Lucas McDonnell-Hoffert isn’t old enough to drive, but he might know more about highways than most adults behind the wheel.
McDonnell-Hoffert won a bronze medal and two other awards at the national science fair in May for his study of how road line visibility affects drivers. He found there’s no guarantee a vehicle stays on its side of the road if the driver can’t see the line.
“If the line is faded, would the driver look at paint first or the signs? I looked at that and found they look at lines first,” he says.
The 13 year old’s work has also prompted provincial RCMP officers to change how they consider road lines at accident scenes.
RCMP Cpl. David Barnhart, who investigates serious and fatal collisions in southeast B.C., happens to live near McDonnell-Hoffert just outside Nelson.
He said while investigators do pay attention to road line visibility, there was previously nothing in their assessments that noted faded lines. Barnhart said he’s also previously expressed concern about visibility with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
“I’ve had a few collisions where the road markings may have played a factor in terms of drivers’ misconception about where their vehicle should be on the roadway.”
McDonnell-Hoffert’s home is next to a blind corner on Highway 3A with faded lines. Last September he observed traffic for his study, noted how often drivers drifted into the other lane, and also how driver behaviour changed when they saw a marked car Barnhart parked nearby.
“I’ve seen many near misses, consistently people cutting the corner,” says McDonnell-Hoffert.
Part of the problem in McDonnell-Hoffert’s opinion is the paint used on highways.
Ten years ago Environment Canada released new guidelines that banned oil-based paints from being used for road lines. The new water-based paints are low in volatile organic compounds (VOC), which Environment Canada says reduces smog and ground-level ozone emissions.
But they also fade more quickly than oil-based paints. Barnhart said he used to tease a friend in the transportation ministry about its use of temporary reflective tape.
“The joke was the tape lasted years longer than the actual paint, and they should go around putting tape on the roads,” he says.
“Prior to the latex paint, visibility of the road lines was [not an issue]. By the time they came around with the paint truck again, there was always still some sort of line. With the latex, you can have complete loss of the visible line in a couple seasons.”
Rodrigo Disegni is the transportation ministry’s director of rehabilitation and maintenance. He’s been with the ministry for 11 years, but three years ago turned his attention to the science of road lines.
“It’s something that, unfortunately, whenever I’m driving, I’m always looking at the lines and saying, yeah, that looks good, that could be improved,” says Disegni. “Driving used to be enjoyable. Now I’m always on the clock keeping an eye on things.”
Disegni said most main highways are painted once a year in B.C. Some areas might receive multiple paintings depending on conditions, while less-used roads may not be painted for two or three years. (Disegni said a recent ministry study showed traffic volume does not play a significant role in line deterioration.)
Two different paint mixtures are used in B.C. The first is water based, which doesn’t perform as well in humid areas or in cold weather. The other is a low-VOC alkyd paint reserved for coastal areas.
Glass beads, which vary in size depending on location, are also included in the mixture to increase reflectivity. The downside of the beads, though, is they become less reflective as the paint wears and can also be polished off when sand is used in the winter.
All of which is to say there’s a lot more to highway paint than slapping some yellow and white down on pavement.
“You get the idea that this is basically someone painting lines on a road, but the reality is when you start looking at the science behind the paint, it’s actually pretty complex,” says Disegni.
“The chemistry that goes into the production of the paint, the use of the glass beads to help with reflectivity, is very complex.”
This topic has fascinated McDonnell-Hoffert for three years.
He was driving home from school with his grandmother in 2016 when their car was nearly hit by a driver who drifted too far into a left-hand turn lane where the line was faded. That made an impression on a then 10-year-old kid.
“It was a near miss, and that sparked my interest,” he said.
McDonnell-Hoffert’s trip to the national science fair this year in Fredericton was his second in a row following last year’s project that also focused on road lines. His mother Jennifer says her son has changed in unique ways since his close call three years ago.
“He’s more inquisitive,” she says. “He’s always asked why, but now he’s able to research it and find some of those answers and reach out and talk to all these different people.”
McDonnell-Hoffert also isn’t done. His next goal is to create his own paint, one that lasts longer, costs less and is environmentally friendly.
“[I want to] change something in the world,” he says, and he might just do it before he gets his licence.