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

Monday, January 7, 2013

We Have Met The Enemy, Fort McMurray

I thought about writing this blog post last night, but I held off. I stopped myself because I realized in my tired and somewhat agitated state it was likely to simply become a string of profanities, and while that may be a useful way of letting off some personal steam it doesn't have quite the same impact as logical, rational words. And so, very late last night, I laid in bed and thought about what I would write today. I thought about what I would write after a day which saw two more deaths on local highways, one on Highway 881 and one on Highway 63. These two deaths bring the total of deaths on these highways in 2013 to three - in six days. I realize that statistically this trend is unlikely to continue, but in terms of bad starts to a new year I cannot imagine much worse. I thought last night about how to write about this, and what to say, and today I sit here with my laptop, and spill it all out to you.

First, I want to make some things very, very clear:

1) I am a strong and vocal proponent of twinning Highway 63. I always have been, and always will be. I have written and spoken about this issue many times, and I think my position on it is very clear. I have also always said, however, that twinning is not the total solution, and that we must address other factors or see fatalities continue to occur.

2) What I write today should in no way be seen as an indictment of fault or blame in the recent deaths. Those investigations are ongoing and cause has not yet been determined. I think we should acknowledge, however, that most collisions involve driver behaviour. One of the things I have learned thanks to local safety groups is to not refer to these as "accidents", as that implies an event that could not have been foreseen or prevented - and statistics clearly show most collisions can be.

3) I love this community. In fact I love this entire region, it is my home and I am damn proud of it. I doubt you could find a more vocal and ardent supporter. However, I am not blind in my support and we do ourselves no favour in ignoring reality. And the reality is that we have a huge, huge problem.

Okay, with those three points clear, I would like to start this post with a quote from a comic strip named Pogo, by artist Walt Kelly. The quote is this:

Fort McMurray, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We have tried to blame the road, and each other. We have blamed lack of law enforcement, and inadequate road maintenance. The one person we seem most reluctant to blame, however, is ourselves. We would like to believe it is the fault of anyone but ourselves, and we want to point our finger at anything and anybody BUT us. The reality is : it IS us. We are killing each other, and ourselves, on our highways.

We demanded that Highway 63 be twinned, and in November we received a commitment from the provincial government to do exactly that. However, even if they could by some miracle achieve the completion of the twinning in half the time they have committed to (fall of 2016) we would, given current collision rates, see a tremendous number of deaths on that highway. The highway cannot be twinned overnight - and people, Highway 881 isn't going to be twinned, at least not in the foreseeable future. That too is reality, and we need to realize that unless behaviour changes there may not be a whole lot of us left to drive on the newly twinned Highway 63. More of us will lose our lives there instead, and in ways that simply do not have to occur.

We demanded increased patrols and enforcement, and we have received that. We have seen blitzes that have netted speeders and drunk drivers, and hundreds of fines and tickets handed out. I am at the point, though, where I think we need to seriously stiffen these penalties. I am ready to get quite draconian, in fact, and once we determine what we feel constitutes a serious driving infraction punish it in a very serious way. No small tickets or fines, but rather huge ones, ones that hurt. Take away cars, and driver's licenses - and don't give them back until the driver in question successfully completes a defensive driving course at their own expense. And perhaps those drivers should be required to spend some time in a morgue, too, so they can see the aftermath of a highway collision, so they can see the damage they can inflict on others - and themselves. If we need to be "scared safe" then maybe that time has come.

I also think we need to be very honest about driving behaviour. When we see someone pass five vehicles and narrowly avoid a head on collision we think "wow, what an asshole" - but when that person dies doing the same thing, and perhaps takes others with them in that act, we somehow back off out of respect for their family. And I truly sympathize with their families, and their loss - but do we do ourselves any favours by suddenly pretending their poor decision did not have a direct impact on them and others? By giving them that "free pass" in our minds are we really serving them, and ourselves, well? Maybe it is time to call a spade a spade, and while expressing respect for the families recognize that stupid driving behaviour needs to be called exactly that, and not give those who engage in it some sort of "get out of jail free card" when it has landed them - and perhaps others - in a cemetery. This in no way diminishes our respect for those left behind - but it does acknowledge that we are responsible for our decisions and behaviour, even when - and perhaps especially when - it results in our own demise, and the demise of others.

And finally, and this is the big one, we need to stop looking at other people as being to blame. It is so easy, far too easy, to look at all those around us and say "well, he is speeding/texting/passing unsafely" while blissfully ignoring our own horrendous habits. How many of us can say we never speed, never are inattentive, never drive while tired, never are distracted, never drive too fast for conditions, never get frustrated and make a potentially risky decision? Show of hands? I see no hands, people, because if you are honest - brutally honest - you have kept your hands down because you know we are all, each and every one of us, guilty. There will be those who argue that speed doesn't kill and is arbitrary and blah blah blah, but if you are one of those then go fight to have speed laws repealed - don't take it on yourself to speed instead, because I have no problem seeing your ass thrown into jail if you happen to be wrong in your theory and your speeding injures someone. There will be those who say they can text just fine while driving, There will be those who defend their inattention, their risky decisions, and deny any sort of improper driving behaviour. And they can defend and deny right until their grave if they wish, but I'd rather they don't arrive there via Highway 63 and 881. I would hope they stop instead, and think. With honesty. With clarity. And with recognition that we have seen the enemy. 

Yesterday a good friend contacted me and expressed concern over my state given the events of the day. Those close to me know I tend to take these a bit personally, and, well, I tend to forget to do things like eat and sleep when they occur. I tend to get a bit haunted by them, and spin myself into a little spiral of grief and sorrow and worry. Yesterday, though, when my friend contacted me I analyzed myself and found myself surprisingly okay. And why? Because I was numb. I realized to my horror that I have now heard and read and talked and leaned so much about these tragic events on our highways that my emotions refused to be stirred - because I had grieved so much, and so often, that the well seemed dry. And I found this more sad than anything else yesterday, because it meant that this has happened so often in my time here that I am almost becoming used to it. Accustomed to it. Accustomed to death, and loss, and sorrow. And that is not something I am willing to accept, because to become accustomed to it is to accept it, and I refuse. I refuse to accept that we cannot do anything, and that this is just the way it is. We can change this, people. And we have to, before more of us die on these little northern ribbons of road.

We have met the enemy, Fort McMurray. And he is not the highway, or lack of enforcement. He is not road conditions. We have seen the enemy - and he is us. 


  1. In a long line of really good columns, this may be judged by history as one of your two or three best ever.

  2. What I've been saying all along... I don't drive on 63, but my friends who do all complain about the deaths and then drive like idiots themselves.

  3. Beautifully put. Yes we do need to take a hard look at our own behavior when getting behind the wheel. We have a unique everything here from the weather to amount of traffic etc but it is in our response to these conditions that are getting people killed on these highways. Sometimes we actually have to accept the facts and live within the constraints that come from these unique conditions and learn to take our time.Change starts first with ourselves. Cheers for your courage to point out the flawed thinking and for calling it though not every accident can be blamed on careless driving I am sure the percentages are very high for what is driver error.Some mistakes are very costly people are losing their lives so I am with you if you are the cause and made that mistake you need to be accountable. That's a tough one for most people to swallow though because we live in times where pass the buck is second nature. Peace live4love always thanks

  4. My husband drives that highway. And every time he does, I hold my breath a little until I know he's arrived home safely at either end. That road is scary, yes, but scarier still are the drivers who are reckless and put everyone else in danger.

    Great post.

  5. Part of the reason I moved away, my life was in danger each and every time I ventured out or back to the city.

  6. Hear, hear and thank you for stating the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts, but is a necessary evil. It makes my blood boil every time I hear "it's the road"- did the road suddenly roll up and force the vehicle off the road? No it didn't. Also, we know the majority of the drivers who frequent the highway talk about "the idiot drivers from Ft McM." Yet, most are from somewhere else, do we all leave our common sense in Edmonton prior to proceeding north? We are becoming numb and almost expect to hear about the fatalities. Today after 2 fatalities yesterday I was driving south on 63 to Mariana Lakes for my job. I turned around 1/2 way to come back due to the ice, high volume and number of people passing illegally. A tractor trailer passed at a high rate of speed, combined with the wind caused my truck to veer sideways. This happened twice. I do not believe the province can provide any number of police to monitor the highway to make a difference,there will never be enough to oversee everyone. It is up to us who travel the highway to make a concious decision to travel safely to the road conditions. Fully agreed we have all been tired or distracted or so on at one time or anther and we have been very lucky not to be included as a statistic. What is it going to take to make a difference? The province, the road, our vehicles owe us nothing - we operate them, and need to remember it is ourselves who decide "I want to arrive safe and not endanger anyone else". This should be simple, and a given, shouldn't it??

  7. So well expressed Theresa.He or she who is without sin cast the first stone...or in this case burn the first rubber. Out highways are lethal but there are ways we can all contribute to everyone's safety; stay home if you don't need to go south in bad weather, take the Red Arrow-it's actually a relaxing way to travel or fly(if you can afford it). Regular commuters car pool-not just for environmental reasons..but also cut down on the congestion out there. My partner and I avoid driving Fridays or Sundays if we can avoid the busiest exodus.I know these all common sense solutions and I get that they're not the answer for those forced to travel for essential reasons. However, the rest of us can plan ahead and aim to travel economically.Over twenty five years ago I knew a girl with a new car who cruised 63 every weekend just for a mini metropolis get away to hang with friends..but those days are long gone, I grew up and the highway became a surreal scary path. We all have to be responsible for our own driving habits and all need to be darn considerate of others out there too.Too much blood shed lately and too many wake up calls that we're not waking up for.

  8. People do have to go south for medical trips, and foreign workers employed locally have to deal with bureaucracy and travel all the way to Montana to extend work visas, bad weather or not. Until we reform some of our institutions some people will have no choice.

    1. Indeed some will have no choice but to travel, a reality I do not deny. They do have a choice, however, in driving safely. That is in their control, and also a reality.

  9. Great article - well stated and wonderfully thought out. It's truly up to us.

  10. Well said. There is nothing technically wrong with either of the highways, when it comes right down to it. I used to drive the Fraser Canyon in BC daily, and in winter conditions and/or the thick fog that often blankets it, there is a real example of a road that is very unforgiving of mistakes. One mistake on that highway and there was a good chance you were on a one way cart wheeling trip to the river below, not just in a ditch or some muskeg. Yet there was (nor still is) anywhere near the carnage that there is on the McMurray corridors.

    It's not hard to see why though, when you see a vehicle pass you at 150kmh on a blind corner or a hill, or watch a guy constantly pulling out and passing 3-4 cars at a time with oncoming traffic visible, & depending on someone to slow down and let him in to avoid a collision. Then to see the same driver pull into a camp a few km's down the road after putting numerous lives at risk, one just shakes their head.

    These are not isolated incidents either, one usually sees this several times per trip.

    Yes twinning will lower accidents, but only because a twinned highway has a higher tolerance for stupidity, no other reason.

  11. I decided two years ago to better make it safe for others.
    I needed to slow down to be part of that solution that was my promise to coworkers. I now also wait and give up that next day to get out of the area. The same with comming back up here, no later than noon best around 9:00 to 9:30 from Edmonton. I get two full days a month one day evey two weeks to relax not much but its better than killing myself or others.

    I have worked hard in getting the trades a chance to leave the sites mid day not after the 12 hour shift. I have been defiant in my presistance being told we have a busness to run.
    Life does not always go on for the ones that have paid the price. Unmfortunatly again I go to question why we do not do every thing in our power to help make it easy to ease the load or time traveled with all the facts. Still it is your own decition that may save yourself or others!

  12. Again tonight on the way home from site on hwy 63 north of town with light snow, slippery areas- I was surprised while a mazda passed me and others and leap frogged their way into town around the traffic.....