It was the dead of winter on Feb. 9, 2009, when a warm spell rolled through Winnipeg.
The mercury climbed above zero, and though city residents could temporarily ditch their parkas, the unseasonably balmy reprieve wasn’t good news for drivers.
Freezing rain frosted streets with a slick coat of ice, and crews worked feverishly to sand and salt the roads and unblock storm drains. Those measures didn’t stop the slipping and sliding, however, and by 9 a.m., 319 car accidents had been reported across the city. By noon, another 219 drivers had crashed.
The unusual February morning marked the worst day for vehicle collisions within the city in a five-year period, with 745 vehicles reported damaged, according to Manitoba Public Insurance collision data. MPI data also show that it’s no coincidence. The five days that recorded the largest number of accidents between 2005 and 2009 all had one thing in common: bad, wintry weather that made for poor driving conditions.
While it’s not a huge surprise considering Winnipeg’s climate, road safety advocates say drivers need to do a better job of driving to the conditions. At the same time, strategies that have helped reduce the number of winter accidents elsewhere in Canada aren’t on the radar.
Quebec has seen a drop in accidents since the provincial government made winter tires mandatory on all vehicles, and cities such as Edmonton have streets with variable speed limits that can be reduced when visibility plummets and a storm blows through town.
Both provincial government and city officials say they are not considering implementing similar measures.
"A lot of the accidents are happening in the winter, and this is where the focus should be," said Liz Peters, spokeswoman for CAA Manitoba.
Peters said CAA recently met with MPI about the winter driving problem in an effort to get the insurance provider to consider placing pamphlets that tout the benefits of winter tires in their letters to motorists, for example. Manitoba has the lowest rate of wintertire use in the country at 17 per cent, even though Peters said they help drivers stop 40 per cent faster in slippery conditions.
In 2008, Quebec became the first province to order motorists to outfit their cars with the safer tires or pay a fine.
Transport Quebec spokeswoman Caroline Larose said the province has seen a five per cent decrease in winter accidents, which has saved about 574 people from being involved in a crash.
But making winter tires mandatory isn’t on the Manitoba government’s agenda. Transportation Minister Steve Ashton was unavailable to speak on the subject, but cabinet spokeswoman Kate Fenske said in an email that winter conditions here are very different from other provinces, including Quebec.
"We have significantly less snow, colder temperatures and Manitoba’s roads are more straight and flat than Quebec’s," Fenske said. "Also, the financial cost of buying winter tires along with installing and then removing them every year would be substantial for all Manitoba motorists."
Fenske said the government believes motorists should "strongly consider" using winter tires, as well as driving with increased caution during winter.
Some cities, including Edmonton, have started using variable speed limits to lower the posted speed via electronic signs when road conditions make it unsafe to drive at the normal speed.
Edmonton uses variable speed limits to reduce speeds on certain roads during periods of bad weather. While the changing limits are part of a broader traffic-safety strategy, the city says it saw an overall decrease in the number of road accidents last year, despite heavy snowfall during the winter months.
City of Winnipeg officials say they have no plans to enact variable speed limits in the near future.
For city crews, the worst-case scenario is when flurries fly in the early hours of the morning.
Street maintenance manager Ken Boyd said that gives them a limited amount of time to clear the streets before the morning rush hour — one of the peak times for road crashes.
When snow falls, crews focus on sanding, salting or plowing Winnipeg’s major streets first, Boyd said. Crews are available 24 hours a day, and when big storms hit, there are as many as 300 pieces of equipment out scraping the streets. However, Boyd said it takes time for crews to cover all streets citywide, so there’s bound to be a temporary increase in minor collisions, particularly if the streets are slippery.
In the last few years, Winnipeg has used an anti-icing product to treat bridges and underpasses, since they typically frost up faster than a normal roadway. The brine spray keeps bridge decks from becoming slippery and helps prevent snow from bonding to the pavement, which makes it easier for plows to scoop it up later.
Boyd said current policy restricts its use to regional streets. The city plans to do a pilot project to see if the spray makes a difference on bus routes and streets that feed into major arteries, he said.
This winter, the city hopes to make plowing more efficient after council approved enacting a 12-hour daytime and 12-hour overnight parking ban on residential streets.
"There’s going to be a bit of a lag, if you will, before we’re able to cover all streets," Boyd said. "There’s bound to be an increase in crashes or in fenderbenders."