Thursday, May 29, 2008

ZENN Running the Bureaucratic Gauntlet in Ontario

I've been meaning to post this for awhile.

CBC's Reg Sherron did a follow up feature on the ZENN in their Green Rush series. He touches on Ontario's vague safety concerns and near the end talks to a perplexed Torontonian. If you're new to this blog and need some background have a look at the YouTube videos above and scroll down to the first post below.

It made me take a second look at the Ontario Ministry of Transportation's (MOT) stated safety concerns which they list as their number 1 reason for not allowing LSVs (Low Speed Vehicles) also known as NEVs (Neighbourhood Electric Vehicles) on public roads. Their arguments on the surface seem reasonable but became less convincing the more I looked at them.

Here is the Ontario MOT's rationalization as given on the faq page on their website:

"The government must balance the need to test environmentally friendly, low emission vehicles while maximizing operator safety and the safety of other road users. These vehicles are not intended to be used on roads with high traffic density and are incapable of reaching the speed limits of most public roads."

So I worked backwards starting with the second statement and this is what I got:

Who Decides the Intended Use of the ZENN?

It is absurd to think the ZENN and all the other low and medium speed microcars out on the global market weren't meant for the general public to drive on public roads. From the moment they were conceived right through to when they roled off the production line they were meant as economical, safer and more environmentally friendly options for use by the average person. And judging by the popularity of microcars in Europe and the U.K. and the steadily growing interest in North America there are a lot of people who want to use these vehicles. What MOT is actually saying is that they and Transport Canada did not intend for them to be used by the general public regardless of the intentions of the designers and manufacturers or the desires of the public.

The Need for (Reduced) Speed on Public Roads

Of course, we're only talking about city/community roads with speed limits of 40-50km/hr max. That is 40km/hr in school zones and other areas with lots of children and many residential streets and 50km/hr everywhere else. Most roads with these speed limits have some or all of the following: frequent stoplights, pedestrian crossings, narrower lanes than faster roads, lengths of parked vehicles (and therefore people getting in and out of parked vehicles), shops and/or residences. They also have pedestrians walking on sidewalks adjacent to the road, jaywalkers, scooters, motorcycles and bicycles in the side lane (for the most part). Here is a list of all the alternative vehicles that are allowed on these kinds of roads in Ontario.

MOT would seem to suggest that a vehicle driving "slowly" at 40km/hr on this kind of a road would be so far beyond the ordinary that it would create serious problems and possibly accidents on the road. But cars frequently in every trip encounter other cars going less than the maximum speed, for instance someone looking for an address, a street, a parking spot or slowing down to take a turn down a side street or just because that is how fast traffic is moving. Also, we're not talking about highways with a single lane of traffic in each direction and nowhere to turn off where a slower driver may impede the flow of traffic for miles on end. We are either talking about residential streets or community roads which here in Canada all mostly have two lanes in both directions, some as many as four lanes. In very congested urban centres, like the one I live in, where there is so much street parking that the traffic is often reduced to one lane in each direction, the average speed of traffic is also reduced to 20-40km/hr.

On these kinds of roads people should feel comfortable driving 40km/hr. While we hear on the news all the time from traffic police telling people to slow down, stop feeling so rushed and drive safely, especially on neighbourhood roads, MOT seems to be implying that in this instance they aren't prepared to defend vehicles that are designed to drive at a safe speed.

The Safety of Others

I've heard people say that slow drivers cause more accidents than speeding drivers and I always thought that statement sounded a little suspicious. The "Ontario Road Safety Annual Report 2005", which is the most recent one, gives a list of descriptions of the driving behaviours of drivers involved in all the recorded accidents resulting in fatalities, personal injuries and property damage on all Ontario roads for 2005. I looked through it twice and couldn't find any reference to slow drivers in any way causing accidents and for drivers involved in accidents "Speed too slow" is cited as a factor in zero fatal, 65 personal injury and 192 property damage accidents. Compare this with "Speed too fast" and "Speed too fast for conditions" together were factors in 162 fatal, 5849 personal injury and 17355 property damage accidents.

A vehicle going 40km/hr is able to stop more easily than a vehicle going even as little a 10km/hr faster and therefore able to avoid more accidents. This benefits people outside the NEV as well as the driver and passengers.

Operator and Passenger Safety

I suspect that when most people think of road safety the first thing that jumps into their mind is the question: What is the crashworthiness of a vehicle? And Ontario's MOT certainly points to this issue as their main reason for not allowing LSVs/NEVs on public roads. (see faq #25) But the real world evidence shows that their slower speeds are their greatest safety asset.

If LSVs/NEVs are in a collision the ZENN's Microcar body** manufactured in France with its seatbelts and aluminum frame, provides much more protection in a crash than you would have on a bicycle or Vespa. (The Microcar models sold in France and shown in the above link have an air bag option that ZENN doesn't include because the ZENN has a regulated max speed of 40km/hr, but in France these are assembled with a small petrol/diesel engine and are capable of a max speed of about 115km/hr and therefore fall into a medium speed vehicle category.)

As the industry develops these vehicles become more crashworthy and safer in other ways over time. But we have to have an industry in this country to begin with before talking about how it should be developing.

If Transport Canada does crash tests, like it says it is going to, on the ZENN over the summer that are truly representative of the kinds of collisions that they might be involved in then those results are just another piece of information that can be given to consumers for them to be able to make an informed decision. But there are many reasons why these crash tests are not required for these vehicles under the law. The most important reason is that crash tests are not indicators of a person's likelihood of being injured or killed driving a low speed vehicle, because they are no indicator of the likelihood of these vehicles being involved in a crash in the first place or the type of crash they are likely to be involved in. How reasonable would it be to make a decision on whether or not to buy a bicycle or a Vespa based on their performance in a standard vehicle crash test?

Real World Experience

And so finally I looked at France, the place where it all started more than 20 years ago, with Paris and it's wide boulevards, sprawling suburbs, many crazy roundabouts and crazy drivers and this is what I found:

In France they have a group of vehicles they call "voiturettes", low speed/low power microcars, which would be similar to what we call our enclosed or mostly enclosed types of Low Speed Vehicles. The French department responsible for road safety (La Sécurité Routière), in their February 2008 report covering the period to the end of 2006 for mainland France, states in their section on voiturettes:

"En 2006, le parc des voiturettes est estimé à 140 000 véhicules. Elles sont peu impliquées dans les accidents et le nombre des victimes est faible. "

"In 2006, the total number of low speed/low power microcars is estimated at 140 000 vehicles. They are rarely implicated in accidents and the number of injured is small."

This is certainly in part because there are fewer of them. But in a comparison with other vehicle types they account for fewer deaths per million vehicles than motorcycles or scooters. Here are the numbers: (These numbers updated November 28, 2008)

Motocyclettes (Motorcycles) 665
Cyclomoteurs (Vespa type scooters) 258
Voiturettes (Low Speed/Low Power Microcars) 164*
Poids lourds (Trucks) 122
Voitures de tourisme (Passenger Cars) 81

*Calculated from information in this link, since there were estimated to be 140 000 in France and they accounted for 23 deaths in actuality. (in 2006 - "Autres véhicules - ONISR – Février 2008" p.4)

I'm convinced that its about time we developed our own version of the low speed microcar class here in Canada. I think the Neighbourhood Electric Vehicle is just the place to start. Lets get the ZENN on the road, start growing this industry and start reducing our cities' air pollution.

*Nov 27, 2008: Some links and information updated.
**Feb 10, 2009: Replaced link to French Micro-car site with the Micro-car U.K. page because the French site has been changed and has a lot of fancy flash stuff but not a full specification page.

1 comment:

offgrid said...

I'm ready to go to Quebec and buy a ZENN and bring it back to Ottawa - they will arrest me and put me in Jail - and I'll make the news. And everybody in Canada will want a ZENN. Hey - I'm an architect like you - we must all think alike.