The meaning of road surface friction data or that a single report may have been hidden pales in comparison to the overall issue of secrecy that predominates road safety issues.

A local uproar erupted in Hamilton, Ontario when it was revealed that a 2013 technical report authored by Tradewinds Scientific may have been concealed from politicians and the public with respect to road surface testing that was conducted on the Lincoln Alexander and Red Hill Valley Parkways in that city. That report was recently “discovered” by the City’s new Director of Engineering.

The matter is significant because the friction data shows low levels of friction for the surface of the Red Hill Valley Parkway. A 2017 safety study by the local Hamilton Spectator newspaper showed higher numbers of collisions occurring on the Red Hill versus the Lincoln Alexander and there were a number private citizens that were also wondering about the safety of the Red Hill. In interviews by the Hamilton Spectator newspaper with the previous Director of Engineering there was no mention of the Tradewinds report and comments about the surface of the Red Hill and the Director was quoted as saying that the friction results were “inconclusive”. The City of Hamilton has conducted newer testing of the road surface friction but, to date, has refused to reveal that data. In totality it leaves many with the notion that proper disclosure has not been “seen to be done” as many citizens are of the impression that unreasonable secrecy is evident.

While this is not an inconsequential matter, it shows the narrowness of thought that is focused on this single issue, while failing to recognize the much more important, broader issue. There is a widespread existence of unneeded and inefficient secrecy in public transportation safety. There is a constant conflict between those wanting assurance that the public be made safe while travelling on public roadways versus the accountability of those responsible from maintaining that safety. Maintaining safety in a public transportation system is complex. There are many influences that require a juggling of fact-finding, reaction and prioritizing. In the end issues arise where the public’s safety is compromised while in many instances the causes those occurrences are complicated and difficult to unravel.  Inevitably someone does not perform perfectly and could be made accountable for their imperfection. Unfortunately, the results of these imperfect actions or in-actions lead to injuries and deaths. So the consequences are indeed quite serious. While a single impaired driver may be held accountable for a single collision, the public road administrator’s decisions can expose thousands or hundreds of thousands of the public to danger when their decisions are not what they should be. In the wake of this responsibility there is a large incentive to protect from being found at fault. Thus this is the incentive for developing a regime of secrecy where ever possible. A formal process of documenting, prioritizing and acting on safety problems has existed for many years in Ontario. To some degree, in the past,  this documentation has been accessible as it was administered centrally by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation. However, in recent years that documentation has been allowed to take place on software developed by private firms. Those firms claim that the software is proprietary. Thus, a furthering of secrecy has evolved without the public’s awareness.

The remedy to date has been the civil courts. This has created further incentives toward secrecy. At present our system is dominated by lawyers on either side of a claim who spend large amounts of time and money to argue for one side of a matter or another. Experts are paid by these these lawyers that further complicate the issue that needs resolution. When experts are paid by one side or another it is not difficult to appreciate that an incentive toward bias could develop. Yet there is a broad, blind eye to this obvious fact. At the top of the pyramid are the judges themselves who are counted on to provide an impartial assessment but whose decisions or the reasons for their decisions are poorly displayed to the public. The documentation of court proceedings by way of public video could expand the public’s access to the actions of the courts but that has never been implemented. In the end deceptions are common mechanisms that exist when a very small number of persons are given the responsibility of protecting the public while having the power to keep important issues hidden.

As matters unfold with the Red Hill Valley Parkway, further evidence may yet be revealed before the public’s expressed disapproval is diminished by the calling of an independent inquiry.  The reality is that the selection of an investigating entity does not guarantee a successful resolution. One does not need to look far to understand that the number of titles, the splendour of the robes or membership in elite circles does not guarantee that a just or unbiased investigation will be completed. While not without its drawbacks, the public’s participation through being informed of the investigation’s detailed actions and the public’s debate, remains the best mechanism for illuminating when an investigation becomes biased.