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01/08/2005: "Repeal The "Yield To Bus" Law"

NFT Feature  Recently here in Ontario a new traffic law came into effect. In what is an effort to make public transportation faster, and thereby more appealing to more users, this new law makes it an offence to fail to yield to a transit bus that is re-entering traffic from a bus bay.

When I first heard about it, I had a mixed reaction. On one hand, I can see how legislating a right-of-way for public transportation is a good thing. We North Americans are way too dependent on our personal vehicles, so any measure that helps increase the efficiency, appeal, and speed of public transit is good, right?

The other part of the reaction I had was one that is slowly being justified. I immediately pictured bus drivers that didn't have to wait for traffic anymore, as they had the legistlated power to make mere mortal drivers yield to their busy schedule (and multi-tonne vehicle). I'll readily admit I hated driving behind buses before. Now, I'm even more scare to try and get past them when they're stopped.

The full text of the new law is in Ontario's Highway Traffic Act, and came into effect January 2, 2005. The penatly for failing to yield is a fine, ranging from $60 and $500. According to a Ministry of Transportation press release, they are "working to establish a set fine so offenders can settle out of court, much like other traffic tickets." Of course, I'm not sure how one would get caught failing to yield to a bus. Short of the local cops setting up a yield trap at busy bus locations, one would assume that this is going to be a rarely-enforced law.

However, it's not the enforcement or the fine that I'm worried about. It's the license to kill that transit bus drivers may now think they have. On two separate occassions recently, a transit bus has either cut me off or forced me into another busy lane. Neither incident happened while the bus was merging back into traffic from a bus bay, and one happened in December, even before the law came into effect. Both underscore the aggressive nature of buses. Now I ask you, do you want to further fan the flames of aggression by telling these drivers, "you have legislation saying you have right-of-way, so don't take any shit out there!"?

That's all this legislation is going to succeed in doing. Due to the near impossibility of enforcing this well-meaning law, it's effect is not so much law as it will be a public service announcement, asking drivers to let transit buses merge from bus bays (school buses are excluded from this law). In fact, a public service announcement campaign probably would have gone a lot farther in getting the public to yield, and wouldn't have had the negative effects of handing power to already aggressive bus drivers.

The other problem with this law is that it's got a huge dose of uncertainty baked right into it: "(3) No driver of a bus shall re-enter the lane of traffic adjacent to a bus bay and move into the path of a vehicle or street car if the vehicle or street car is so close that it is impractical for the driver to yield the right of way." Previously, the bus driver had to determine whether there was sufficient space for them to move out into traffic. Now they are being asked to determine, from a stationary roadside perspective in a side view mirror, whether the vehicle they're about to cut off can safely brake or change lanes. Hold on, not "safely" - whether it is "impractical"! Safety isn't even a concern here!

So now we have bus drivers that know they have the right of way trying to determine whether cutting someone off is going to be impractical or not. Is this going to "improve transit service reliability and transit flow, reduce travel times for transit users, and make transit more efficient, reliable, and help get more people out of their cars and into public transit", as Transportation Minister Harinder Takhar would claim it's going to? Except for the most gridlocked bus routes in major cities, I would have to say no.

There will be incremental gains of seconds, maybe minutes for long routes, but you're not going to suddenly drop a 45 minute bus ride down to 30 or even 35 minutes. Personally, I'm not going to suddenly develop an interest in bus transit simply because it takes 5 minutes less to get to the mall, downtown, or wherever. Other factors, such as bus frequency, routing, and times of operation are certainly more critical to me than actual transit time. Quicker buses are better, yes, but it won't make a silk purse from a sow's ear by any means.

My recommendation? Repeal the law, and instead launch a public service announcement campaign about yielding to buses. Even easier, install the same red flashing lights on transit buses that school buses have, but only on the back. Turn those on, have all traffic stop behind you, merge, turn them off, and voila - you have the quickest transit time of your life. Even something as simple as making the turn signals larger, bolder, or brighter might help stressed-out commuters clue in and notice that a bus is about to occupy space that you're heading towards. Do anything, except legistlate an unenforceable law that might give bus drivers some sort of power trip.

Now, I may have painted bus drivers as being power-hungry sociopaths here, but I don't honestly believe that. What I do believe is that driving for a living, especially when one is driving a huge vehicle in heavy traffic, is stressful. In such situations, knowing that you've got the right-of-way to merge might easily lead to the tempation of thinking you're right to merge regardless of what traffic does behind you. Give an inch, take a mile kind of thing. Bus drivers are human too, and I know that were I in that situation, I'd brandish this new law like a fancy new whip and charge through rushhour traffic. Damn the Tempos, full speed ahead!

For those of you not in Ontario, or in a city that doesn't have publicly funded bus transportation, you don't have a lot to worry about. Just remember what I've told you during your next trip to the big city. I know I was unpleasantly surprised when forced into another lane by a bus hellbound for who-knows-where. Watch and yield, or simply get around as quickly as possible. Good luck!

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