High-tension cable barriers are in the works along Highway 401 in Chatham-Kent

By Hank Daniszewski, The London Free Press

There are renewed demands to install more median barriers along Highway 401 after the death of a London woman and her five-year old daughter in a cross-over collision Tuesday.

But the Ontario Transportation Ministry says it soon will install high tension cables in the median in Chatham-Kent to make the highway in that area safer.

Sarah Payne, 42, and her daughter Freya Payne, 5, were killed Tuesday evening after a pickup truck crossed the median and collided head-on with their van on Highway 401 near Dutton.

Within hours of the tragedy, Vanessa Dykeman of London started a petition on Change.org demanding the installation of median barriers along all 400 series highways. The petition had gathered more than 100 names by late afternoon,

“Travelling on the highway should not be a probable death sentence and ensuring that cars, trucks and motorcycles cannot cross into oncoming traffic should be given top priority,” says Dykeman in the preamble to the petition.

But a spokesperson for the provincial Transportation Ministry said plans already are in the works with the reconstruction on Highway 401 in Chatham-Kent that started two year ago.

Liane Fisher Bloxam said future work will include reconstructing the eastbound lanes of Highway 401 from east of Drake Road to east of Charing Cross Road, and from west of Mull Road to west of Victoria Road.

That work will include installing a high-tension cable barrier in the 15-metre wide grass median from the beginning of the four-lane section of Highway 401 in Tilbury east to the Victoria Road interchange in Chatham-Kent, for a total length of 50 km. Construction is expected to begin in 2018 and finish in 2020.

“High tension cable barrier systems are designed and crash-tested to redirect or contain errant vehicles from crossing grass medians. These barriers should significantly reduce the potential for median crossover collisions,” she said.

That will still be many kilometres from the collision site east of Dutton, but Fisher Bloxam said the ministry is “looking for opportunities to include median barriers in future contracts as Highway 401 reconstruction work moves east through Elgin County.

Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek, whose riding includes Dutton, says he has asked for a meeting with transport ministry officials and will press for median barriers.

“I remember how many deaths they had between Woodstock and London until they put up the barriers and I want to ensure our stretch of the 401 is safe,” said Yurek.

Chatham-Kent Mayor Randy Hope said he wants to hear more of the installation of the high-tension cables in a meeting he has requested with Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca.

Hope said the area has been dealing with a rash of crashes and traffic problems as vehicles are detoured onto Chatham-Kent roads because of the 401 construction.

“It is getting ridiculous. All of this traffic is getting moved onto urban roads. We have had all of these roads that have been downloaded. There’s enough pressure on our infrastructure,” he said.

He said the worst stretch of Highway 401 for accidents during the last decade has been from Tilbury to Victoria Road, the exit to Ridgetown.

But he said getting the attention of Queen’s Park has been difficult.

“The farther you get out from London, the less they care,” said Hope.

Calls to improve highway safety along the 401 west of London have been heard since a devastating pile up near Windsor on the 1999 Labour Day weekend that killed eight people and injured 87.

Rick Nicholls, MPP for Chatham-Kent-Essex, was one of the motorists in that notorious pileup, although he was lucky enough to escape without injury.

“There was twisted carnage every­where. This is personal for me. I saw it first-hand.”

Median barriers were installed on Highway 401 between Windsor and Tilbury between 2005 and 2009, but Nicholls said the stretch east between Tilbury is long overdue for widening and barriers.

“They are doing all kinds of work on that road but its still just two lanes on each side. Why don’t they make it six? There have been so many crossover deaths,” said Nicholls.

He said falling asleep at the wheel is another hazard because the road is flat and featureless.

Transportation ministry officials have said in the past the ­volume of traffic and the width of median does not justify a median barrier on that stretch of the 401.

But the death toll mounts. In 2014, Alyssa Smulders, 13, of Windsor and her uncle Mark Lafontaine were killed when a transport truck crossed the median on the 401 in Chatham and struck their car. The London truck driver was convicted of careless driving and fined $2,000.

More recently, a transport truck driver was critically injured in May when her rig crossed the median of Highway 401 near Chatham and rolled over in a ditch .