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.