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

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Are We Dooming Ourselves on Highway 63?

On occasion I like to believe that people can change their behaviour. I suppose I am an optimist in that regard, at least until I am proven wrong. This past week I was deeply troubled by the report about some recent statistics as they do not bode well for our ability to change our behaviour. Those statistics? The traffic infraction numbers for February to March 27 2013 on Highways 63, 881, and 69.

To call the numbers “troubling” is a bit mild. During that time period law enforcement officials meted out 2,911 charges. 1,768 of those were speeding offences. 81 were for distracted and dangerous driving, the vast majority of those for cell phone use. And 21 were for impaired driving, impairment from liquor and alcohol. When I read these statistics I was far, far from reassured about our ability to change our behaviour, because at the beginning of this year we saw several deaths on local highways – and it seems we didn’t learn a damn thing from any of them.

We are rapidly approaching the one year anniversary of a horrific collision on Highway 63 that ended seven lives, forever altered the lives of the survivors, changed the lives of hundreds of their friends and family members, and I believe profoundly affected this entire region and far beyond. That collision on the afternoon of April 27 is one that I believe resulted in the commitment to expedite twinning of Highway 63. Progress is being seen on the twinning, and work is moving along as evidenced by the friends and community members who send me messages and photos of the construction activity on that highway. The question I ask, though, is what progress have we as drivers made in the past year? Have we internalized the horror of that day and allowed it to impact our driving behaviour – or have we abdicated responsibility entirely?

I have always been a proponent of twinning Highway 63, and I continue to be. I believe it will save lives by ending head-on collisions. But I am also worried that once it is twinned we will see far fewer fatal head-ons but perhaps far more horrific collisions leaving badly injured survivors. You see if we do not change our behaviour we can change the highway all we like and still see tragedy. We will not end the crosses on the local highways until we address all the angles, including ourselves.

Perhaps you wonder why I have chosen to post this here at Huffington Post Alberta instead of in my local blog (although I will share it there as well). The reason is very simple. Take a look at the news reports of the deaths on Highways 63 and 881. Look at the names, and the ages. Then look at their place of residence. While some call Fort McMurray home many of the dead come from Edmonton and Calgary, BC and Ontario, and points all over this nation. The death toll is not one that affects only this community in the far north of Alberta but rather our entire country and far beyond. The ripple effect reaches far beyond my community, and quite likely right into yours. When I travel almost everyone I meet knows someone who works in Fort McMurray, and many of those travel the highways leading into this region. That makes every single one of them a potential cross on the side of the road. This is not a regional problem, or even a provincial one – this is a national problem.

I am at the point where I think the time has come for draconian measures. Impound the cars of speeders, and yank their licenses. Erect speed cameras on the 63 and 881 and use the money derived from them to increase law enforcement. Do whatever needs to be done to force people to change their driving behaviour – because frankly we don’t seem to be able to control ourselves. We don’t seem to understand that our actions have consequences, and that while twinning will reduce head-on collisions it may not reduce the frequency of collisions at all. We don’t seem to understand that driving impaired (whether because of drugs, alcohol, or exhaustion) may well end our lives, or the lives of others. We continue to use our cell phones to talk and text while driving, despite the knowledge that this behaviour is dangerous to our ability to concentrate. We continue to drive at unsafe speeds, engage in risky behaviour, and endanger ourselves and others. And all the while we are doing this we insist on a twinned highway, thinking it will somehow save us from ourselves – and while it might I fear we are developing a complex where we blame the highway and fail to take into account our complicity in our own deaths.

I want to believe we can change. I truly do, because every new cross on the side of the highways leading into this community is another loss that has deep and profound effects on all of us. Every single cross speaks to a life cut tragically short, a family forever changed, and a community that has lost a member. And every single cross makes me fear that perhaps we cannot change, and that perhaps we are only going to see more horrific collisions like the one almost one year ago. I truly hope I am wrong in this fear – but every single damn one of those 2,911 traffic infractions makes me wonder if I am right, and fear that we are not only destined to see more tragic collisions like the one on April 27, 2012 but doomed to repeat it.


  1. Hmmm... this was almost depressing to read. One would think that twinning the highway 63 or making improvements to 881 is futile and a waste of time and money if one was to interpret ths article correctly.
    Sadly, those irresponsible drivers have always been there on those highways. The difference is that with the increased industry demands and a growing community, the numbers are increasing. As awareness and patrol presence & blitzes increase so do the number of known violations. This is a good thing. Education, awareness & consequences are the first step to correction. Are those efforts futile? Absolutely NOT!
    Twinning & upgrading these highways is long overdue and anyone who thinks otherwise is only fooling themselves and in a state of 'denial'. Increased education, awareness, improved & maintained highways, increased patrol presence (priority for these hwys) and consequences are a must.
    The issue has never been solely 'the highway" and to infer such a misdemeanor is sadly misinformed. the issue has always been the volume of traffic, the types of traffic, the number of irresponsible drivers and a multitude of other contributing factors. The issue has always been ... how can we make these highways 'safer'. For everyone!
    Yes, a few signs aying "If you want to arrive alive, fly don't drive' or "The next 250 odd kms are are at your own peril' or 'give way to irresponsible drivers' or 'this highway is not safe for the average driver' ... well somehow that is simply unacceptable as opposed to proactive actions.
    Why bother tring to educate, increase patrols & impose violations? Why improve & maintain these highways? It is long overdue for one, and the traffic volumes, variety and community needs are only going to increase.
    Instead of giving up and saying why bother, let us focus on improving the safety factors for everyone and continue to go forwards not backwards. Perhaps it is a case of what more can we do about violators as opposed to the attitude that it is not worth the bother. That is what got us here in the first place.
    I too, hope you are wrong in your predictions, however I believe after all these years we have a lot of catching up to do and just as it has taken time to finally get a committment to twin & upgrade just one of these deadly highways, it is going to take time for the education, awareness and consequences to change as well.
    Ignoring the 'whole' picture' will not change part of the picture. For too long this communities needs have been ignored by a 'state of denial' attitude and unfortunately yhis issue is not going to go away. We can either move forward or sit on our hands. That is a personal choice but believe me it affects everyone! I choose to be 'for change' not more of the same.

  2. Actually anonymous I am afraid you failed to interpret the article correctly quite completely. If you read it carefully I make it very clear I am a strong and vocal supporter of twinning - but I also firmly believe that if we ignore the human factor then we simply continue to imperil ourselves and others.

    I do indeed find it depressing that in that period of time that number of charges were laid. I don't think I need to to the math for you to show you the average number that works out to every day - and then we need to keep in mind these are only the ones who are caught. How many go unpunished for similar actions for every one we catch? One? Two? Five? How much do we need to multiply those numbers to get a true sense of the magnitude of the problem?

    I too am for change. We have gotten a commitment from the government to complete the twinning of Highway 63. Are we as drivers willing to make a similar commitment to changing our behaviour to save lives? Are we ready to take on the responsibility that belongs to us? Or are we like children who will look to blame anyone and anything but ourselves in some sort of Bart Simpson-esqu "I didn't do it"?

    Those traffic infraction numbers are deeply worrying and anyone who denies that is also in a state of denial. They represent a fraction of those who choose to engage in dangerous behaviour behind the wheel. My point isn't that we should give up - it's that we need to wake up and realize that we are a significant part of the problem and thus only we can be a significant part of the solution. I never indicated I don't think it is "worth the bother" but rather that perhaps we need to get draconian about offenders - and that we need to recognize our own contributions to the state of affairs on our local highways.

    I am sorry you found my article "depressing". Frankly I find the fact that in a two month period almost 3,000 traffic charges were laid profoundly depressing - but it is also reality, and deciding it is too "depressing" to talk about won't make it go away. I think the only way to resolve an issue is to address it - and that is what I will choose to do every single time, because that is how we create change.

  3. LOL!
    I am certain you will enjoy this then:

    I am a "cup half-full" kind of person!

  4. I have said since the whole twin hwy63 campaign started so many years ago that head on collisions would decline but rear end collisions would pick up. Grasslands north to McMurray is not that bad of a highway. Grasslands south needs improvement. The accident numbers prove that.

    A bypass should be built around McMurray for the traffic that is not stopping in the city. That would take some of the traffic load off in McMurray.

    Really a LRT should be built north to sites. A high speed rail line should be built from Calgary to McMurray with stops in Red Deer and Edmonton. If trains can get to speeds of 400 km an hour in China there is no reason it can not be done in Alberta. Trains would get people off the highway.

    I have been hearing some people have had enough of the oversized loads that travel highway 63. A heavy load rail line was proposed to run from Nisku to McMurray but not enough investors could be found. Rail would be wise.

    People talk about doing things a little greener and rail would be a greener way doing things.