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Are Two Hour Traffic Jams Normal?

The temporary closure of the Patullo Bridge that began on January 18th reminds Lower Mainlanders of the extent to which flowing traffic almost everywhere is linked to flowing bridge traffic. Another dramatic reminder occurred the week prior when a reportedly minor ‘fender bender’ on the Lions Gate Bridge snarled Vancouver traffic for close to two hours in the peak of the Friday afternoon rush hour. This occurred shortly after 4 pm at mid-span in the southbound lane. Crashes like this are so common that the Lions Gate Bridge regularly makes the top 10 list of BC crash sites.

There is a lot of scenery to look at, the road is straight and smooth, regular users tend to ignore the posted speed limit and, after a crawl-on entry, it’s time to take off. Too many drivers forgetting the following-distance rules means trouble when they meet up with the not uncommonly slowed-down or stopped line of vehicles just over the mid-span hump.

A normal winter Friday afternoon at this time often finds the rush ‘hour’ already underway. Whistler weekenders are trying to get a jump on the Sea-to-Sky traffic and the bridge is a route to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. On this Friday, the streets were finally clear of snow and slush so more people were driving than had been for weeks previous. The Canucks were playing at home, which always makes for heavy southbound traffic.

At mid-span, responsibility for the bridge changes from the West Vancouver Police Department (the north end) to the Vancouver Police Department. Sorting out the responder can take awhile but, in this case, the West Vancouver police arrived about 10 minutes after the crash. The police manage and coordinate the various services required according to a collision response protocol. The first priority is attending to any injured people, and simultaneously re-routing the bridge lanes to provide access for emergency vehicles and to preserve the scene long enough to document it and gather evidence. This usually involves at least reducing, if not stopping, traffic flow until tow trucks, if necessary, can finally clear the scene.

Traffic radio reported standstill traffic from one end of Vancouver to the other in all directions. According to a West Vancouver police spokesperson, a number of mishaps contributed to the two-hour snarl, which was, admittedly, not “a routine amount of time.” The tow trucks seemed to take forever to arrive. The Second Narrows Bridge—the usual alternative route—was partially obstructed by a crash, and there were similar problems on some southbound routes.

Road Rules has learned the following: The police are analyzing what happened and how to avoid similar mishaps. A new collision response protocol is being developed in a pilot project underway on the Sea-to-Sky highway.

Driver inattention and following too closely are major causes of bridge crashes. Traffic collision experts are considering road-marking systems used in other jurisdictions to remind drivers about following distance.

It is frustrating to note that a two-hour traffic standstill on a Friday night rush hour is not really news, but just important information for real-time traffic radio reporting.

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