The deadly road: Twinning Highway 103

by Michael Lee

  • <p>MICHAEL LEE PHOTO</p><p>Every year, Ida Scott wears this shirt to remember her son Paul Scott. She wears it on his birthday, pictured here on August 18, and on the anniversary of his death.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Paul Mark Scott pictured on June 26, 2004.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>A skateboard made by Jesse Watson of Homegrown Skateboards and painted by artist Shelly Mitchell in honour of Paul Scott.</p>

For two days in August, Ida Scott wears one shirt in particular for her son Paul Mark Scott.

It is a simple white t-shirt printed with an image of the young man, seen smiling with a dog at his side. The words "Remembering Paul" glide over top.

She wears the shirt on August 18 and 29: the day of Paul's birthday and the anniversary of his death.

Thirteen years ago, Paul died in a car accident on Highway 103 just 11 days after his 22nd birthday.

Highway 103 made a list of "Canada's most notorious highways" that the CBC compiled in 2013. The broadcaster reported: "Running along the south shore between Halifax and Yarmouth, Highway 103 earned the reputation as Nova Scotia's deadliest highway, following 29 deaths between 2006 to 2008."

Now the provincial government intends to twin more portions of the highway along the South Shore, but will the road work make a difference, and save lives?

In Paul Scott's case, he was driving home to Lunenburg having spent the weekend in Antigonish at the Evolve festival with his friend Kristian Michael Swimm and others.

Their vehicle crossed the centre line by Exit 10 near Mahone Bay and collided with an oncoming transport truck.

An investigation found Paul likely fell asleep at the wheel. Both died that evening on August 29, 2004.

Ida has often thought about what could have prevented her son's accident, pointing to the various stretches of rumble strips now seen along the highway, but she believes twinning would have prevented the head-on collision which killed her son.

"I know people weren't in favour of the tolls, but I would gladly pay a toll if I thought it would save a life."

The subject of twinned highways, and the use of tolls to pay for them, was raised earlier this year following a series of public discussions.

In April, the province announced it would commit an additional $390 million for highway improvements, including twinning 100-series highways without tolls.

One of those will be the 22 kilometres of Highway 103 between Tantallon and Hubbards, a project expected to start next year and take up to five years to complete, said Peter Hackett, chief engineer for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR).

Hackett said twinning does eliminate head-on collisions, but the work happens in stages depending on what the government's commitments are.

While there are conceptual plans in place to twin beyond that, Hackett said there are no detailed designs.

Ida said she was disappointed that the twinning would not go up to Bridgewater. "Frankly, I believe if they [the province] wants to make it happen they can make it happen."

She has spoken previously about the state of Nova Scotia's highways, including in a 2015 speech at the National Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims in Bridgewater, in which she said an average of 79 deaths have occurred on the province's highways each year between 2007 and 2013.

Ida said if a similar number of lives were lost in any other way, people would band together to make sure something was in place to fix it.

The department typically looks at projected traffic volumes, collision data and short-term solutions once a section of highway reaches 8,000 vehicles per day.

Twinning is considered at the 10,000 vehicle mark, at which point highways get congested, create fewer passing opportunities and result in more frustrated drivers, said Hackett.

But twinning isn't always guaranteed.

"Ten thousand vehicles a day is a trigger, but it's not a trigger to say that we're going to have to start twinning this road," said Hackett.

"It's a trigger to start looking at the road, and what are the short and medium and long term solutions for the safety of that road."

Departmental figures provided to LighthouseNOW show from 2010 to 2015, Highway 103 saw between 10,200 to 10,500 vehicles a day on average from Tantallon to Hubbards, with 97 collisions in all, two of which were fatal.

Between Hubbards and Bridgewater, traffic ranged from 7,330 to 9,730 vehicles per day, despite being a longer stretch of highway, but there were 278 collisions, four of which were fatal.

A highway review report from 2015 has projected traffic volumes for that section will exceed the 10,000 vehicle mark by 2034.

But Hackett said there are highways in the province with 20,000 vehicles per day that aren't twinned and instead are improved using additional passing lanes, replacing controlled intersections with interchanges, and using different lighting.

"For the short term, those things often work fairly well, particularly if you get some additional passing lanes in."

He said at the end of the day, what is needed is enforcement. The Lunenburg District RCMP declined to comment.

The same highway review from 2015 examined 22 fatal collisions between 2007 and 2012 and found that the majority were head-on under ideal light, weather and road conditions.

A lack of driver attention and speeds too fast for road conditions were the primary contributing factors.

However, it also found the overall collision rate for the 103 was comparable to other 100-series highways, and that peak hour volumes and collisions between Bridgewater and Tantallon had prompted requests for twinning.

But often, it is the loss of life which has become the focus for people.

On May 27, 2007, one fatal crash drew widespread attention after a car collided with two motorcycles near Exit 11 killing five people.

On December 3, 2015, a Liverpool woman died in a three-vehicle accident by Exit 18 when her car collided with a tractor trailer. She was on her way to Bridgewater to do some Christmas shopping with her husband.

More recently, Mahone Bay suffered the loss of Dr. David Abriel and his wife Heather after their vehicle collided with a truck on Highway 103 near Ingramport.

Ida said more can be done, particularly in high schools, around distracted driving, alcohol, drugs and speeding.

But she said there isn't enough value put on lives unless it's someone close to you.

"The loss of a child you will never get over, ever."

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