After what it deemed an "intense winter" on B.C.'s roads, the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) has announced several new measures aimed at improving highway safety during the winter months.
Among the new initiatives is the planned extension of winter-tire and chain regulations, on select highways, until April 30. The current regulations require drivers to equip their vehicles with either mud and snow (M+S), or mountain/snowflake tires, with a minimum tread depth of 3.5 millimetres, from Oct. 1 to March 31. The extension was proposed to account for early-spring snowfall on select highways and mountain passes, although no specific routes have been singled out at this point.
"There are parts of the province where we are still forecasting snow events, and those are the areas we want to ensure we're adapting our standards so they're the safest they can be," explained Ashok Bhatti, regional director of the MOTI's South Coast region. Bhatti said Highway 99, which averaged 11,500 vehicles a day this winter at the Cheekye River Bridge traffic counter, "might be a good candidate" for the winter-tire extension.
Winter tire regulations have inspired ample debate locally among both residents and officials, with some—like Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman—lobbying for the Sea to Sky Highway to be designated as winter-tire only. "I think the M+S (tire), it just doesn't cut it in colder temperatures, and also in the type of snow events and winter events that we have here, all along the corridor," Heintzman said in a January interview, splitting with Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who, at the time, said the Resort Municipality of Whistler would not be advocating for universal winter-tire requirements.
The transportation ministry is also cracking down on vehicle chain-up requirements, proposing higher fines for commercial vehicles not carrying chains, or not chaining up, when mandated. The current fine is $121.
"I'm pretty pleased to see that," said Steve Anderson, a Whistler council appointee to the municipal Transportation Advisory Group. "There's this idea out there that the commercial trucks, whenever they do a roadside inspection and pull over 30 of them, it seems like 20 of them are in contravention of the rules, with defects and all kinds of things. It would be nice to raise those standards."
Along with expanding contractor monitoring and auditing—including 24/7 compliance checks during winter storms—the province is also rolling out a pilot program to restrict commercial vehicles from using the far left lane on certain three-lane sections of highway during the winter. This is to ensure routes remain open to snow plows, emergency and passenger vehicles. Bhatti said further analysis is needed to determine if Highway 99 will be included in the program. He also noted that a long-planned ministry study into the feasibility of a third highway lane running from Function to the village is still in the works, with no timeline for its completion. "There is a lot of initial upfront work we still need to do so that we can start defining what options are actually viable," he added.
The announcement comes as the maintenance contracts for 26 of the 28 highway service areas in B.C.—including for Highway 99—come up for renewal in 2018-19, through an open bidding process.
The NDP has committed $1.8 million over the next three years to install additional weather stations and overhead signage that will provide updates in real time on weather and road conditions. It has also vowed to continue supporting the Winter Driving Safety Alliance through its Shift Into Winter campaign, an education initiative aimed at raising awareness of safe winter driving practices.