicles carrying cargo can have their centre-of-gravity increased and this is an example where complications could arise. And other issues may exist that could explain why an unexpected circumstance occurred. The point is that police and news media have an obligation to inform the public when factors exist that cause an unexpected fatality.

For the average reader it is often enough to be provided with an explanation that a fatality occurred on an expressway because a driver was impaired. And this is the kind of process that allows road safety problems to be left unidentified. Impaired driving is a major road safety concern. However police should not be allowed to use driver impairment as a method of hiding additional safety concerns from the public.