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Accidents appear to be on the rise on toll-free Port Mann Bridge

Jennifer Saltman, Vancouver Sun

Traffic travels eastbound into Surrey on the Port Mann Bridge in March 2016. (Ric Ernst/Postmedia)

Traffic travels eastbound into Surrey on the Port Mann Bridge in March 2016. (Ric Ernst/Postmedia)

Transportation experts say increased volume, changes in traffic patterns and drivers unfamiliar with roads could be contributing to what appears to be an increase in crashes since the tolls were lifted on the Port Mann Bridge.

The province removed tolls from the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges on Sept. 1, and since then traffic has increased significantly.

The Port Mann Bridge had 4.36 million crossings in September, compared to 3.43 million in September 2016, or a 27 per cent increase. The average weekday traffic on the bridge was 153,700 in September, a 22 per cent increase over the previous September.

Drivers have remarked that the increase in traffic has brought with it more crashes.

Greg Johnson, spokesman for the Transportation Investment Corp., which manages the Port Mann, said they recognize more people have been using the Highway 1 corridor, and many of those drivers are getting used to new routines.

“There are more cars in the same space, the weather’s getting wetter, and it’s getting darker out. Perhaps most importantly, too many drivers are being unsafe,” he said.

TI Corp. regularly hears anecdotes from their maintenance contractor, RCMP and highway users that drivers aren’t driving for the conditions, he said, which can contribute to collisions.

At the end of September, several people were hospitalized following a multi-car pileup on the bridge involving up to a dozen vehicles. Earlier last week, there were multiple collisions in the westbound lanes during the morning commute.

“Presuming there’s an increase in the use of the bridge — a large increase in the number of people using the bridge now as a consequence of the removal of tolls — it would certainly follow that there would be a commensurate increase in the number of accidents,” said University of B.C. urban design Prof. Patrick Condon.

“That’s typically the case: The more people using a facility the higher the incidence of accidents.”

Transportation planning consultant Eric Doherty said there is another obvious reason for a possible increase in crashes.

“If distance travelled increases — vehicle kilometres travelled increases — crashes tend to increase. That’s the most basic relationship,” Doherty said.

Another factor is that it appears the main traffic bottleneck has moved from the Burnaby Lake stretch and Coquitlam interchanges to the bridge deck.

“So, it may also be that the site of crashes is moving,” Doherty said. “In the Burnaby Lake area, you just know that the traffic could come to a halt at any second and you’re ready for it, but people have had a number of years where they haven’t had to be very alert on the Port Mann Bridge.”

Condon said it is likely that some drivers being unfamiliar with the Port Mann’s lanes and interchanges has added to the problems.

“In the absence of a scientific analysis it’s hard to know for sure, but that certainly sounds reasonable,” he said.

Doherty agreed: “Absolutely, I think that could be a factor, but I think also almost more just the fact that people who were used to driving it every day are now having to adapt to a new circumstance, so it’s going to be both.”

There are no statistics available on the number of crashes that have taken place on the Port Mann since the tolls were removed.

The Insurance Corp. of B.C. receives its data from the RCMP, and its most recent information is from 2015. There were 57 crashes on the bridge in 2014 and 105 in 2015.

A spokesperson for the RCMP’s traffic services division said the collision data for the past six weeks have not yet been collected and reviewed.

When figures are available, Doherty said it will be important to examine at least six to eight months of crash information.

“I think generally any change is going to create some crashes in the first six months,” he said. “You need just a little bit of time for things to stabilize.”

Doherty said in particular, one should look at the number of serious crashes.

“It’s the serious crashes and the fatalities that are really telling you about the safety of the road way as opposed to the fender benders, which are mainly just an annoyance factor for people driving,” he said.

Premier John Horgan was asked on Thursday about the apparent increase in accidents.

“The volumes on the Port Mann have definitely increased now that it is as free as the Pattullo or the Alex Fraser. We’re watching this, we’re monitoring this. The minister of transportation is keeping a close eye on it,” Horgan said.

“There’s been a rash of motor vehicle accidents that’s unfortunately slowed the commute, but on balance the response that I’m hearing from people (is they) are delighted that they’re not being penalized for where they live.”