c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
MONKLAND, Ontario — Signs warning motorists about deer and moose, some approaching mooselike dimensions themselves, are a fixture on many Ontario highways. But the signs’ ubiquity is also their shortcoming.
“If you keep warning somebody about something and they never see it, eventually they’ll just ignore it,” said David Brake, a traffic project specialist with Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.
Deer, moose and, in some regions, elk and caribou are a significant hazard in Canada’s most populous province, which has a highway network that stretches over parts of two time zones.
There were 13,173 reported collisions involving wildlife in Ontario in 2010, the most recent data available, resulting in the deaths of three people and 479 injuries.
The highway ministry’s eastern region, where Brake works, is now testing sophisticated motion-detection systems that flash a warning to motorists when animals are on or near the highway. The concept of detecting animals that then trip a warning light is relatively straightforward. The complexity has come from preventing false alerts, which could gradually make the system as ineffective as the low-tech warning signs.
The two new test systems are not Ontario’s first attempts at highway wildlife detection. Blake Dickson, vice president of sales and marketing at Rotalec, the Montreal-based engineering company behind one of the two experiments, said his company first installed a system in 2009 on the Trans-Canada Highway near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
That system, and a similar one the company helped to develop for the Minnesota Transportation Department, created an invisible wall of infrared light along the shoulders of the highway. Much like a burglar in a heist film, any animal breaking its beam set off a warning.
The problem with that approach, Dickson said, is that the system had no way to keep tabs on animals once they were on the road and therefore posed the greatest danger to motorists. Moose, in particular, often linger on highways in the spring to lick salt from the road surface, and other animals prefer the easy route of the road to the underbrush in the woods. But warning lights prompted by the infrared beam switched off after 30 seconds.
Rotalec’s second attempt, which began operating here in April on a blind rise along Highway 138, an unusually busy two-lane that connects the main expressway between Ottawa and Montreal with a bridge to the United States at Cornwall, Ontario.
In place of an infrared beam, perimeter radars track all movement on the highway just outside Monkland. While often used at airports, the radar on Highway 138 is an adaptation of systems used in Europe near long tunnels to warn motorists of slowing traffic and prevent rear-end collisions.
Software analyzes the size and speed of objects moving along and across the highway captured by the radar to separate man and automobile from beast. Adding to the complexity, there are several homes and road crossings in the radar zone. Among other things, that requires the software to deal with cars leaving driveways and riding lawn mowers cutting grass near the shoulder.
Small mammals like squirrels and raccoons, however, are still on their own. The system cannot track their crossings.
The three radar towers, their computers and the warning lights along the route are solar-powered.
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The system tracks the speed of every passing vehicle. While political sensitivity in Ontario over photo radar means that the data cannot be used for speed enforcement, Dickson said that the speed data showed that motorists were changing their ways.
“The alarm is tripping regularly, and we are starting to see speeds coming down,” Dickson said.
Brake, the Ontario transportation official, said speeds had fallen 15 percent, on average, when the lights were flashing.
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A slightly different radar-based system built by another contractor, AUG Signals of Toronto, began operating in 2012 on Highway 416, a controlled-access expressway south of Ottawa. The radar unit for that system sits in a median, Brake said, and penetrates well beyond the highway itself, providing advance alerts of approaching animals.
The system on Highway 138 near Monkland cost $287,000, although Rotalec estimates that if it is widely adopted, the price could drop to $70,000 to $80,000.
That’s below the cost of fences along roadways, an approach used in some other provinces and on some Ontario expressways. Brake said that aside from cost, his ministry was aware of moose jumping 8-foot fences only to find themselves trapped on a highway. Wildlife laws also require highways with high fences to include wildlife overpasses, which can cost upward of $2.5 million apiece.
Time lags in the reporting system mean that no animal-collision data is yet available for the two highways covered by the radar systems. But Brake said anecdotal evidence from the police suggested that there had been a decline.
Ontario plans to test a third system, probably west of Ottawa. If radar helps reduce collisions, Brake said, the alerts might go beyond flashing signs.
“You can easily see in the future that there’s an alert directly to your car,” he said.