When signs are not enough

“It should have been a stop sign,” explains Dylan MacDonell, as he remembers the chaos he endured on August 8, 1997.

Fourteen years ago, he was returning from his uncle’s house with his grandmother and cousins, Jimmy, age ten, and Lorena, age nine. They were approaching a dangerous intersection. The corn in Finch, Ontario, a tiny town just outside of Ottawa, was tall and almost ready to harvest, encasing the streets in a yellowed wall. The ditch was lined with long, lean blades of grass that surrounded a lone yield sign. This sign, as yellow as the corn, failed to prevent a collision involving MacDonell’s Oldsmobile and a Jeep Cherokee. The Oldsmobile rolled three times before coming to a halt in the neighbouring ditch.

“I remember waking up and I saw paint, and it felt like a rock or wood was on top of my head,” remembers MacDonell.

An ambulance arrived and MacDonell, Lorena, June, his grandmother and the driver of the Jeep were provided immediate care at the Winchester District Memorial Hospital. Jimmy, however, was not. It wasn’t a rock or a branch MacDonell had felt above his head, but rather his cousin’s body. There was no paint, only a child’s blood. Jimmy was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.

This accident, both vivid and fatal, was a direct product of disobeying the rules of the road. Canada’s population is only 20 per cent rural, yet 62 per cent of all Canadian collisions occur on concessions and county roads. In total, 160,000 road accidents occur annually. Jimmy was one of the 2,900 Canadians who die from these accidents every year. The families and friends left behind are forever impacted by the split-second where someone was driving too fast, texting or neglecting a lone yield sign.

Despite the danger associated with the aforementioned fatal intersection, a yield sign is the only form of traffic authority there. Residents like MacDonell have argued for a stop sign in the past. It seems common in Canada to fight for more stop signs, stop lights and crossing guards in order to ensure road safety.

However, many European cities are applying an alternate theory – and their success is astounding.

Bohmte, Germany, a city of 13,000 near Osnabrück, has removed nearly all traffic lights, stop signs and other forms of rule-enforcing signage, mainly from the downtown area. This seemingly hectic concept is called “shared space” and was developed by Hans Moderman, a Dutch traffic engineer. Verkeersbordvrij – the Dutch word for “free of traffic signs” – describes Moderman’s theory. This traffic layout plan rests on a theory that the general public reacts more positively to shared space than they do to authoritative, conventional traffic laws.

Moderman’s design encourages personal negotiation between pedestrians and drivers alike within the traffic system.

Though this foreign idea has yet to hit Canadian streets, Bohmte’s downtown core has adapted wonderfully as have other cities. The U.K., Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden all take part in variations of shared space in select areas. Before the shared space concept was implemented, the streets of Bohmte had an average of eight traffic collisions a year. Since the implementation of Moderman’s design in 2007, the annual accident rate has plummeted to a more round number – zero.

Germany also houses the Autobahn, a road with an advised constant speed at 130km/h, but no set speed limit. Yet the Autobahn proves to be statistically safer than North American highways. For every billion kilometres travelled, 2.7 people die on the Autobahn while 4.5 people die on a North American highway.

European roads aren’t all miraculously safe. Twelve converging streets produce the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle in France. Annually, this location houses the most accidents across France. French insurance companies agree that any Arc de Triomphe accident fees are split equally between all parties involved.

Canadian cities are circling in on the idea of roundabouts. In nearby Hamilton, it takes less then 18 seconds to get through a traffic circle, while cars can wait up at red lights for up to one minute. Less idling equals less traffic and less pollution.

Ancaster, a suburb of Hamilton, has been working since 2002 to all but diminish the stoplight with endless traffic circles. The Kitchener-Waterloo region currently has 28 traffic circles, reducing stop-and-go driving. Branford houses some of the most complicated intersections in the area, without traffic circles. Driving through the Y-shaped West and Clarence convergence or the five-street intersection at West and Nelson is a struggle.

Driving laws in Canada have changed drastically in recent times. The recently implemented Road Safety Act states that anyone under the age of 21 must have a zero blood-alcohol level. Fines for speeding can reach $10,000 if the driver is accused of street racing. Texting and calling (except for Bluetooth calls) are prohibited on the road. Harvard University reports reaching for the phone while at the wheel results in 200 deaths annually – almost one a day. These rules seem just and fair, and their reasoning is obvious. However, some seemingly pointless laws still linger in North America. Californian women may not legally drive while wearing housecoats and screeching tires in Kansas can land drivers behind bars for 30 days.

It may take one person to break a rule, but it takes a group of people to clean the mess – and breaking a traffic law results in more than broken bones. Car accidents have lasting effects. Bruises fade and cuts heal, but the memories and mental impact linger.

Despite the continued absence of a stop sign at the intersection, MacDonell holds no bitterness. “All my life, I felt that nobody was at fault and I thank the Lord every day for the volunteer fire fighters. Without [them], they say I probably would not be alive right now.”

It took a full medical team to keep MacDonell alive and continuing his recovery.

After he arrived at the local hospital, he was sent to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) where he was diagnosed with a right clavicle fracture, cracked rib, facial swelling, right forehead laceration and a Glasgow Coma Score of five out of 15 (a patient is in a coma if they fall between three and eight.)

Doctors told his family that Dylan would experience difficulties in school. Reading, writing and certain maths would become challenges. All odds were against him achieving a post-secondary education.

MacDonell was given an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to help him cope with classroom struggles. Teachers, family, friends and determination have driven him to surpass expectations. He currently studies Geography at the University of Ottawa and aspires to be a teacher.

An entire German city navigates almost completely without signs and enforced rules, while a quiet, gravel road with only two cars and a structured safety system plays host to a fatal collision. An element of driving is being overlooked.

“A police officer told my parents that, even though no charges were placed, the car that hit us had to have been going 85-90 km/h while the speed limit was 60 km/h,” MacDonell says.

Ethics, courtesy and common sense are among some of the most prominent, universal and yet disregarded road laws. Perhaps these qualities, if applied to all societies, whether they pertain to dirt roads, stop lights, yield signs or none of the above, could prevent collisions, insurance arguments, fines and lost lives.

The winter winds leave the cornfields barren aside from a solitary yield sign – the only form of authority at the corner of Goldfield Road and Concession 3-4.

“The one thing that bothers me is that because of the way the road is shaped, a yield sign is not enough,” MacDonell says. “A stop sign, even though they said they would not change it, is needed. Even now as I drive, whether a yield sign or stop sign, I come to a full stop either way.”

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