This OPP photo of a tanker truck collision fails to highlight the important status of the guardrail. The guardrail is still attached to the concrete bridge abutment and its anchorage posts are generally in line. This suggests that the truck rode over top of the guardrail.

On Friday, August 14, 2020 the OPP Twitter account informed the public of the closure of Hwy 401 west of Kingston, Ontario due to a collision involving a tanker truck which had spilt liquid tar into a creek. Photos were attached with the notification, the one shown above, and two others shown below.

Regardless of the original circumstances which led to the tanker truck’s travel toward the roadside, there is evidence in the above photos to demonstrate that the manner of interaction between the tanker truck and roadside guardrail was inadequate.

Depending on varying circumstances the super-highway which is Highway 401 carries large volumes of heavy trucks. Often truck volume may exceed the volume of all other traffic. At the same time Highway 401 is at the peak of the level of service of all highways in Ontario. It is given the highest level of maintenance and design. When more than half of the vehicles on this highway are heavy trucks then there should be a focus on creating a highway environment that protects the safety of truckers and their trucks. It is not a sudden revelation that various roadside barriers are installed to reduce the severity of collisions and therefore they should reduce the severity of heavy truck collisions. Heavy trucks have driven on Highway 401 for decades and roadside barriers have existed for decades. What is missing is the acknowledgment that a large number of barriers along Highway 401 are inadequate in their ability to reduce the severity of heavy truck collisions.

With respect to the collision shown in the photos above, it is clear that the tanker truck passed through or over a guardrail before it entered the creek spilling its cargo. Although police reported that the truck driver did not sustain any injury this was likely more due to luck rather than the result of designed safety systems. The collision resulted in a costly cleanup but it could have been worse if the cargo was of a more noxious or explosive base.

When we look at the photos we note that the guardrail impact was close to a bridge abutment. A guardrail is generally strengthened at its junction with a bridge abutment primarily so that a striking vehicle can be deflected from impacting the very stiff and immovable concrete abutment. When looking at the first photo it shows that the end of the guardrail is still attached to the concrete abutment and that is a desirable outcome. Yet we still see evidence of contact to the concrete. We also see that the wooden anchorage posts of the guardrail are at various angles but they are generally in line and do not appear to  be broken away. This indicates that, at this location, the tanker truck did not drive through the guardrail but rode over top of it. The first photo is shown again below.

If we look in the background of the photo above we can see that the rear wheels on the tanker trailer are mutilated. These are the left (driver’s) side wheels. A close-up of that area is shown in the view below.

The severity and location of such damage is not consistent with the impact of the rail but is more consistent with the impact of the concrete bridge abutment shown in the foreground. Thus we gain insight into how the truck and trailer passed over top of rail and made a glancing contact with the bridge abutment. This interaction is not by design, it is by chaos.

We would like to see the condition of the portion of the guardrail on approach to the bridge abutment but police did not a provide a good view of that area. A close-up from of the first photo is shown below but it provides little assistance. It is possible that a length of rail can be seen lying on the grass slope but it is difficult to say.

Additional information can be obtained from examining the site with Google Maps. The photo below shows a general view of Highway 401 from Odessa to Kingston. The town of Odessa is located just to the left of the centre of the photo and it shows that Highway 401 is straight for a substantial distance until the collision site where the Highway contains a significant curve.

A closer view of the substantial curve is shown below. The orange circle indicates the location of the collision site.

And a further close-up view of the site is shown below, again with the orange circle indicating the location of the collision site.

The Google Maps view below is looking east on Highway 401 and approaching the collision site. The extent of the sharp curve can be appreciated.

And again, the view below shows the collision site looking eastward, upon approach to the bridge over the small creek. Here we can see the portion of the guardrail that was struck by the tanker truck. The crucial information needed to confirm the adequacy of the rail is its height. But that is unknown.

In many instances the anchorage posts of a railing are wooden and they become rotted through age. Although it is difficult to see, the anchorage posts of the rail shown in the above photo appear to be of a metallic/aluminum material and not wooden. Thus an explanation for the truck’s passage through or over the rail cannot be provided without actually being at the site and being able to examine the damaged system.

The pre-crash status of the guardrail and its connection with the concrete bridge abutment is shown in the photo below. In some instances there is an improper joining of the rail to the abutment.

A closer view of that junction is shown below. At face value there does not appear to be an improper connection of the systems. Yet there appears to be piece of the concrete abutment missing at its upper corner. This would suggest that there was a previous impact to the abutment. That outcome should be of concern. But again, without the ability to conduct a further investigation nothing further can be accomplished in this review.

It should be part of the police reconstruction activities to assess such roadside structures especially when it is clear that a structure has allowed a vehicle to pass through, or over top of it. Such results are life-threatening. No less life-threatening than if those police had detected an impaired driver or a defective vehicle. Regrettably that documentation of roadside systems is not happening.

The drivers of heavy trucks and buses are at increased danger because roadside structures are not designed to interact with these taller and heavier vehicles. More importantly, intercity coaches may carry dozens of passengers and the threat of multiple fatalities should make it even more important to protect their safety. At present there is no official acknowledgment of the special dangers that exist to the occupants of any heavy vehicle on a high speed expressway. Collisions like the present one are simply ignored without appreciation that, sooner or later, those lucky outcomes will end.