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Thursday, November 15, 2012


Thank you Diana Theodore! I’m writing this article primarily because you encouraged me to do so by your comments on my last article on the first anniversary of the Morne Sion Tragedy. 

By way of background, Diana lived and worked in Britain before she returned home to Morne Sion a few years ago. Since then, she has been very active in voluntary and nation-building work serving on organizations like the St Lucia National Trust. Her academic grounding is in Math and Science and she is passionate about the environment. She also has a deep interest in our nation's infrastructural projects. Most of all, she loves the natural “beauty” of her island home!

If there is one thing that the Morne Sion Tragedy has taught us, it is that roadside design is just as important as roadway design. Roadside design can improve highway safety significantly. The University of Wisconsin (Department of Engineering Professional Development) reports that "Roadside characteristics such as sharp curves combined with hazardous ditches, trees and other objects are involved in 83 percent of fatal crashes into fixed objects on local roads". With the Morne Sion disaster, we can add cliffs to the list; and it isn’t that this category of risks was not there; it was just that they are not obvious.

As you drive around  Choiseul, the landscape induces a sense of well-being on one hand and adventure on the other, largely because of the nature of the terrain and therapeutic views it is blessed with. The peripatetic cliffs might be the furthest thing on your mind because they are not apparent; but they are there like sleeping hidden monsters of death, waiting to engulf you if you err.

Our infrastructure engineers have perhaps not paid much attention to them in our roadside design, though. It was only with the advent of Lagan Holdings and DIWI Consults that they began receiving some attention. We can now boast that the West Coast Road - for which the Kenny Administration was excoriated for cost overruns and which became the subject of a forensic audit and a commission of inquiry - is blessed with state of the art road furniture which  improved our road safety significantly.

With hindsight, we may want to claim that if proper roadside designs were done for the Morne Sion Road, then we would probably not be "victims" of the 11/11 Morne Sion tragedy, in which 17 persons perished and 2 babies still unaccounted for. But again, “charlatan” ex-ministers (like Richard and the compromised Guy) and their disciples like Rick, Tim, Sam in the media, would welcome another fodder “gold mine” to excoriate the PM for a little “cost overrun” meant to improve the roadside design based on the international research which indicates that a single vehicle running of the road and hitting a roadside objects or falling over cliff account that 10% of all accidents.

Because of the island’s topography, it is virtually impossible for us to have the luxury of flat roads. The West Coast roads are riddled with frightening risks. The tertiary roads in Choiseul have even greater risks. The Trou Marc road leading into La Pointe and Gros Piton Nature trail have 2 dangerously sharp bends and if you err when driving on them, you end up careening straight into a gorge or the Caribbean Sea below.

Indeed, there are many historical precedents in that regard. Once upon a time, a truck driven by one Arthur careened over the top of Trou Marc Cliff and plunged straight into the Trou Marc River. Arthur perished.

A few years later another vehicle plunged from the Morne Portalese cliff into the sea. Miraculously, the driver escaped unhurt by bailing out of the vehicle and holding unto an overhanging branch over the cliff.

There have been a few similar cases of misadventure at the Le Riche Bend where at least 4 vehicles did not negotiate the curve and plunged into the Trou Barbay River. In fact, it is less than two months since a fifth vehicle plunged there.

The above scenarios may be considered as “natural phenomena” for Choiseul simply because of our topographical configuration. The Choiseul landscape consists of rolling “juxtapositioned ridges” leading straight into the Caribbean Sea and our tertiary roads are built on those ridges. To the unsuspecting driver or the driver who errs, this natural phenomena pose great risks.

A year later after 11/11, concrete barriers and road signs have been installed near the scene of the Morne Sion tragedy. While the effort is commendable, a few observations may be noteworthy.

Firstly, the barriers were erected only after the disaster happened; and that’s usually the case and more or less done to calm down detractors.

Secondly, attention was given only to the Morne Sion curve because the tragedy happened there; however, as indicated earlier, cliffs are ubiquitous in Choiseul, especially along the coast. The top and bottom of Trou Marc, Morne Portalese and Le Riche bends deserve equally urgent attention.

Thirdly, the barrier system used at Morne Sion does not seem to be the most suitable for a couple of reasons. Among other things, it is rigid (made of concrete) and any impact with a high-velocity moving vehicle could be as fatal as falling over the cliff. Moreover, traffic-calming devices to “wake up” drivers to an impending hazard could have been installed as we approach the curve.

I would argue that a “W-beam strong-post guardrail system” might have been the preferable option. They are semi-flexible and designed to absorb the energy of an out-of-control vehicle by deflecting it on impact. I don’t know that the barrier system made of concrete cylinders would do that.

The University of Wisconsin found that under expected  conditions, guardrails perform in three ways to reduce risks: (a) prevent an out-of-control vehicle  from  impacting  the hazard being shielded, (b) redirect the vehicle  without  allowing  it to penetrate the barrier and (c) accomplish  its shielding  and redirecting  functions without  causing serious injury  to the vehicle's occupants.

I doubt the “fixed” cylindrical barriers installed at Morne Sion met those conditions.

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