Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Clarion Call on Highway 63

Two days. A mere two days. It took only two days into the brave new year of 2013 for us to see another tragic death on Highway 63 - and a collision that could have been far worse given that it involved a bus full of passengers who were in a head on collision with a SUV, the SUV travelling south and the bus travelling north. They met in a most horrific way, both spinning off the highway into the snowy ditches, one driver dead, another driver injured, and several passengers also hurt. And once again I heard the news with a heavy and sad heart.

The details are still emerging, of course. The cause of the accident is not yet known, and the investigation is ongoing. The incident occurred at a section of the 63 that is not slated for twinning, and while that has elicited cries to twin the entire length of that highway there are some other things I think we should discuss while we wait for the investigation to finish. We cannot twin every single highway in every single corner of this province, and while the argument to twin Highway 63 from Grassland to Fort McMurray is very sound I think we also need to focus on some other things - like driver behaviour.

I do not know if driver behaviour was the cause for this latest collision, but let's be very frank - it is usually involved. Momentary lapses of judgement, poor decisions, and downright risky behaviour are often the root cause for these collisions, injuries, and deaths. And we are all prone to them, so this isn't the time to begin pointing fingers (as the adage goes when you point at others there are three fingers pointing back at you). This brave new year is the time to think about your own driving behaviours, and to be very, very honest about them. No subterfuge, no "I never do that" - honesty. Here is the question I think we should ask:

Have you ever driven in a manner or made a driving decision that could have ended badly for you and others?

I will go first and answer: yes. Yes, I have. I have on occasion driven too fast for road conditions, and I have made split-second decisions that could have ended very badly were it not for my good fortune. And there is no one to blame but me for those things, no highway at fault or lack of police presence. I bear the responsibility. I could defend myself by pointing out all the things I don't do, like unsafe passing and aggressive driving, but instead I am going to mull over the things I have done, and what I can do to change them. I don't really "do" New Year's resolutions, as I think those are things destined to fail as they are tied to an arbitrary date and not necessarily to what is in our hearts and minds, but this is something I have resolved - I will be a better driver. And not just for me, but for you.

Because you see my driving impacts you, too. My driving behaviour, if poor, has the potential to end not only my life, but yours. My driving behaviour could injure you or your children or your family. When I get behind the wheel I bear the weight of responsibility of not only my life, but the lives of hundreds of others who share the road. And in the same way they too share that responsibility, and so in the end we are all responsible for each other.

I know we all make mistakes, and I am very forgiving of that. Unfortunately vehicles weighing thousands of pounds are not so forgiving, and so one mistake can end tragically. While we may forgive the mistaken decisions we make we cannot change the outcome of a mistake that ends in a death or injury, and so we need to start thinking about ways to avoid those mistakes. To drive smarter and safer and with thought. In fact we just need to stop and think about how we drive and why and what it means to be piloting a potential weapon of death on our roads. Many of us love our cars, their speed and their agility. I love my zippy little beast, the way it hugs corners and sticks to the pavement, but my lovely little car could become an agent of death and injury in a heartbeat. And that is a sobering thought.

I want to mention something else, too. In the collision on January 2nd several passengers on the bus involved, a Red Arrow bus bound from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, commented on how the bus driver, injured himself, attended to his passengers, assessing their injuries and advising them to stay on the bus until help arrived. I have travelled with Red Arrow and I want to make something very clear - their drivers are professionals of the highest calibre. I say this because my own father-in-law drove a bus for decades in another province and I know very well what the job requires, and the challenges. I have tremendous respect for Red Arrow and their drivers, and I wish to thank that driver for making sure his passengers were cared for even when he had his own injuries to address. I will travel Red Arrow again, because I know I am in good hands when I do so, and I have always enjoyed my travels with them.

It's ironic that my New Year's Day post was about Highway 63. I had hoped I would not feel the need to write about this highway for months, and find myself here just hours later writing this. When I heard about this incident on January 2 I was disheartened, thinking a collision so early into 2013 was some sort of bad omen, a sign of another bad year to come on this highway. I've changed my thought on this, though. I have decided to see this latest tragedy as a clarion call, a call to action. And it isn't a call to demand more police presence or twinning more of the highway - it's a call to action to ourselves, to start thinking seriously about our own driving behaviour. I see this as an opportunity for us to have this be the first - and the last - fatality on Highway 63 in the next twelve months. This is a clarion call to ourselves, people. We answer the call for our own benefit - and we ignore it at our own peril. Because if we do not change, if we do not address our own driving behaviour, we will see more death on Highway 63. Guaranteed.

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