What price do you put on a human life? I don't know exactly, but I think it should be pretty high. Last year, nearly 300 people died driving on B.C. highways. Some were under the influence of alcohol. Some were affected by legal or illegal drugs. And some by a combination of alcohol and drugs. Some drove too fast for conditions. Some were distracted in some manner. All, I guess you could say, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There's one thing that a lot of those who died had in common. They were driving on roads where more likely than not the lines were faded and worn. And for those driving at night or during inclement weather, keeping their vehicles between the lines was as much a matter of luck as skill.
Neither the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) nor B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure - among the many statistics they maintain - keep track of any correlation between poorly visible painted lines and vehicle accidents and deaths. There is no such category, not even as a contributing factor.
Those who run the province's Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure must know the cost of painting lines on our highways, but they weren't particularly clear in providing facts for this column. More on that later. Before going forward, let's look at how we got to the situation where our roads aren't as safe as they might be because of road markings that fade too quickly.
It is a fact that the lines on our highways - major thoroughfares like Highway 97 through the heart of the Okanagan Valley and on the Coquihalla Highway, one of our most popular routes to Vancouver - fade faster than they used to.
I've lived in the Okanagan for more than five years...driving in rain and snow and often simply in darkness...sometimes unsure if I'm in my lane. I am, by the way, a good driver - no accidents and only three speeding tickets in 50 years - with excellent vision, night and otherwise.
Why do traffic markings fade faster today? Well, it is not the fault of Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone, by any means. He and the corresponding officials in the provinces and territories had no choice but to use paint on highways that lack the staying power of paint in days gone by.
In 2009, Environment Canada adopted something called the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Architectural Coatings Regulations. Our lawmakers in Ottawa - among other important tasks - are charged with protecting our environment and health from air pollutants that increase the risks of respiratory and heart diseases.
So, as of Sept. 10, 2010, traffic marking coatings - paint - couldn't exceed 450 g/L of VOCs. And exactly two years later, the legal limits were further lowered to 150 g/L from May 1 to Oct. 15. Basically, the regulations eliminated solvent-based (petroleum) paints for highways in favour of alkyd-based paints in coastal and northern areas and water-based paints for the interior.
The reason for the more strict regulations is that VOCs have a photochemical reaction in sunlight and contribute to ground-level ozone, which, in turn, contributes to smog. To be clear, VOCs are released in the atmosphere by both solvent-based and water-based paints...though certainly less with the water-based varieties.
Don't get me wrong, I fully appreciate both Environment Canada's and our Ottawa lawmakers' attention to matters that make the nation healthier and safer. Though I wonder why we aren't just as concerned with the one million kilometres of impervious asphalt highways in Canada, which leach petroleum hydrocarbons and other toxic contaminants into our waterways and sewers nationwide.
As I said before, I tried to find out how much it costs to paint traffic markings across the province. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure directed me to an online link for the budget that "covers all costs related to maintaining the driving surface, including roadway line painting, bridge repair, pothole and crack sealing, drainage management and traffic management." It was not a line-item budget...so, not much help.
Four emails and three phone calls to two different Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure officials - media relations and public affairs operatives - didn't provide the clarity I sought on finding better, more visible paints...or costs. The best I can determine through a variety of sources is that we spend about $11 million a year on painting lines on roads across the province. And because the paint doesn't last - usually less than a year - the province uses four to five times more paint today than when oil-based paints were allowed.
Rather than provide the interview I requested, the ministry finally responded with this statement: "Our ministry works hard to make sure our highways and roads are as safe as possible. Following the ministry's pilot project to test the durability and reliability of highway line paint, the ministry will be taking action to improve lane line visibility across the province using a more durable and longer-lasting formula. We will have more information to provide on this topic in the coming months."
Apparently, the wheels of progress forever grind slowly. Last May 9, Minister Stone said in an article on this subject in the Vancouver Sun that his staff found two or three paints that might do the job, and that he would make a final decision in late summer or early fall, and begin painting before winter. That, of course, did not come to pass. Maybe, we will hear something more - as they stated above - in the coming months.
My sympathies are with the ministry as it is doubtful that a suitable paint exists that outperforms oil-based paints in terms of longevity and durability. Still, the problem of dangerous roads because of poorly visible markings is very much with us.
Like so many problems involving the public good, there is a paucity of easy solutions. I do know that roads can be made safer. Longer-lasting paints with glass beads exist. Actual reflectors imbedded in asphalt exist. Yes, there is a cost. Are we willing to pay that cost...or simply say it's cost-prohibitive? The citizens of Florida - where I spend about four months each year - pay the price for highly visible paints and imbedded reflectors. Anyone who drives there during rains that can blow sideways appreciates the state's highway marking decisions...and doesn't mind the few dollars more per person in taxes each year.
As I asked before, what price do you put on a human life? Actually, some organizations - Environment Canada, America's Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control - peg the value of a human life anywhere from $8 million to $12 million. That means the nearly 300 citizens who died on B.C. highways last year cost society between $2.4 billion and $3.6 billion dollars.
I bet if you ask the families and friends of loved ones who died on one of our highways because they couldn't clearly see the road markings...they would simply answer, "priceless." I think they might be right.
– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.
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