and the sign says

Seat belts save lives! Motorcycles need space! Signal for lane changes, you! And while you’re at it, secure that baby seat!

You may have noticed such helpful reminders looming over the Queensway in recent months. Spanning the width of the highway’s east- and westbound lanes, the conciliatory messages loom over three or four lanes of traffic. During rush hour, one has plenty of time to study and digest the information provided, which can range from the humourous (Next time, take the bus!) to the cryptic (“Speed enforced!” reads one — perhaps a reminder that it can be dangerous to drive too slowly on the Queensway.)

They are insistent. They are massive. They are bilingual. And they now come equipped with graphics.

What they are not, however, is particularly useful to the rush-hour motorist wondering why traffic is not moving. (Hint: It’s rush hour.)

Funny, because last January, on the occasion of the introduction of dozens of such signs spread throughout the province’s highways and byways (mostly highways), Ontario’s Minister of Transportation, Steven ‘My Name’s Del Luca’ Del Luca spoke proudly to the press of these spiffy electronic signs’ ability to provide road and weather conditions as well as traffic information in real time. Twenty-four hours a day.

The digital signs, Minister Del Luca vowed, would “improve road safety, manage congestion and keep people and businesses moving.”

By, it seems, reminding us to buckle up.

Yet, the City of Ottawa, according to its website, was under the impression said signs’ purpose would be to “provide real-time traffic and safety information to motorists.” Last fall, the Citizen declared the signs would “alert drivers to traffic jams, road closures or Amber alerts.” The Province boasted of the signs’ ability to enable drivers to obtain “important road safety information and react to traffic conditions or choose alternate routes.” (Alternative routes, even.)

Approximately 50 such signs have been activated across the province since the beginning of the year. Each sign came at a reported cost of $650,000, with many replacing existing and still operational signs — the better to bring graphics and colour to the people. The total cost is estimated to be $32.5 million. This, at a time when — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — the province is not exactly flush with cash.

Which is fine. Or would be fine, if those $650,000 signs were in fact displaying anything resembling real-time traffic, road-closure or weather information. Or an Amber alert. Instead, it seems the signs are being closely monitored around the clock to react to reports of someone not leaving sufficient space for a motorcycle.

It’s the sort of thing that might leave taxpayers wondering whether we are getting our money’s worth.

I wondered. Hence, I directed a few questions to Minister Del Luca. Or, rather, I emailed questions in the direction of the Minister’s office. I received responses from not one but two representatives of the Ministry, perhaps taking time out from monitoring those signs.

Brandy Duhaime, Regional Communications Coordinator, had this to say:

“When there are traffic impacts on Highway 417 due to construction or lane/ramp closures resulting from collisions or other incidents, the overhead signs do display this type of information.”

Except, you know, they don’t. But I’ll let her continue.

“Our system does not currently have the infrastructure in place to automatically display real-time traffic congestion information, as it would on overhead signs in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). During future Highway 417 rehabilitation work, vehicle detection stations will be installed, allowing traffic flow condition messages to be automatically updated directly from incoming traffic data. Pending approvals, we should start this work in 2018.”

So real-time traffic updates are coming. Potentially just in time for the next provincial election.

For now, opportunities such as alerting westbound drivers to the closure of the Parkdale exit have been handed over to an old-fashioned banner on a non-digital Queensway sign as well as a smaller, portable digital sign placed at the side of the road. Or, to quote Ms Duhaime, “Our contractor is using the ground-mounted message signs and static regulated construction signs in advance of the ramp to advise motorists.”

One hopes the smaller digital sign was included in the $650,000 cost of its nearby big brother — you know, the way that lettuce knife was shipped to you with your Magic Bullet purchase at no extra cost.

Commications Service Coordinator Kome Abel repeated the line about local staff being “available 24 hours every day to react to incidents affecting traffic on the Queensway” and also spoke of the “closed-circuit television cameras strategically located at various locations” to aid eagle-eyed staff with monitoring the highway “for traffic incidents and significant traffic delays.”

From Mr Abel, I learned said staff prefer the term “Overhead Variable Message Signs (VMS).” Otherwise, his answer more or less echoed Ms Duhaime’s — i.e., “The purpose is to display construction messaging as well as traffic and incident messages such as ramp and/or lane closures, and are used for this purpose as necessary. When the Overhead VMS on the Queensway are not required for construction and incident messaging, they are used to display safety messages; this is consistent with the others used throughout the province.”

So at least it’s not just us. As you read this, somewhere near Sudbury a driver is being told to buckle up. In colour. With graphics.

Mr Abel also asked and answered a question I had not considered, in the process giving a sense of just how proud the Ministry of Transportation is of its VMS fleet’s capabilities.

“I have noticed some change in design of electronic signs,” he suggested I had suggested. “Is there a strategy to change the design of traffic electronic signs?”

Good question. Glad I thought of it. Just now.

“Recent software updates,” he replied, “have allowed the Ministry of Transportation to display pictographic messages on the overhead VMS.  Unfortunately, these pictographic messages are unable to be displayed on roadside VMS due to technological limitations.”

Well, one can’t ask too much of a bonus gift.

Don’t get me wrong. There is an upside for Ontario’s taxpayers to the government’s determination to whip out its VMS and show us how big they are. We’re talking jobs. Manufacturing jobs. In Ontario, no less. Each $650,000 sign was constructed by Ledstar, Inc., a company based in Vaughan. That is good news for the MPP for Vaughan riding: one Steven Del Luca, Minister of Transportation.

(What are the odds?)

There are of course other benefits to the province’s motorists. I don’t know about you but since January I’ve invested in a baby seat, just to be able to secure it properly as instructed by my digital overlord.

And it’s comforting to know those signs are being monitored 24 hours a day in order to provide real-time information to drivers. I for one cannot wait until 2018, when that information will be revealed.

Pending approvals.

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