Finally — finally — the highway through Terra Nova National Park is getting passing lanes. It’s going to cost $27 million to build 13 of the lanes at different spots for the 42 kilometres where the highway snakes through the park, but it’s going to reduce accidents and near-misses on the snaking, two-lane 90 kilometre an hour route. And it’s going to save lives.
Going through hilly sections of the park, it’s not unusual to have thoughtful transport truck drivers — aware of delays they’re causing as they try to climb hills — driving uphill sections fully on the paved shoulder, their outside wheels inches from the ditch to allow cars to pass safely.
But if the federal government has finally figured out what danger looks like, I’m not sure the provincial government has.
I can think of three relatively new roads on the Avalon Peninsula that suffer from a distinct lack of forethought — and, no, I’m not talking about the weekly (heck, almost daily) traffic snarl created by the City of St. John’s completely failing to see the traffic implications of the Stavanger Drive big box stores.
Two of the three? The new Torbay bypass road and Robert E. Howlett Memorial Drive, which bypasses the Goulds.
The worst of the three? Veterans’ Memorial Highway from the Trans-Canada to Carbonear.
What the three share is high speed limits (along with limited speed enforcement) and a near-complete absence of dedicated passing lanes.
On Veterans’ Memorial, part of the problem is that the road serves as a handy connector between towns from Bay Roberts to Carbonear. On any day, the 100-km/h traffic can be bound up like a bran-less senior citizen behind a pickup truck with a loosely lashed down ATV, or a Sunday driver who’s testing the limits of high speed on the human body by reaching the staggering speeds of 60 km/h.
Heading towards Carbonear just before the Makinsons overpass, for example, there’s a long uphill section that’s perfectly suited for lane-widening for a dedicated passing lane to allow vehicles to safely pass slow-moving traffic — instead, there’s already a six-foot high cross marking a highway death, one of a startlingly high number of deaths on a 38-kilometre stretch of road.
Now, I understand that widening a road to three lanes from two is going to carry extra costs — see the above $27-million price tag in the national park.
But unlike other secondary roads, these three roads carry high traffic loads and speed limits, at least two in the 90 to 100 km/h range. And unlike other two-lane secondary roads, these three are deceptively wide and straight, giving drivers who might not be familiar with the speeds of vehicles coming at them an illusion that passing is possible.
You can’t completely protect people from themselves, but given the obvious dangers, you can mitigate dangerous situations.
The province already has registered a plan on the books to extend the Robert E. Howlett — arguing that it’s creating “a more efficient and safer roadway.” And once again, the 9.4-kilometre extension that’s being proposed is exactly the same kind of two-lane standard as the existing route, once again without dedicated passing lanes.
Stop and think how many times you’ve heard about accidents on Veterans’ or the Howlett Memorial? It’s weekly. And often, they are the kind of high-speed, head-on crashes that no car design can protect drivers and passengers from, and the kinds of crashes that make emergency responders cringe when they hear the call-out.
The provincial government should be having second thoughts about building this particular standard of highways. Lengthy, high-speed, two-lane routes with no dedicated passing lanes — coupled with drivers used to exceeding speed limits because no one’s enforcing anything — are a clear danger.
Let’s stop making new ones, and think about fixing what’s already built.
No one wants to be hit head-on by a frustrated driver who’s cutting it close to try and get by. These are dangerous roads — even for people who are obeying every single rule.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @Wangersky.