Cedric Stephens | Better highways, less road risk
The Jamaica Information Service says the government “is investing billions of dollars in improving the country’s road network, to ensure safe and efficient travel for all citizens” and accelerating the country’s development. A few days earlier,...
The Jamaica Information Service says the government “is investing billions of dollars in improving the country’s road network, to ensure safe and efficient travel for all citizens” and accelerating the country’s development.
A few days earlier, the government news agency reported that Prime Minister Andrew Holness had opened the May Pen-Williamsfield leg of the Southern Coastal Highway Improvement Project. The prime minister said that “some of the anticipated benefits of the new roadway include connecting workers to jobs, improving the response time of the security forces, and improving and lowering the cost for delivering agricultural outputs to market”.
The PM wears many hats. One is chairman of the National Road Safety Council. Given that role, it was surprising that he omitted the safety part of the new highway from his list of projected benefits.
This newspaper made a similar mistake in its provocatively headlined editorial, “Avoid Highway Apartheid”, about the growing road infrastructure. It also ignored the social and economic benefits of toll highways, such as fewer accidents, lives saved, and less injuries from its analysis. The opposite is also true. A poorly designed and badly maintained road network imposes a social and economic burden on society.
A 1992 study found that local policymakers failed “to appreciate the impact of a high level of road accidents on national economy and stability” and were unable “to find a feasible approach to the problem”.
In a later study, the author estimated that road traffic deaths and injuries impose “a huge economic burden on developing economies, amounting from one to two per cent of gross national product in Latin America and the Caribbean, thus representing US$18.9 billion annual crash cost. The overall cost in low and middle-income countries falls within the range of US$64.5 billion to US$100 billion”. This, he wrote, “is comparable to the total bilateral overseas aid contributed by the industrialised countries”.
Where is the evidence that toll roads make our highways safer?
The US International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association looked at the fatality rates of 75 tolled roadways, bridges, and tunnels and found that these facilities have fewer fatalities than comparable systems.
“These findings track with what experts already know about safe road designs, roads with fewer intersections and entrances — and more consistent speeds — are much less dangerous than other road systems. For instance, interstate fatality rates are consistently lower than national rates for all roads. It follows then, toll roads, which are typically designed to eliminate intersections and other obstacles to through traffic, may actually be safer than comparable urban roads,” it said.
FVF Law, injury attorneys in Austin, Texas, says, ‘’Nationally, however, it does appear that implementing toll roads can improve road safety — at least when speed limits are reasonable, and tollways are properly designed and administered”.
Research conducted in Europe – where tolled roadways and non-tolled or free motorways exist in different countries – provided results that perhaps are more relevant to the local situation. The big picture is that “road quality plays a role in road safety results”. However, the price regimes for tolled motorways may also make a difference.
The researchers provided econometric evidence of the “positive impacts of free motorways on road safety outcomes. On the one hand, motorways provide higher safety standards than conventional roads, but on the other, the toll encourages drivers to shift to low-quality roads. This effect, called the ‘re-routing or rat-running effect, seems to offset the first positive effect produced by infrastructure of a higher quality”.
From my experience as a Jamaican motorist, I feel much safer driving on a local toll road than on our conventional roadways. Many things account for this. They include the road surface, drainage, signage, lane and other markings, identification of hazards, night-time driving conditions, plus the undertaking that it will be maintained to international standards. The quality differences between toll and non-toll roadways can be compared to seeking treatment for a medical condition at a local public clinic or hospital and paying for treatment at a private hospital.
A National Works Agency official said in 2020 that an assessment conducted to determine the condition of Jamaica’s roads found that 55 per cent were classified as ‘bad’, 30 per cent ‘fair’ and 15 per cent ‘good’. The annual maintenance cost – without upgrading – was $200 billion. Upgrading was estimated at $1 trillion, and the estimated yearly maintenance costs were $80 billion after upgrading. The government’s 2023/24 financial year budget is projected at $1.02 trillion.
Motor insurers may be among the indirect beneficiaries of the improvements that are taking place in the country’s road network generally, and specifically for those segments of their customer base that are regular users of the toll roads. Given that this group of policyholders drive their vehicles on those sections of our roadways that fall in the ‘good’ category, should they be entitled to a special discount because they are likely to be involved in fewer accidents?
Pre-privatisation data for Highway 2000 supports the findings of US and European studies that toll roads are safer than conventional roads.