Is the parkway at fault?
Why are there so many crashes on the Red Hill Valley Parkway? Possible causes range from speeding to road construction. The city has also studied the road surface, but will not release the “inconclusive” results, choosing instead to repave the Red Hill ah
THE RED HILL VALLEY PARKWAY had more than twice as many crashes than the connecting Lincoln Alexander Parkway over the last five years, despite lower traffic volumes.
While there is no single cause or easy solution, City of Hamilton statistics show many of the crashes happen in curvy parts of the road between King Street East and Greenhill Avenue and between Dartnall Road and Mud Street. Crashes are more common when it’s dark and the ground is wet. Speeding is the most frequent factor in fatal crashes.
Those crash “hot spots” saw around 200 collisions over five years, more than 100 crashes over the next highest location. No interchange on the Linc saw more than 51 crashes during that time frame.
Rumour and speculation about the RHVP being slippery have plagued the parkway since it opened in 2007, and now the city is planning to repave the road’s surface starting next year. The work, at least a year ahead of schedule, will preemptively address a question staff cannot answer: Is the Red Hill too slippery?
The city has done limited friction testing on the road but refuses to make the results public, saying only they were ultimately inconclusive.
Of the 994 crashes on these two municipal parkways between 2012 and 2015, 668 were on the Red Hill and 326 on the Linc. While about 58,000 vehicles drive daily on the RHVP, there are nearly 96,000 daily on the Linc, according to the most recent annual averages.
The crashes on the two parkways include 11 deaths since 2012, seven on the RHVP and four on the Linc — each bringing a fresh wave of anger
and questions about road safety.
FOR THE MOTHERS of Olivia Smosarski and Jordyn Hastings, 19year-old best friends who died in a crossover crash when their car crossed the grassy median on the RHVP May 5, 2015, that stretch of the road between King Street East ramp and Greenhill Avenue appears flawed.
“Call it a gut feeling, call it what you want ... I just know,” said Smosarski’s mom, Belinda Marassato. “There is something funny about that road.”
Six of the deaths were crossover collisions, leading families to call for continuous median barriers along the parkways.
The city has been updating the roads from a list of safety improvements recommended in two 2015 engineering reports. Most of the work to date has been smaller, less expensive projects — everything from new signage to trimming vegetation.
The 14 “short-term safety improvements” total $1.4 million and are expected to be done by the end of the year, said David Ferguson, superintendent of traffic engineering. The hope is they will curb speeding and improve safety.
However, barriers and end-to-end lighting, which are both recommended to be studied in the engineering reports, are not on the table.
“At this time, barriers are not being considered,” Ferguson said.
The repaving work is the first bigticket item being tackled.
It’s expected to cost $4 million a side, with upbound lanes set for next year and then downbound the following year, said Gary Moore, director of engineering.
The RHVP was originally paved with stone mastic asphalt — a more expensive mix that’s supposed to last longer. It is known to be slightly more slippery (though still meeting provincial standards) in the first few months, but typically has better friction once the road is worn down.
Yet that 2015 engineering report found crashes when the road is wet are inexplicably going up, not down, and recommended the city study friction.
And the city did test friction later that year, The Spectator has learned. But the results were never made public.
There is no official report, Moore said, only an informal chart sent in an email in December 2015. The friction testing was not fulsome and the results were “inconclusive,” he said.
But instead of doing further testing, as was recommended, the city has decided to repave.
“All we got was an indication that we should do further work,” Moore said. “It was moot when we decided to go ahead with (repaving).”
The city refused to share that chart with The Spectator.
“No one ever releases (that type of ) information ... because it’s the first thing anybody (would use in a) lawsuit,” Moore said.
It’s not exactly clear when staff decided to push for repaving, or how much concern over friction was a factor, but the work will be requested in next year’s budget. The repaving will include “shaving and paving” the top layer, work that was supposed to happen 12 to 15 years after initial paving.
Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla said he understands the road meets provincial standards, but given the high traffic volume and driver behaviour such as speeding, the repaving work is intended to exceed those standards. He called it an “enhancement.” Moore said “safety reviews” have shown more cracks and bumps believed to be because of higher-thananticipated use, including more transport trucks.
While the bottom layer of asphalt will remain intact, the new top layer is expected to be a superpave mix — 12.5 FC2 — that is known for “highlevel friction,” Moore said, adding that stone mastic asphalt is not being considered again, in part, because it’s more expensive.
He wouldn’t say whether concerns over friction also played a role in deciding what pavement to use.
The roads were never designed as 400-series highways, yet the city complains they are frequently treated that way by drivers, with speed noted as the top contributing factor in fatal crashes on the parkways — at 37.5 per cent, according to a report released by Hamilton police earlier this year. The next factors in fatal crashes were impairment and driver inattention, both at 25 per cent. Both parkways have a posted speed limit of 90 km an hour, yet the city says the average speed is 110 km an hour.
When Smosarski and Hastings died they were not speeding, the families say police told them.
Merulla maintains unsafe and sometimes illegal behaviour on the roads is at the heart of most crashes.
“We have a problem in our society with erratic and impulsive drivers,” he said, later adding that everyone is “rushing to get nowhere.”
“There isn’t a road in the world that can save them from themselves.”
OLIVIA SMOSARSKI and Jordyn Hastings were best friends who seemed to bring out the best in each other. They went to different high schools. Smosarski to Bishop Tonnos, and Hastings to St. Thomas More. They became especially close after graduating.
Smosarski was “the protector,” feisty and funny, with a “wicked big smile,” said Marassato.
She was planning to travel to South Africa that August to work in a monkey rehab sanctuary, before deciding where she would go to postsecondary school. She was considering journalism.
“She would say outrageous things just to shock you ... she was just like a dynamo walking through the door,” Marassato said, adding that now the house, even with her three other children, is quiet.
Hastings was the opposite: quiet, level-headed, compassionate and family-oriented, said her mom, Tandra Henderson.
“Jordyn was the kid. I would pull into the driveway and her car would be there and I would be excited to see her ... I told her I never wanted her to move out.”
She was supposed to start a business program at Sheridan College that September.
Just days before her death, Hastings, her sister — just 18 months younger and “like a twin” — and their stepbrother had returned from a 10day trip to Paris and Amsterdam. When they got home, Jordyn pushed past her sister, jumped into her mom’s arms, wrapped her legs around her and whispered, jokingly, “I know I’m your favourite, Mommy.”
Together Henderson and Smosarski were silly, always giggling and making funny videos, leaving their families smiling pictures that remind them of the love they had and have lost. “I know Livi and Jordyn were together, how awful it was, but also a little peaceful,” Henderson said. “I know how much they loved each other.”
On the night of May 5, 2015, the girls stopped at Hastings’s house to drop of her dog, Lily. They were going to visit a friend in Ancaster and said they’d be home in an hour. It had been raining.
Hastings was an experienced driver who drove the RHVP regularly to her work at a restaurant and as a lifeguard.
When Henderson woke around 1:30 a.m. and Hastings wasn’t there, she told herself to relax. When she woke again around 3 a.m. and she still wasn’t there, Henderson was worried. Looking at her phone, she saw missed calls from her daughter’s boyfriend, who had tracked Hastings’s phone to the area where the crash happened.
Henderson called her daughters’ father in Burlington, but police were already at his house (the car was in his name). When she asked, he told her their oldest daughter was gone.
It took a little longer for police to find Marassato’s home, as the family had just moved.
When detectives knocked on the door around 4:20 a.m. she thought someone was trying to break in. Eventually, after they flashed their badges, she opened the door and the rest is a bit of a blur.
They know from police that the car was travelling around 90 km/h in the right-hand lane, when for an unknown reason, they lost control.
Skid marks showed that three times Hastings tried to correct the wheel, but they kept moving toward the centre, the mothers said. The car crossed through the grassy median and was hit by an oncoming car in the southbound lanes.
The moms feel strongly their daughters’ deaths could have been prevented if there had been a centre median (instead of the grassy centre). Even when speed, impairment, or distracted driving are factors, they believe the road can be made safer for everyone, including the other drivers who unwittingly become ensnared in crashes.
“We’re really concerned with that twisty, dark, windy area ... that stretch has a lot of crashes,” Marassato said.
When the environmental assessment was done for the RHVP, it recommended minimal lighting, so the city only has lights at “decision points,” which are exit ramps, Moore said. There are four lights at each exit, two more than were provincially mandated.
There are currently no plans to add more lights, Moore said.
There were no witnesses the night Hastings and Smosarski died, save the woman who hit them and then the flurry of 911 calls from people who came upon the horrific scene.
Ultimately, police closed the investigation into the crash as inconclusive on May 12, 2015, said police spokesperson Const. Hannah Carter.
“I’m going to talk about the unthinkable ... I always relive the last seconds, what they must have thought as that car was coming toward them,” Marassato said. “Even if it’s just a split second, it’s a split second too long ... the terror.”
THE CITY’S TRAFFIC department is constantly watching and working on ways to improve the road’s safety. Management says they are deeply upset when there are fatal crashes, but also say there is no panacea, especially when people continue to speed.
“I have a huge amount of sympathy and empathy for the families,” said Martin White, manager of traffic operations and engineering.
“One of the most difficult things in our job is to deal with the emotion of what happens on infrastructure.”
Yet there are rarely simple fixes. White cautions that median barriers would be a very expensive and perhaps difficult project because they would need to be carefully engineered to not cause their own problems with drivers bouncing off them.
Then there is the question of whether the road will ever be expanded in the future — if that happens, it makes sense to wait to engineer any barriers to match those needs, he said.
Typically, when a barrier is installed, it will reduce the severity of crashes, but will also increase the
“At this time, barriers are not being considered.”
DAVID FERGUSON SUPERINTENDENT, TRAFFIC ENGINEERING
“There is something funny about that road.”
BELINDA MARASSATO MOTHER OF OLIVIA SMOSARSKI
“Jordyn was the kid ... I told her I never wanted her to move out.”
TANDRA HENDERSON MOTHER OF JORDYN HASTINGS
When the environmental assessment was done for the RHVP, it recommended minimal lighting, so the city only has lights at “decision points,” which are exit ramps.
number of collisions, said Eric Hildebrand, a professor of civil engineering at the University of New Brunswick and road safety expert.
“It’s a balance or a trade-off,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to figure out.”
Deciding when and where barriers should be installed “can’t be a politician promising grieving families,” rather it needs to be carefully studied and based off of an engineering report.
There are many factors to consider, he said.
For instance, roads with less than 20,000 cars a day, with speed limits 70 km an hour or less or roads with grassy medians that are at least 8-10 metres wide are typically seen as not needing barriers. The Red Hill and the Linc would meet that threshold on speed and traffic, but not on median width.
However, crash history and curves in the road are also factors to consider, Hildebrand said.
And along with causing more crashes, there are also other tradeoffs, including impeding snow clearing and storage, making emergency vehicle access more difficult and the maintenance cost of continually having to fix barriers that are damaged by crashes, Hildebrand said.
There are a number of different types of barriers — from concrete, to steel, to cable — to consider, along with the possibility of installing barriers only at particularly vulnerable or crash-prone stretches.
Hildebrand said it’s often better to spend the millions a barrier can cost on other safety improvements.
When the Red Hill Valley Parkway was built, it was one of the first in Ontario to use perpetual pavement — a design that uses multiple layers — with the goal of having a road that lasts longer and requires less work. The bottom layers are supposed to last at least 50 years.
The Linc, which does not use a perpetual pavement design, was last repaved in 2011, and is expected to be repaved again in 2020.
The stone mastic asphalt (SMA) mixture used on the Red Hill is more expensive than other asphalt mixes because of the high quality of aggregate used and use of more wet asphalt (think of it like the glue that holds the aggregate together), says Hassan Baaj, a University of Waterloo associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and pavement expert.
“When well designed, SMA makes a good surface,” Baaj said.
Once the road is “polished” by use after a few months, it can have better friction and is supposed to last longer.
He cannot comment on the specific mix used on the Red Hill, but said generally that problems, including with friction, can arise if the aggregates used in a mix are not good quality.
Other design issues on the road can impact friction, such as improper drainage that makes water pool on a road. Tire quality and not quickly clearing snow or ice are other factors that have nothing to do with the pavement but affect friction, he said.
Stone mastic asphalt continues to be used on the highest-volume stretches of 400-series highways, with different superpave mixes being used on lower-volume parts of the highways, said Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Bob Nichols.
The 2015 engineering report on the RHVP studied crashes on the road between January 2008 and July 2015, including 131 “median-related collisions,” 17 of which were crossover collisions. More than half of these crashes happened when the road was wet.
Studying barriers and end-to-end lighting remain on the longer-term road safety improvement list for the parkways.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger declined to comment on this story.
However, Merulla said it would be “irresponsible” to rush to put up barriers simply as a public relations exercise.
He believes there is political will to study whether barriers are a good idea at some point but doesn’t know if they’ll ever be installed.
Staff are “working diligently” to make the road safe, Merulla said.
“I’m confident from an engineering and infrastructure standpoint that we’ve done all that is humanly possible.”
Upcoming updates also include adding recessed reflective markers (cat’s eyes), and to the rest of the RHVP, installing permanent pavement markings (plastic instead of paint) and modifying the Mud Street/Upper Red Hill Parkway/ Stone Church exit to a single lane.
This will happen at the same time as repaving.
This year, the city began sharing information with police from data collected at overpasses about where speeding happens most frequently, so the service can target enforcement. They are also studying whether speed limits should be lowered.
Merulla raised the issue again during a committee meeting this week, saying the speed limit on the RHVP should be reduced to 80 km/h.
He’s also asked the province to allow the city to make the roadway a designated community safety zone, so the city can install photo radar.
“I keep getting asked is the (Linc and RHVP) safe and my answer always is, if you drive it properly,” White said.
Every new death, including two crossover crashes that killed two young men on the Red Hill in January and February of this year, brings a new wave of frustration and grief.
Henderson and Marassato say it brings them back to that moment they knew their girls were gone. They know the unique horror the families will face.
“It’s a club you don’t want to be in,” Marassato said. There is no clear path out of grief. Marassato had a friend drive her to the scene the morning of the crash. Henderson couldn’t face the road for two months. Both moms say they are torn with wanting to protect the children they have left, but also understanding they can’t keep them in a bubble.
It’s hard to find closure when they feel there is more the city could be doing, they said.
“Unfortunately, no one gets it until your child dies,” Marassato said.
“We have a problem in our society with erratic and impulsive drivers … rushing to get nowhere.” SAM MERULLA COUNCILLOR, WARD 4
Tandra Henderson, left, and Belinda Marassato stand near where their teenage daughters, Jordyn Hastings and Olivia Smosarski, died.
The scene on the Red Hill Valley Parkway the night of the fatal crash.
Olivia Smosarski and Jordyn Hastings died in a crossover crash on the RHVP May 5, 2015.
Two minor traffic accidents snarled traffic on the Red Hill Valley Parkway at Mount Albion Road Thursday.