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Province maintains ‘status quo’ with Bill 5, but local officials are not pleased

Roadside workers in the Lakeland weigh-in on Alberta’s new traffic legislation, Bill 5, that introduces new rules for motorists when it comes to passing roadside workers with activated flashing lights. The new law went into effect on Sept. 1.

LAKELAND – A provincial piece of legislation that went into effect on Sept. 1, Bill 5, is not sitting well with some roadside workers in the Lakeland – many of whom respond to emergencies along local highways. 

The alarm on Bill 5 was first raised by the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association (AFCA) in August after the province published key changes to the proposed bill on Aug. 2. 

“The AFCA appreciated the comprehensive nature of the original legislation, which mandated that all drivers in lanes moving in the same direction slow down to a speed of 60 km per hour when passing an emergency vehicle displaying flashing lights. This stipulation was particularly critical on two-lane highways, where drivers were required to adhere to the same reduced speed in both directions,” stated the AFCA. 

However, the Ministry of Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors announced that the initial legislation that had been proposed would be modified before going into effect. 

Bill 5 now stipulates that “vehicles in the lane closest to a stopped roadside worker vehicle with its flashing lights activated on multi-lane highways must move over to the next lane, if it’s safe to do so.” 

In situations where it is not safe to move over, vehicles must slow down to 60 km/h or the posted speed limit, whichever is lower. 

The bill, which is now in effect, also states, “Only vehicles on the same side of single lane highways as a stopped roadside worker vehicle with its flashing lights activated must slow down to 60 km/h or the posted speed limit, whichever is lower.” 

With the majority of Lakeland highways only being made up of two-lanes, Bill 5 is seen as a significant piece of legislation for emergency and non-emergency roadside works in the area. The new legislation has even been discussed at municipal council meetings in the region. 

On Aug. 22, before the bill came into effect, Town of Bonnyville councillors discussed the legislation and agreed to send a letter to the ridings MLA, seeking the Transportation and Economic Corridors ministry reconsider implementing the initial changes that had been proposed for Bill 5. 

“I would love to know the rationale behind why they would ever change this... It really seems quite ludicrous to me,” said Town of Bonnyville Coun. Neil Langridge. 

Offering insight from his years of experiences as a fire chief, Town Coun. Brian McEvoy stated, “The controversy is they are maintaining the status quo when the intent originally of the change in legislation was to make it better. Now they backed off the one thing that was going to make that legislation better.” 

Before Town council unanimously approved the motion to provide a letter of support for the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BFRA) regarding the last-minute changes to Bill 5, Coun. Byron Johnson shared his own first-hand experiences of being a roadside worker. 

“My previous job, I was doing service work at night on the highways on vehicles and it's pretty unnerving when semis are blowing by you at 100 km per hour... It’s not fun out there and I don't envy what they do one bit. They put their lives on the line every day,” Johnson said. 

In mid-August, St. Paul Fire Chief Trevor Kotowich, who is also the municipality’s director of protective services, sent a letter to the Ministry of Transportation on behalf of the St. Paul Fire Department. 

In the letter, Kotowich noted that the original legislation was essential on two-lane highways that would require drivers to adhere to the same reduced speed in both directions. 

“As fire chief, my first priority is the safety and well-being of my firefighters. This move is contrary to that basic fundamental principle,” wrote Kotowich. “[On] Aug. 15, 2023, a St. Paul firefighter was nearly struck by a passing vehicle while operating at a collision scene. I simply cannot comprehend the rationale behind this decision, and to my knowledge to date, one has not been given.” 

The fire chief went on to express his dismay that the ministry’s office did not consult with the AFCA before making the changes to Bill 5 just a month before it was to go into effect. 

“I sincerely hope the government will reconsider this short-sighted decision and go back to the initial version of helping keep our emergency service workers safe,” concluded the St. Paul fire chief. 

Ministry responds 

In a statement to Lakeland This Week, Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors wrote, “We’re proud to be strengthening the rules to help protect all roadside workers so they can get home safely. The previous rules prioritized certain types of roadside workers over others, so we changed the rules to ensure everyone is treated the same.” 

“These are the same protections that tow truck drivers and first responders were already covered by. Now all roadside workers stopped on the side of the road, with their flashing lights activated, will be covered by the same protections.” 

Speaking to the government’s decision to only have motorists in the adjacent lane to roadside workers slow down to 60 km/h, the ministry stated, “Allowing for drivers to maintain their flow of traffic on lanes away from roadside workers (some roads are five lanes and can be 10 on both sides) will reduce the likelihood of rear-end collisions. Fewer accidents ensure both drivers and roadside safety workers get home safely.” 

The ministry continued, “Vehicle collisions rates are higher on lanes where speed rapidly drops from higher to lower limits – causing rear-end collisions. Rear-end collisions are the leading type of vehicle accidents across Canada, accounting for 30 per cent of all accidents.” 

Tow truck operators weigh-in 

Helping motorists in distress on the side of the highway is just a part of the job for Joel Dechaine, a Bonnyville-area tow truck operator for CSN JD Collison. 

Good weather or bad, Dechaine and tow truck operators like him face large risks day and night when they respond to calls on highways. 

While Dechaine acknowledged he is not overly familiar with the changes in Bill 5, he said, “It takes about a minute to slow down to 60 km to pass [a roadside worker] and accelerate again. If you can't slow down for a minute to ensure the safety of all the people on the road, what does that say?” 

Dechaine also doesn’t buy into the idea that having multiple lanes of traffic slowdown for roadside workers, potentially increasing rear-end collisions, as an acceptable reason to not have moved forward with the originally proposed legislation. 

Not mincing words, he said, “That would mean that we are refusing to put an effective law in place because stupid people might not be able to drive safely and with due care and attention – like the rules state they need to.” 

Dechaine added, “It's our responsibility to always match our speed to what's in front of us. We have to maintain a safe distance to the vehicle in front, but if you're not paying attention and you cause an accident, that's pretty bad.” 

There is also another concern for emergency roadside workers, what if they are only partially in the lane with their flashing lights activated? Will drivers travelling in the opposite direction recognize their presence as being in the adjacent lane and slow down, questioned Al Stewart, owner of St. Paul Towing. 

Often times, tow truck operators and law enforcement may need to take a portion of a driving lane, utilizing more than just the shoulder of the road. 

“In the wintertime, specifically, where you have a lot more people just hitting the ditch and with the ground being slippery... you have to actually park yourself at 45-degree angles to the vehicle or even access the other lanes so that you can get up and over the shoulder. So yeah, that's an issue,” Dechaine pointed out. 

RELATED STORY: 'It’s terrifying out there,’ says tow truck operator 

In extreme cases, tow truck operators will seek the assistance of RCMP or other law enforcement agencies for traffic control to ensure the safety of everybody on the highway. 

A grey area 

When it comes to traffic stops on Lakeland highways, Bonnyville Staff Sgt. Sarah Parke noted officer safety and the safety of the public is top of mind. 

“The police will often park their police vehicle such that the passenger side half of the vehicle lines up with the driver’s side half of the vehicle being pulled over. While this means the police vehicle may be parked partially in the driving lane, it creates what’s commonly referred to as a ‘safety pocket’ for the police officer conducting the roadside check and creates a safer space for the officer than if the two vehicles were perfectly aligned,” explained Parke. 

In some instances, RCMP members may ask drivers that have been pulled over to readjust their position to increase road safety. “In addition to the safety pocket, officers may also walk up to the vehicle being pulled over on the passenger side to remove them further from the flow of traffic,” she added. 

According to the Government of Alberta, drivers who fail to comply with the roadside worker safety rules and speed past roadside vehicles with flashing lights activated, they could receive a $243 fine and three demerits, plus a speed fine

Inherently dangerous work 

Due to the inherent danger of emergency responders, BRFA Regional Fire Chief Dan Heney says it can be easy for the public to forget about the safety of emergency workers on the roadside. “But highway incidents are the most dangerous place for emergency workers.” 

Heney added, “It’s already difficult convincing motorists to slow down as they come through emergency scenes. The original change would have better clarified the rules for motorists to follow and would have given a bit more teeth to law enforcement for dealing with violators.” 




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