Update: see previous posts – June 7, 2012 Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion to Toronto’s Rob Ford “Raise Taxes to Fight Gridlock”, March 2, 2012 Taxi Gridlock near Billy Bishop Airport, October 6, 2011 Toronto Towing is Down, Grinding Gridlock is Up, June 27, 2011 Expert Consultants Invited to Toronto to Come Up with Permanent Solutions for Grinding Gridlock, October 18, 2010 Toronto – Total Gridlock, March 30, 2010 Toronto Ranks 19 Out of 19 in Daily Commuting Times
It may have been a new low for stupid driving on Ontario highways — 21 drivers pulled over by police and charged last month as they took photos while passing an accident scene on Highway 401.
An isolated incident? Or as one traffic expert suggests, a sign of a deteriorating driving culture that contributes to the congestion on Ontario’s highways.
“We need to create a culture of disciplined driving,” says Professor Baher Abdulhai, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre at the University of Toronto.
The economic cost of congestion in the GTA is pegged at upwards of $6 billion a year. And there is also the cost of lost family time and inactivity. Road pricing and public transit are seen as ways to fix things.
But could simply improving our driving habits make a difference?
Yes, says Abdulhai, it would. “We don’t have a good driving culture in the GTA.”
It’s really quite simple, drivers share the road and are in a relationship with other drivers. The actions of one driver impact other drivers, many times in a negative way.
Earlier this month OPP officers attending a collision involving two tractor-trailers in Napanee, Ont. noticed numerous drivers using their hand-held devices to take pictures of the wreckage as they drove past on Highway 401.
The drivers caught were charged with distracted driving, which carries a $155 fine.
Abdulhai says GTA drivers need to know that refusing to let drivers merge, rubbernecking, speeding into already congested areas and driving the wrong speed in a lane need to be viewed as much more than just bad driving.
“Driving behaviour has an impact on traffic congestion. It makes everything worse. It’s not the silver bullet to fix traffic congestion, but if you combine the right systems with disciplined driving, a 25 to 30 per cent reduction in congestion is possible.”
That’s the target traffic experts such as Abdulhai are trying to achieve: when traffic volume through a typical stretch of highway hits maximum capacity (about 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane), flow drops to zero, resulting in complete gridlock. It takes a significant reduction in traffic to get things moving again, he explains.
Without such a reduction, gridlock will continue to cost the GTA. According to a 2010 study for the Toronto Board of Trade, the average GTA commute was 80 minutes, the worst in North America, and according to study done for Metrolinx, traffic congestion will cost the GTA and Hamilton area economy $15 billion by 2031.
In Germany, drivers are extremely disciplined which decreases bad driving and in turn decreases congestion, Abdulhai explains.
He gives the example of speeding into a known congestion zone to explain how good driving can keep vehicles moving and eliminate stop-and-go traffic.
When approaching a known congestion zone such as an accident or construction area, drivers often accelerate before braking hard once they are very near the stopped car ahead. But research shows that this approach speeds up the amount of time it takes all cars to reach stopped traffic by pushing the so-called line of zero movement further away from the congestion cause. In other words cars are forced to stop sooner and for longer. It then takes much longer for all traffic to begin moving again. A smooth traffic flow keeps the line of zero movement to a smaller area, trapping fewer vehicles.
“People want to make up the most distance in the least amount of time,” Abdulhai says. “But it’s actually worse and increases the chance for a rear-end collision.”
“If people decelerate well ahead of a congestion zone, they won’t be stuck in a jam as long.”
Abdulhai says bad driving habits, such as tailgating, which causes sharp braking and a domino effect that leads to stop-and-go traffic, should be addressed through education. But he stresses that better traffic systems, such as metered lights at on-ramps, congestion pricing and proper speed limits also need to be implemented.
In Germany, the driver’s test is so difficult (requiring months of preparation) that the U.S. army recently complained to German authorities about the failure rate of its members and their spouses who are based there but cannot drive.
Abdulhai says congestion and bad driving in the GTA will only get worse if the entire traffic culture doesn’t change.
“When things are calm, drivers are patient and accommodating. But as congestion increases and driving becomes more stressful, everyone’s fighting for space.”
Four tips for better driving
• MERGING: “It should be what we call a zipper pattern,” Professor Baher Abdulhai explains. Like a tributary smoothly flowing into a river, when traffic has to merge into one lane, every second car should let one car in. “Don’t try to push your way in. People will just react by squeezing you out; I’ve seen it a million times. Then you get sharp braking and stop-and-go traffic, instead of smooth flow. Just signal and wait to be let in. Driving habits are an extension of human nature. If you’re aggressive, others will be aggressive with you.”
• RUBBERNECKING: It’s an obvious answer. No matter how badly you want to see what’s happened in an accident scene, don’t slow down to look. But Abdulhai doesn’t blame it entirely on drivers. “It’s human nature, but the police should be doing more. In Europe, many places are now putting up large blackout curtains right around the accident scene. We should be doing the same thing.”
• SPEED CONTROL: Drivers need to gauge what speed they should be driving at in the highway lane they’re in. If traffic to your right is moving faster than you, you’re in the wrong lane. But Abdulhai doesn’t blame GTA drivers for the confusion about what speed should be maintained in each lane. “The speed limit of 100 kilometres is just ridiculous: even the police go 120. What happens is, no one knows what speed they’re supposed to be travelling at. If someone’s in the left lane doing 100, can you blame them for following the law?”
• CUTTING IN: It’s probably the most infuriating thing on GTA highways. You’ve been waiting patiently to exit onto a ramp or merge into a lane, when someone comes racing past you and cuts in at the last second. Again, it’s obvious: don’t do it. The exit line just grows longer and smooth flow in other lanes is also interrupted by sharp braking that causes stop-and-go traffic.
To compensate for bad driving, the University of Tokyo and Honda are collaborating on technology that would remove drivers from the decision-making process when approaching traffic congestion.
What they call a patented Traffic Congestion Minimizer System is being designed for cars to take control of the braking and deceleration when drivers near a congestion zone.
Here’s how it works: Cloud computing taps into a number of digital warning systems — such as traffic camera networks, toll highway monitors and online information about traffic problems — and signals to a car when it needs to slow down, well ahead of stalled traffic. Instead of a driver racing into congestion, with others following closely behind, cars are automatically paced to slow down well before they reach a traffic jam.
The system is currently being tested in Asia.