Outer Ring fallout

Barb Sweet
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A sign warns motorists to slow down on the Outer Ring Road. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

An internal investigation into an Outer Ring Road accident that killed a Transportation and Works employee last summer made several recommendations to address safety hazards for the department's workers.

The senior engineer from the department's soils lab was among a group on site July 5 discussing the issue of ruts on the road and the potential for using alternate asphalt mixes to reduce wear and tear.

Besides the Transportation worker, two other men were injured, one of them a City of St. John's engineer.

News reports based on the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's (RNC) preliminary information at the time suggested an eastbound SUV was travelling behind several vehicles in the curb lane. When they suddenly slowed, the SUV driver swerved into the median lane to avoid a rear-end collision, reports said. It was suggested the driver then lost control of the vehicle and collided with the three men.

But several months later, the RNC investigation is still ongoing, but is nearing the end, The Telegram was told Friday. Weather has been ruled out as a contributing factor. According to the RNC, the collision occurred just prior to a downpour of rain.

In the wake of the accident, news reports and open line shows hashed out renewed criticism of the Outer Ring Road, including complaints about rutting and hydroplaning dangers.

Practically since it opened, the road has spurred public debate over whether its design is flawed and how dangerous people feel it is to travel on.

The tragedy also prompted public commentary about the safety of highway workers.

While internally, shock gripped his department and workers were offered grief counselling, a shaken Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson offered his condolences publicly and in the weeks after the crash defended the commuter roadway's accident tally and design and cautioned motorists to slow down, especially in bad weather.

"Key messages" from Hedderson and the department over the summer involved the awarding of a $2.1-million tender for work that included repairs to ruts on the road, as well as asphalt repairs to various bridge decks on the Outer Ring.

Another message was that people sometimes blame rutting on the Outer Ring Road for accidents and label it "the cause" for hydroplaning, without acknowledging speed.

And it was pointed out the roadway is the busiest one owned by the provincial government and, contrary to popular opinion, is not the road with the highest number of collisions in the St. John's area.

Hedderson told The Telegram this week he wasn't trying to deflect attention away from the Outer Ring Road.

"It stands to reason with the speed and number of cars, you are going to have some mishaps in there," he said.

"There's probably more accidents on Kenmount Road than the Outer Ring. But when an accident occurs on the Outer Ring with the speed involved, oftentimes it is not only property damage but loss of life.

"It's a good stretch of road. ... People are changing their driving habits. I travel from Avondale to here everyday and I can tell you the driving patterns of some people are frightening. And it is about speed."

The department is collecting data and plans to step up public awareness once that's analyzed.

"You can't blame it on road conditions all the time," Hedderson said.

He also asked his assistant deputy minister what he thought of public calls to erect better signs, especially warning of rutting. The reply to Hedderson's query was not included in an access to information response.

Hedderson noted this week the province uses signs to warn of such things as high winds, as seen in the Wreckhouse area on the west coast and there's a sign on the Outer Ring Road warning people to slow down because of hydroplaning.

But the department isn't warning people about ruts on any highway.

"You can't always depend on signs," Hedderson said. "You got to be a very astute driver ... We can't put a sign out for every possible hazard."

Not all the ruts on the Outer Ring Road were repaired, but the department concentrated on the most serious. It uses a special machine to monitor deterioration.

As for the July accident, Service NL is also still conducting an occupational health and safety investigation. A spokesman said it's not known when that will be concluded.

But Transportation and Works did its own occupational health and safety investigation.

The report is not about the safety of the Outer Ring Road itself, but rather the safety of department workers when they are trying to do their jobs.

The recommendations from the report - some still in the process of being implemented - were released to The Telegram following an access to information request. The investigation involved three public servants, two outside the department.

The report found gaps in the way Occupational Health and Safety regulations were viewed.

"A critical part of a health and safety program is an effective method or system of identifying and controlling hazards in the workplace," said the first recommendation pinpointing failings with the way in which hazards are being identified.

'However it was not obvious through the investigation that this section is widely understood or utilized."

The department was advised to review its training and encourage all workers to be on the lookout for hazards on the job.

A new procedure is in place, which prompts employees to conduct a hazard assessment regarding traffic in a given area before exiting their vehicle to do work.

The department was also advised to step up its communication of the need to wear high visibility apparel for all employees, and to review its protocol regarding safety rules for visitors to department worksites.

It was also advised to revisit training needs for workers who aren't routinely in high risk situations, but nevertheless find themselves in danger on occasion.

"An example of this concern, highlighted in this investigation, was the relaxed attitude from a safety perspective that was generally associated with brief cursory road inspections," the report suggests, adding the practice extended to engineers and even outside consultants who inspect government property such as buildings and ferries.

"There are many examples of this type of situation in Transportation and Works."

New training is about to be rolled out.

The investigation also found that the department's occupational health and safety committees focus on the office environment and infrastructure issues and need to be coached to include hazards of job tasks that occur outside their building.

The accident prompted a full review of the department's approach to promoting occupational health and safety, in the field and otherwise, the department said.

Hedderson said last July's accident was one of the worst days of his life. Colleagues of the victim are still shaken and he feels for the worker's family.

"(He) worked for us for years. He was one of our main people," Hedderson said.

"It's a loss. When I think of (his) wife, this is the hardest time."

According to a spokesman for the City of St. John's, its engineer involved in the accident is still on leave, while recovering from his injuries sustained in the accident.



Organizations: The Telegram, Service NL

Geographic location: Outer Ring Road, St. John's, Kenmount Road Avondale Wreckhouse

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Recent comments

  • Tim
    December 11, 2011 - 21:10

    Grief counseling.... A "shaken" transport minister... Who wrote this article, Oprah Winfrey? Sheesh

  • John
    December 11, 2011 - 11:45

    Simple - place radar and camera control points along the stretch. Tickets and therefore cash will control behaviours.

  • J. Bennett
    December 11, 2011 - 11:29

    Set up a Highway Patrol for the Provinces Highways. They would pay for themselves and cut the accident rate in half. The only answer to combact speed and poor driving is a dedicated force with a sole mandate of patrolling and enforcing the rules and regulations. That would free up the RCMP and RNC to look after other police matters.

  • Ranter
    December 11, 2011 - 06:57

    "But the department isn't warning people about ruts on any highway." The reason they don't is because Hedderson nor the government can be sued. You see, they are responsible for the accidents that occur because of ruts, buildup of water and hydroplaning. If they erect a sign to warn their is a hazard, they are admitting fault automatically, thus responsibility. Government in NL does this in every department. They don't like knowing the issues, because that means someone is accountable and responsible. They choose to ignore and blame the other party. Funny how it's always OUR responsibility to slow down, be more cautious, etc, but government gets off the hook on a very serious issue of responsible roads that are safe to use. if you come to my house and slip on ice because I was too lazy, the law permits you to collect insurance or worse, sue me. In the case of out ring, anyone that has had an accident from hydroplanning should read this and think - hey I should sue government, not for the money, but to get government to fix the roads so they are safe. Make government accountable by starting a class action lawsuit. Government can't just build roads that are cheap and dangerous to the public. They are 100% responsible. The drivers that decide to go over the speed limit, their on their own, they incurred the situation that made government's responsibility in their situation NULL.

  • Hold Accountable
    December 10, 2011 - 22:30

    How many times do we have to pay to have same stretch of road repaired. There is no way the right quantity and quality of ashphalt is being used.We haven't had this issue a number of years ago and we all used studded tires then. The older roads that are not important enough to be repaired don't have ruts but are in hard shape

  • Slow Drivers to Blame
    December 10, 2011 - 17:28

    Get the slow drivers off the road. I work as a professional driver and drive 200-500 KM a day around St. John's alone. How many times have I had to slam on the break or swerve to avoid a rear end when you come up on someone going 20-30 KM under the speed limit, espec if they are just on the other side of a blind hill and you can not see them until you are on top of them or they cut infront of you. Even worse is when you get peopel coming to a near sudden stop to avoid hitting a pot hole or the most annoying cuts in the road left by the road crews. People, take the hole or cut hard if you have to in order to avoid getting hit, look in the rear view before you hit your break, and what ever you do don't slow too much or you will be in a wheelchair.

  • Kevin
    December 10, 2011 - 15:51

    Speed cameras people. This city needs them in more than one place.

  • Eli
    December 10, 2011 - 15:36

    For the life of me I don't see the problem with rutting on the Outer Ring. Some roads in town yes, the lanes are quite narrow, but not this one. The lanes are plenty wide to STRADDLE the frikkin' things, keeping to the right in the process. That will keep you off the center line. There's no insurance when people drive right thru 'em throwing water all over the place. I think pick-up drivers in particular get their jollies out of that. So easy to hydroplane. Smarten up for cripes sake and slow down! As for signs....Hedderson is just pissin' aginst the wind and by now he knows it.

  • Amy
    December 10, 2011 - 14:24

    I travel this road twice daily and I most drivers do adjust their speed for rain and snow. It is the minority that we have to worry about and I`m not sure signs or policing will do much to deter that. One of the biggest and consistant hazards I would like to see addressed on this stretch of road is the slow moving tractor that ends up causing traffic backups and results in a lot of near miss accidents which I have witnessed. This tractor appears MANY during many rush hour drives and cannot even maintain 50... half the posted speed limit. It backs up one complete lane as if the lane was blocked off and cause slow moving vehicles to change lanes in front of faster moving traffic. I suggest this should NEVER be allowed on a major highway like the Outer Ring... especially during rush hour when traffic volume is at it`s highest. I`d like to see the Minister address this.

  • John
    December 10, 2011 - 10:52

    While I agree with Mr. Hedderson's comments regarding the speed problen on the Outer Ring Road, the rutting in the road is filled with water, especially during heavy rain. While some people will slow down, when you get into a rut, you have to be very careful or you could end up in the median or in the woods because when your wheels hit the pavement, they tend to put you into danger faster. Drive safe this season and always. If you are doing 110 KMH and go from PAB to St. Johns you only save about an hour. How much would you save going from Pleasantville to the TCH???

    • Terry Kelleher
      December 10, 2011 - 14:40

      Two facts worth pointing out. I recently returned from a trip through the other three Atlantic provinces and in only one place did I see "rutting" in the pavement. Does that mean we don't know how to build a road in this province? By the way, if you really want to see serious rutting...try driving the main streets of Corner Brook. Secondly when Blackmarsh Rd., was recently being dug up, I noted that the old pavement was a full three inches thick and there never was any rutting on that road. Prepare the road bed properly and slap good thick pavement down, not this inch thick stuff that is a hazard to life and limb. The cheapest bid on a paving contract is an invitation to cut corners.

  • sealcove
    December 10, 2011 - 10:28

    Maybe if people did the speed limit rather than 70 to 80 and paid attention to the road ,put down your phones and other toys auto have to day

  • Paradise Parent
    December 10, 2011 - 08:44

    I have to agree with Minister Hedderson when he say s that "you can't blame it on road conditions all the time", SPEED is the factor that kills on the Outer Ring Road!! 140km/hr-160km/hr is not unheard of on that stretch of road, throw texting, talking or smoking into the mix and someone is dead. Where are the RNC members? There was a great presence when the road works was underway and people slowed down, then the RNC left and speeds went right back up again. The wallet seems to be a direct link to the Brain!! Slow Down People!!