Manitobans will have to wait until the fall to see Manitoba Public Insurance's plan to use ratepayers' money to make streets safer for motorists and pedestrians.
The Crown auto insurer recently won a reprieve from the Public Utilities Board to put road safety on the agenda at its next rate application rather than deal with the issue in a public forum before the end of the month.
MPI calls it the Roadway Infrastructure Investment Partnership (RIIP) program and, to date, details of the plan have been kept under wraps, but critics have already labelled it a "backdoor" tax increase by the NDP government. They say road improvements are the responsibility of government, not a Crown agency.
The PUB says it wants to hear the pros and cons of RIIP, particularly how much MPI proposes to spend and what it expects to save in claims costs.
The public regulator also said it wants to hear witness evidence about how an already-established program works in British Columbia. The Insurance Corp. of British Columbia (ICBC) has spent $100 million in infrastructure improvements since 1989.
ICBC has said a recent evaluation of the road-improvement program found it reduced severe crashes by 20 per cent. ICBC also concluded that for every dollar spent on a project, ICBC and its customers saved $5.60 over two years and $12.80 over five years in reduced claim costs.
MPI spokesman Brian Smiley said Tuesday the Crown corporation has no concerns about the PUB's order and officials anticipate significant discussions on other road-safety issues.
The PUB also said it wants evidence called on what more MPI can do to prevent collisions with wildlife, looking at what Newfoundland and Labrador has done to reduce moose collisions. In 2011 that province launched pilot projects that use wildlife fencing -- including boulders to deter moose from roadways -- and installing wildlife-sensor systems at separate locations to detect moose and flash warning lights for motorists.
MPI has said there are, on average, 6,800 vehicle-deer crashes every year in Manitoba. In the last 10 years, three Manitobans have been killed in crashes caused by animals on the road.
The PUB also wants to discuss distracted driving, motorcycle safety, impaired driving, cyclist safety, driver's education and the role of technology in road safety.
The PUB also ordered MPI to put forward names of potential witnesses on each of the issues before the end of the month, adding the board could also call its own witnesses. It also said it could still order a public conference on road safety in 2014.
Byron Williams, lawyer for the Manitoba Branch of the Consumers Association of Canada (CAC), said because so much is on the table, a separate hearing is needed to discuss road safety.
"It would have made more sense to do some of the heavy lifting outside of the rate hearing," Williams said. "There would have been a more frank discussion outside an adversarial setting. The discussion outside the hearing might have been more accessible by community organizations who are less inclined to get involved in a general rate application."
The CAC is on the fence when it comes to MPI and road improvements, Williams said, noting it depends on the calibre of MPI's business case for RIIP.
"MPI's investment should not be replacing the province's investment," he said.
Road-rule changes hit the brakes
HAS the safety of cyclists been put on hold for another summer?
That's the concern of Bike to the Future (BTTF), a local cyclists group lobbying for better driver training and changes to the Highway Traffic Act so motorists are legally required to give cyclists a one-metre buffer when passing.
BTTF spokesmen Mark Cohoe and Tom McMahon say a recent decision by the PUB to delay a hearing on MPI's role in road safety means those changes won't take place soon.
"It means there won't be any action taken that will be directly applicable this summer," Cohoe said. "We saw five cyclists killed in collisions with motorists last year."
McMahon said the PUB's decision also revokes changes proposed by BTTF to the driver's handbook, in particular a section used by MPI to teach drivers how to pass a cyclist.
McMahon said a diagram in the handbook wrongly shows a vehicle can safely pass a cyclist in the same lane.