DANGEROUS DRIVE: Increasing Highway 101 safety a priority for firefighters

Carole Morris-Underhill editor@hantsjournal.ca
Published on June 10, 2015

WINDSOR - The tones sound and pagers go off.

It's yet another emergency call — one that will lead first responders out to Highway 101 to help extricate a motorist from another car wreck, or to extinguish yet another car fire, or to provide traffic control.

For Hantsport and Windsor firefighters, it's a call they're all too familiar with receiving.

View the Hants Journal's multimedia feature, the first in a series on Highway 101 safety, here.

Just this past Sunday, Windsor firefighters provided assistance near the downtown Windsor exit. It was considered a minor call, no fatalities.

Both the Windsor and Hantsport fire departments have seen dramatic improvements in safety over the last decade, as segments of the highway were twinned. They see a correlation between the twinned section and a general decline in horrific accidents.

However, for Windsor's bottleneck area — the portion that remains undivided, from just before downtown Windsor (Exit 6) to just past Falmouth (Exit 7) — the accidents remain severe.

Hantsport's Deputy Fire Chief Paul Maynard said that his department has benefited from the twinned highway that runs through their coverage area.

“We haven't really seen a reduction in accidents. What we've seen is a change in the dynamics of the accidents,” said Maynard.

Between 2007 and 2014, Hantsport responded to a total of 114 accidents, 71 of which were on the highway. In 2014, of the 16 calls they responded to, 14 were for the highway. But by contrast, in 2009 they responded to seven calls, three of which were Highway 101 calls.

“In the past, we had high speed, head-on collisions, which we saw a lot of patients with severe injuries, (and) multi-system trauma,” said Maynard, who has been in the fire service for about 25 years.

“The single biggest change (with) dividing the highway is simply the fact that we've gone from these high speed, high impact head-on collisions to single vehicle rollovers,” said Maynard.

Although he was quick to point out that single vehicle car accidents can — and sometimes do — result in serious injuries or fatalities, Maynard credits the divided highway with cutting back on the severity of the incidents that firefighters are called out to attend.

Chief Maynard: ‘The pinch point right now is Windsor’

The section of highway that Windsor patrols runs from Stillwater, near Mount Uniacke, to near where the divided highway begins en route to Hantsport. The Hantsport Fire Department responds to the divided highway section near Falmouth to the West Brooklyn Mountain overpass. They also have an agreement in place with the Wolfville Fire Department that sees them automatically paged for all motor vehicle accidents between the Ben Jackson Road overpass (Exit 8a) and Grand Pre (Exit 10).

“I think the pinch point right now is Windsor,” said Maynard, adding, “and I think until that's divided we're still going to continue to see a number of fatalities as we've seen with the last year with collisions in the areas that are undivided.”

In 1984, the Windsor Fire Department received its first Jaws of Life extrication equipment. However, the department was responding to motor vehicle collisions in the 1970s, with firefighters using tow trucks, pry bars and whatever means they could to help extricate victims.

They currently have two Jaws of Life sets; and they are called out to, on average, 50 accidents throughout Hants County each year.

Chief Burgess: ‘We see the same driver errors’

Windsor Fire Chief Scott Burgess has been in the fire service for 27 years. He's seen firsthand how highway safety has improved over the past two decades, and what a difference a divided highway makes.

“We still see similar road conditions. We see the same driver errors,” said Burgess, noting that because of the design of newer cars, plus the safety features in place on upgraded highways, the roads are much safer on which to travel.

Earlier this year, Burgess noted there had been a single vehicle accident where the car slid into the end of a guardrail. If that happened years ago, Burgess said the driver likely wouldn't have survived.

“That guy lived because of the new design of the end of the guardrail. It did exactly what it was supposed to do. And his car had multiple airbags. They were all deployed,” he noted.

The bottleneck section of the highway now has rumble strips — both in the middle and along the sides. There are signs warning drivers that they are about to enter an undivided section.

Despite this, the un-twinned area continues to see fatalities and serious injuries. Since 2009, the Department of Transportation noted there were four fatalities between the exit for downtown Windsor (Exit 6) and Hantsport (Exit 8).

“We've seen significant decrease in massive head on collisions,” said Burgess of the divided highway, adding, “We're still getting (them) in this bottleneck.”

Between 2008 and 2014, the Windsor Fire Department responded to a total of 315 motor vehicle accidents, almost half of which — 135 — were on Highway 101.

Windsor Deputy Fire Chief Jamie Juteau said people appear to be more aware of highway accidents now, especially near the causeway.

“The concentration is here now because this is where the problem is — right now it's on the radar as being the place – but prior to the twinning, it was all the way up and down (the highway),” said Juteau.

Juteau, who has been in the fire service for 21years, said twinning the highway completely will make it safer for all motorists in the long run.

“You're still going to have accidents on the twinned section; we always have, we always will. There's a lot of reasons for that,” said Juteau. “But the bottom line is, from my experience, they've been less significant on the divided sections because oncoming traffic is not right next to each other. It makes it a little bit safer for the drivers as well.”

What should be done?

Maynard said two things need to be done to further improve the safety of Highway 101: twin the remaining portion and further educate the public of the importance of obeying the laws and regulations in place.

“Obviously the completion of the twinning. Any more twinning that they can do will resolve our problems, especially in the Windsor area through the causeway. I know there's a huge expense to that but hopefully it will get done,” said Maynard.

“As well as I think people really need to abide by the laws that ask you to slow down when there's emergency vehicles or if there's other vehicles on the side of the highway working because it is a very, very unsafe area to work,” he noted.

“We see a lot of near misses on the highways for our emergency responders,” he added.

The law, which came into effect in May 2010, requires motorists to reduce their speed to 60 kilometres per hour when passing a stopped emergency vehicle with its lights flashing. If a second lane is available, the motorist is to move into the other lane. Fines for not complying with the law range from $340.21 to $685.21 for a first offence.

“If we can't work safely then we can't help that patient,” noted Burgess.

The Windsor chief said despite the improvements that have already been made, the department would welcome any additional twinning, and would be willing to help record additional statistics if asked by the province.

“We would like to see, eventually, this section be divided.”