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LOCAL NEWS
Finding the political will to use life-saving technology
An effective anti-icing system remains in limbo because of high cost and lack of public pressure, Sarah Staples reports.
 
Sarah Staples
The Ottawa Citizen

It's still excruciatingly hard for 72-year-old Stella Finnigan to talk about the morning her daughter died.

It was Nov. 18, 1999, and Debbie Rainey had left her home in Hawkesbury about 5:30 a.m. to make it to her shift at the Queensway-Carleton Hospital. Driving west on Highway 417, the 33-year-old nurse -- mother of a two-year-old and five-months' pregnant -- might even have passed the big yellow salt trucks that had earlier been dispatched to the area ahead.

A few kilometres up the road, freezing temperatures and spray from the river had turned the South Nation River Bridge, west of Casselman, into a treacherous crossing. Ms. Rainey, driving her husband's blue 1995 Nissan truck, careened into the ditch. She managed to make it out, shaken but unhurt, with the help of Luc Vigneux, a 26-year-old single father of two young girls, whose car was not far behind.

Moments later, a flatbed truck skidded on the same patch of ice and struck Ms. Rainey and Mr. Vigneux, killing them.

Fifteen minutes later, a salt truck reached the bridge.

Today, on a bridge in Prescott, at highways 401 and 416, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation is experimenting with new technology proven to prevent accidents like the one that killed Ms. Rainey and Mr. Vigneux.

But despite the highly successful pilot project, which has been running for two years, and similar success in the U.S. and Europe, there are no plans to install the expensive technology on other Ontario bridges with high accident rates anytime soon.

"It frustrates me immensely," said Mark Pinet, the consulting engineer who oversaw the pilot installation in Prescott. "There has to be political will, and that (pressure on politicians) has to come from the public. But the public isn't even aware these systems exist."

The technology is "fixed automated spray technology," or FAST -- an "intelligent anti-icing system" that predicts when treacherous black ice is forming on the road and automatically sprays de-icing fluid to melt it.

The Prescott bridge, a freeway-to-freeway ramp between Cornwall and Brockville, had been identified as collision-prone soon after it was built in 1998.

It carries heavy volume. Vehicles zooming over at high speeds are regularly hit by heavy crosswinds. And its elevation and proximity to the St. Lawrence River mean the bridge -- which is far from the dispatch site for de-icing trucks -- tends to ice up earlier and more often than the rest of the road.

So in 1999, engineers fitted the bridge with 11 nozzles resembling large hockey pucks, which they embedded in the road at regular intervals. They also laid sensors in the pavement to read things like road temperature and the amount of chemical on the road, and mounted optical sensors on poles to measure moisture and precipitation.

Data are fed into a computer program, which calculates when the bridge will refreeze. At critical moments, potassium acetate is pumped up to the bridge surface and sprays over the lanes like a lawn sprinkler, but low to the ground so motorists won't notice. Each nozzle sprays for about two seconds before its neighbour kicks in.

"The interesting thing is it's not so much a de-icing technology as an anti-icing technology," says Bob Nichols, a transportation ministry spokesman.

Simpler versions of FAST -- called "advanced road weather information systems" or ARWIS -- can offer some support to road crews. In Ottawa, for example, 11 weather stations equipped with sensors supply data about road conditions and weather, giving crews up to 24 hours' notice to go out and salt the roads.

The difference between ARWIS and the technology tested in Prescott is the degree of automation.

Instead of waiting for the cavalry to arrive, FAST anticipates icy conditions and fixes the problem on its own. It's the next wave in winter road safety, the experts say.

And it works. FAST reduced accidents in Prescott from 14 in 1999 to zero last year. The technology has a similar track record in 18 U.S. states, and across Europe, where it has been a fixture for nearly a quarter-century.

There are environmental and practical advantages to FAST as well. Salt stops being effective at -5C, whereas liquid de-icers, such as magnesium or calcium chloride (liquid salts) and potassium acetate -- the fluid used in Prescott -- are still effective when temperatures dip to as low as -18C.

A non-corrosive version of antifreeze, potassium acetate is also less damaging to bridges and cars than road salt. And because spraying is timed with greater accuracy, more chemical dries on the roadway -- less in the ditch.

In one B.C. study, a version of the anti-icing technology reduced chloride outputs in Cypress Bowl Provincial Park by 73 per cent.

Despite its success, Ontario transportation officials say no timelines are in place for reviewing the results of the pilot -- there isn't even a specific individual tasked with the job.

"There's probably no one in particular (in charge), it's probably (being monitored) through our maintenance office," says Mr. Nichols. "We haven't even established the criteria for selecting future sites yet."

He says some of those critical planning steps may come next year, after the ministry spends an indeterminate length of time weighing costs and benefits "in greater detail."

Critics say much of that legwork has already been done. A report out of Minnesota's Department of Transportation found FAST reduced accidents on a bridge over the Mississippi River by 68 per cent when it was installed two years ago. The report calculated savings of $3.40 U.S. for every dollar spent on the project. Minnesota has since drawn up a list of nine more candidate bridges.

Pennsylvania's transport department, meanwhile, spent two years evaluating different technologies before settling on FAST. Then it simply looked at traffic fatality statistics for specific bridges and picked trouble spots. The state now has seven systems, three of which came online this winter, and has scheduled 10 more installations over the next two years.

The main reason FAST isn't more widely used is cost. Installations run about $400,000 per bridge, not including operating expenses. By comparison, Ottawa's entire annual budget for winter road maintenance is about $30 million, of which $8 million is set aside for salt.

"If you were to install (FAST) all over Ottawa, you'd be into the billions of dollars," says Paul Delannoy, an Environment Canada meteorologist who has spent years developing better winter forecasting techniques. "It's prohibitively expensive to deploy on a massive scale."

Some funding support is available from Transport Canada's three-year-old Intelligent Transportation Systems plan, which earmarked $7 million for highway improvements.

But FAST is "competing for funding with variable-message signs and video cameras," says Mr. Pinet, "things that are all about improving capacity on the speedways, not safety."

The upshot to FAST's cost is its ability to save billions in accident insurance claims and emergency roadside assistance. In 1998, Transport Canada pegged the average cost of a fatal collision at $3.6 million.

Accidents causing bodily injury cost $50,000; those causing only property damage cost $5,000. Drivers' risk of fatal collision soars 75 per cent on snow-covered roads.

Graham Gilfillan, a manager for the Insurance Company of British Columbia, says deep-pocketed private insurers have been approached to help foot the hefty bill.

But a spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the policy umbrella group for private insurers, says road safety should be the governments' responsibility.

"This is why they collect taxes on fuel and vehicle registration," says Costa Kaskavaltzis. Better, as far as his industry is concerned, he says, is to fund car theft and safety initiatives, which can have a more direct impact on insurance rates.

B.C.'s publicly funded insurance company doesn't see it that way. Together with the ministry of transportation, it's just finished putting FAST on two high-risk sites near Kamloops.

Mr. Gilfillan says private insurers are loath to invest in the technology because with so many competitors vying for an ever-changing market share, it would be difficult to accurately divide the cost savings.

Without private-sector support, FAST continues to manoeuvre its way through bureaucratic hoops at the ministry level.

Mrs. Finnegan, meanwhile, continues to deal with the shattering loss of her daughter. These days, she doesn't go out much anymore.

"If you'd come two months ago even, I don't think I could have talked to you."

The Rainey and Finnegan families are suing the counties of Prescott Russell and the provincial government for negligence in Debbie Rainey's death.

The suit, filed shortly after the accident, alleges the road wasn't properly maintained for the weather conditions -- a claim the defendants deny. In a couple of months, it will progress to discovery stage, where all sides lay out the details of their case.

Mrs Finnegan isn't alone in attempting to hold government responsible for road safety.

Last May, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the province to pay damages of $4 million to the family of a woman who was severely brain damaged after her car crossed the median of an ice-slicked bridge on Highway 401.

Road crews were found to have ignored weather forecasts calling for frost.

The issue of liability could prove an even bigger roadblock to FAST's implementation than its high cost, since ministry officials would have to formally identify dangerous locations where FAST will go.

For now, the Ontario Road Safety Annual Report publishes data on accidents given to the ministry by the OPP. But the bulletin doesn't break the numbers down by individual locations.

"It's sensitive information," says Environment Canada's Mr. Delannoy.

"As you get the word out (about potential trouble spots), people will be after the transportation agencies to install these systems on every single one of them."

Mohamed Alkola, operations engineer for the City of Ottawa, says he's already identified at least one other site where FAST might be appropriate.

He won't say where, but as a stop-gap, he's working with the other provinces and the federal government to knit existing road and weather information stations into a national network.

Doing so would give road crews even more accurate and up-to-date forecasts than they currently get, at a price that's far cheaper than FAST.

All this is cold comfort to Mrs. Finnigan, whose daughter died just before the salt trucks made it to the bridge. "Minutes count," she says.

"Debbie was proof of that."

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen


 





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