Highway 401, stretching from Windsor to the Quebec border, is an example of the largest expressway in Ontario both in terms of traffic volumes and length. Not all expressways are the same and special dangers exist even though expressways are the safest modes of road travel in Ontario.

In comparison to 2-lane, rural highways Ontario’s expressways have always been a safer mode of travel. However, because of higher traffic volumes, the number of reported serious and fatal collisions is higher on Ontario’s expressways. Such statistics produced by Ontario’s Provincial government provide the excuse to disregard persistent safety problems on its expressways, some of which are created by government policy.

Only Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation knows the exact number of reportable collisions on its expressways. And these numbers are generally hidden. What remains is the subset of collisions that are identified in official news media reports and OPP social media accounts. Members of the public would have to expend large quantities of time scouring all these sources to obtain any sense of those collision frequencies. While Gorski Consulting attempts to keep track of most of these collisions, we are not under the delusion that we have captured them all.  In the following text we provide some of those collisions that made the headlines for the month of December, 2019.

  1. On December 1, 2019, a female driver was killed when her vehicle “came to rest in a treeline” on the north side of Hwy 401 near Orford Road in Chatham-Kent. Since forested areas are located a substantial distance of the travel lanes it was unusual, and unexplained, how this fatality occurred.
  2. On December 1, 2019 a multi-vehicle pile-up, involving 30 to 40 vehicles, occurred in the westbound lanes of Hwy 401 in Kingston near Hwy 15. One person was killed while 16 persons were taken to hospital. The OPP indicated the collision occurred in whiteout conditions.
  3. On December 1, 2019, a 24-year-old female driver of an SUV was killed when her vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer near Jordan Road. It was reported by the OPP that the collision occurred just as freezing rain was starting to fall.
  4.  On December 1, 2019, the OPP reported that there were about 400 vehicles involved in collisions in the GTA. These collisions were caused by winter-like road conditions with a mix of ice pellets and snowfall.
  5. On December 1, 2019, complaints were made by the OPP that drivers on Hwy 403 were turning around and driving the wrong way within a construction zone in the Mississauga area. It was confirmed that there were winter roads conditions as evidenced in video showing vehicles making the U-turns but it was never explained what prompted the vehicles to make these turns.
  6. On December 6, 2019, a female pedestrian was struck by transport truck on the QEW near Dorval Drive in Oakville. It was reported that she exited a stopped passenger car just before she was struck. There were conflicting reports whether the female was critical condition or had passed away.
  7. On December 6, 2019 a passenger car was rear-ended by a small truck on H2y 401 near Warden Ave, causing critical injuries to two children. The collision occurred when traffic was slowing and OPP indicated “It appears the collision was the result of either driver inattention or a driver not responding to change traffic patterns ahead”.
  8. On December 6, 2019 a wheel separated from a commercial motor vehicle on Hwy 401 in Southwold Township, south-west of London, Ontario. The separated wheel passed through the median and truck two oncoming vehicles but no injuries were reported.
  9. On December 11, 2019 OPP reported the occurrence of a multi-vehicle pile-up in the westbound lanes of Hwy 401 near County Road 15 east of Brockville. A second pile-up occurred near Deseronto Road. One person died in the crashes. The environmental conditions were described as “snowy” and this was supported by photos showing a substantial amount of snow covering the road surface.
  10. On December 11, 2019 a tractor-trailer rolled over on Hwy 401 between Colonel Talbot and Union Roads, south-west of London. No injuries were reported and no explanation was provided as to how the rolled truck came to be resting across all three lanes of the highway.
  11. On December 11, 2019 the OPP reported that one of their cruisers was struck in the westbound lanes of Hwy 401 between Cobourg and Brighton, east of Toronto. The collision was blamed on the formation of “black ice”. No other details were provided.
  12. On December 18, 2019 the OPP reported that six crashes had occurred, involving multiple vehicles, on Hwy 401 between Putnam Road and Ingersoll. The collisions occurred in both the eastbound and westbound lanes. An OPP photo of the area showed a substantial amount of snow on the road surface. No further information was provided with respect to any injuries.
  13. On December 19, 2019 the OPP reported that approximately 50 vehicles, including 6 transport trucks, were involved in a pile-up on Hwy 400 near Hwy 88 north of Toronto. An OPP photo of the area showed that the road surface was snow-covered.
  14. On December 20, 2019 the OPP reported that a pedestrian was struck on the Garden City Skyway in St Catharines. It was reported that the pedestrian had stepped out of vehicle from an earlier collision and was struck by a vehicle passing through the site of the earlier collision.
  15. On December 21, 2019, A three-vehicle collision occurred in the westbound lanes of Hwy 401 near Hwy 6, east of Cambridge. Two persons died in the crash. No information was provided as to how the crash occurred.
  16. On December 21, 2019, four vehicles were involved in a collision in the eastbound lanes of the QEW east of Winston Churchill Blvd. Six persons were transported to hospital but none of the injuries were life-threatening. No information was provided as to  the cause of the collision.
  17. On December 26, 2019 a serious rear-end impact occurred in the eastbound lanes of Hwy 401 approaching Dixon Road in Toronto. Three persons were sent to hospital but no further details were available.
  18. On December 26, 2019 a four-vehicle collision occurred on the QEW east of Dorval Drive. Five persons were transported to hospital and one driver was charged with impaired driving.
  19. On December 27, 2019 a hit-&-run, rear-end impact occurred on the westbound off ramp from Hwy 401 to Liverpool road in Pickering. No further details were available.
  20. On December 30, 2019 a vehicle became disabled in a live lane of the eastbound express lanes of Hwy 401 at Allen Road. A occupant from the vehicle was subsequently struck by a tractor-trailer and was killed.
  21. On December 31, 2019 two trailer-trailers were involved a collision in the westbound lanes of Hwy 401 at Furnival Road between London and Chatham, Ontario. No injuries were reported.

When looking at this small list of 21 collisions it is difficult to detect patterns where certain factors need to be addressed. In many reported incidents news media only report what police have told them and there is no independent verification or investigation conducted to confirm if the reported information is accurate. Furthermore news is only provided at the early onset of an incident when there is little knowledge of what actually happened. Then there is no follow-up to find out what has changed or what has been learned in subsequent days or weeks.

But select individuals at Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and in major municipalities in Ontario have access to large datasets of all collisions that have occurred over many decades in their jurisdictions. The MTO has published the “Ontario Road Safety Annual Report” (ORSAR) for several decades and this provides some reasonably detailed summaries of collisions in the province. However recent editions of the ORSAR only have “Preliminary” data such that, as we move into the year 2020, the full ORSAR is not available since 2016. ORSAR has never broken down collision frequencies for Ontario’s expressways. Large municipalities sometimes provide yearly summaries of collisions in their jurisdictions but there is never any full access by the public to the actual raw data.

Overall, Ontario’s expressways suffer from chronic safety problems that are masked by the fact that, given the very large traffic volumes, they provide a safer environment than any of the lower volume highways. The greatest chronic problem appears to be the reality that drivers expect to be travelling at a high and constant speed over a long time and distance. This expectation is violated when there is a sudden traffic slow down. Speeds of 120 km/h or higher can be relatively safe so long as all traffic is travelling at a similar speed. It is the difference in speed that is the problem, not necessarily the magnitude of that speed.

There are obvious exceptions when environmental conditions reduce the coefficient of friction of the highway surface and speeds must be reduced. While some drivers slow down, many drivers do not. This difference in speeds makes the problem worse because of the ineffectiveness of hard braking and inability to take evasive actions on a slippery surface.

The Ontario government causes safety problems with its policies and laws. It introduced speed limiting of heavy trucks while not doing so for smaller vehicles. Along with poor enforcement of maximum speeds this results in smaller vehicles travelling at much higher speeds than heavy trucks, thus producing the dangerous speed difference that causes many collisions.

Ontario’s government has caused further safety problems with its introduction of a mandatory “Move Over” law which they believe will improve the safety of emergency personnel who must often stop along the high speed highways. Drivers face fines if they do not move over away from the lane that is closest the stopped emergency vehicles. Drivers must also slow down. This mandatory requirement results in many drivers making risky movements out of a lane when they are not fully sure that the movement can be made in safety. Slowing down also causes problems as this creates speed differences which are the initiating causes of many collisions.

Ontario’s policy makers fail to understand that most of Ontario’s expressways contain high volumes of long and wide trucks that are obstructions to visibility. While the lights of emergency vehicles can be seen from a very long distance when these trucks do not block a driver’s view, on occasions there can be very limited warning of the presence of a stopped emergency vehicle when two or three or more large trucks create a wall and prevent visibility ahead. In many instances drivers who detect a large and slow-moving  truck moving from the right lanes into a left lane will attempt to pass the truck on the right and not detect the presence of a stopped emergency vehicle until the last instance when an emergency reaction is required.

As heavy trucks mostly travel along Ontario’s expressways at the 105 km/h limit this takes away the important ability to accelerate as a way to avoid a potential collision. Many driving instructors teach novice drivers that a scenario may require the driver to apply maximum acceleration to get out of a situation where an impact is imminent. Heavy trucks are deficient in their ability to create such acceleration. But speed limiting completely stops that option from being used as a truck that is already travelling at 105 km/h cannot go any faster to avoid a conflict. This is particularly important at highway entrance ramps where trucks are always in the right lane when vehicles enter the highway. Truckers could avoid a potential conflict if they could accelerate to improve an entering driver’s ability to enter the highway safely. But speed limiting takes away that option.

In other instances long queues of stopped vehicles occur on approaches to construction zones and there is little attention paid to the extreme lengths of some of these queues. When the queues extend over a number of kilometres the warning signs that are usually placed closer to the construction zone may not exist at the end of a long queue. This results in very little warning that traffic is slowing or stopping. Many rear-end impacts, often by heavy trucks, lead to severe and fatal collisions because of such problems.

In other instances snow plowing, sanding and salting is performed after illogical delays after considerable snow has fallen and ice has formed. These slippery conditions are a continual problem whenever a winter weather system passes over an expressway in Ontario. Even though there  are numerous collisions created during these conditions the Ontario government sees no reason to change its winter maintenance recommendations, choosing instead to blame driver foolishness and inattentiveness for the multiple collisions.

In summary, Ontario’s expressways, like almost all expressways in North America, are designed and generally maintained to a higher standard resulting in superior safety in comparison to lower volume highways. Yet chronic problems that have been apparent for several decades, and in some instances are increasing, seem to be ignored for unexplainable reasons.