Traffic backs up at the intersection of County Roads 2 and 3 as as result of a massive Highway 401 collision in this March 15, 2017 file photo. (FILE PHOTO)

The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) is considering lowering speed limits on the 401 and other 400-series highways during bad weather, according to a report by a working group on highway safety.

The lower speed limits are one of the key recommendations of a committee of top ministry officials, municipal leaders, Transport Canada, OPP and the trucking industry, which was formed in response to a hazardous material spill on the 401 in March 2017.

Robin Jones, warden of the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville and a member of the committee, said the ministry has already hired consultants to sort through the jurisdictional and legal issues to allow temporary reductions in speed.

Joe Baptista, mayor of the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands where last year’s spill occurred, said the proposal would allow the MTO to lower speeds to, say, 80 kph during inclement weather. The lower speeds would be communicated to motorists via flashing electronic signs along the highway.

Baptista said the OPP insisted that the lower speeds during inclement weather be written into the law to allow police to enforce them.

In another committee recommendation, the ministry has agreed to look at increasing rest stops for truckers along the 401. The ministry will consider opening stops at abandoned weigh stations, Tourism Ontario centres and expanding existing service centres to give places for truck drivers to pull over during storms.

The ministry is committed to compiling an inventory of existing rest stops, identifying gaps, improving the infrastructure and looking at repurposing the abandoned government properties along the highway as rest stops, according to the report.

Jones said trucking industry officials said their drivers don’t mind getting off the road during bad weather but there are few places for them to do so safely. Pulling off to the side of the road or parking on exit ramps just aren’t safe options during a winter storm, she said.

The lower speed limits and more rest stops are two of the major recommendations contained in the report by the group that calls itself the Highway Operations Safety Review.

Other recommendations include:

  • Review the training of truck drivers to require higher standards for drivers who transport hazardous goods;
  • An OPP crackdown on aggressive and distracted drivers and on truckers who break the hours-of-driving rules;
  • Requiring trucks hauling dangerous goods to be equipped with technology for electronic stability control and emergency braking;
  • Review technology to better track trucks carrying dangerous goods.

Jones and Baptista said the recommendations are in addition to things the MTO has already done as a result of earlier committee deliberations.

The ministry installed 10 variable message signs along the 401 in Eastern Ontario to inform motorists about winter driving conditions, 10 radar speed-sensor signs and six more roadside cameras on the 401 to broadcast road conditions on Ontario511, the report noted.

While Jones and Baptista described the committee’s progress as a work in progress, they were upbeat at the work so far.

Baptista said it was unprecedented to get such a high-level group together to discuss highway safety to make recommendations to the minister.

Transport Minister Kathryn McGarry has already responded to the committee’s recommendations and agreed to take action on them, Baptista said.

“That’s a very positive recognition,” he said.

Prescott Mayor Brett Todd didn’t share his colleagues’ enthusiasm with the report, saying he had hoped for more concrete recommendations to the minister.

Todd said the ministry has agreed to “look at” such solutions as lower speed limits instead of agreeing to put them in place.

“We started ‘looking at it’ last fall and I would have liked to be beyond that point by now,” Todd said.

Todd, who began urging that the government do something immediately after the March 2017 crash, said it took the ministry seven months to hold the first meeting.

And while the committee has had some successes, he said he had hoped for a lot more concrete recommendations by now.

The real eye-opener for Todd during the committee discussions was the plight of Ontario’s truckers, he said. The need for more rest stops is acute, Todd said, and truckers are in “dire straits” because of the shortage of places where they can pull off safely.

Todd said he was frustrated that the government seems to be still studying the need for more stops, instead of acting now.

“We need to do something about those rest stops yesterday – we can’t wait a day longer on that,” he said.

After months of meetings, Todd said the local mayors were abruptly presented with the MTO staff’s “final” report to the minister via email with no opportunity to have a follow-up meeting to discuss it.

“I am frustrated with the lack of significant progress here. I think we need to do more for our truck drivers, and for the roads,” Todd said. “We’ve made some progress but, boy, it’s a lot slower than I’d have liked.”

Source: The Kingston Whig-Standard