It's Not, "It Won't or Couldn't be me." It's always "It Could Be Me"
We’ve all seen them. The lead-foots, usually driving pick-ups, who think the rules of the road are for everyone else but them. We cringe and curse them as we watch them slaloming in and out of traffic regardless of double solid yellow lines, hills, treacherous road conditions or looming oncoming traffic.
From those patrolling the highways and those cleaning up the carnage and those finding themselves on a family’s doorstep, hat in hand with a message of death: speed kills; unsafe passing kills.
And there has been enough senseless death on our highways because of risky driving for the illusion of gaining a few minutes.
Flying an EMS helicopter towards a highway crash can be a surreal and frustrating experience, says Paul Spring, president and CEO of Phoenix Heli-Flight.
“Floating through the sky with only wind noise gives no hint of what’s waiting on the road and when I get there, the frustration is seeing the event could have easily been prevented.”
The scene comes into view a few miles back from the crash with backed-up traffic. As the helicopter sets up for landing near the victims, the horror of the crash becomes obvious. The paramedics get to work once the chopper lands and Spring usually looks around the scene to see what happened.
“Most of the time what I see is pure driver error, driving too fast for conditions, passing in unsafe areas, falling asleep, and distracted driving. As I lift off and fly towards the hospital with another torn-up body, I always think about the family that is about to get a life-changing call from the police.
“It’s such a waste; all the physical trauma and stress caused by drivers who don’t value their own lives or the lives of other drivers.”
For law enforcement, the word “accident” doesn’t apply as 99 per cent of all crashes are driver error. Collision is the most appropriate word and descriptive, in that a motor vehicle is involved in some form of impact with another object or motor vehicle. An accident is an Act of God. Every collision is preventable.
The four main causes of fatalities are: not wearing seat belts properly, impaired driving, speeding and distracted driving, or intersections, says Sgt Al Boulianne of the Wood Buffalo RCMP.
The majority of fatalities on 63 and 881 are from head-on collisions caused by people overtaking when they’re not supposed to.
“If people would follow the speed limit, obey the signs, not pass when they’re not supposed to, be alert, wear their seatbelts properly, they’d reduce the fatalities,” he adds.
“If you’re wearing your seatbelt, you’ve got a 96 per cent increased chance of surviving a crash.”
Boulianne believes the 36-kilometre twinned section of 63 north of Wandering River has a played a role in reducing the numbers of fatalities since it opened in October 2012. “I applaud the government on working on twinning the highway. I’m positively sure it’s saved lives already.”
He sometimes wonders what victims would say if he could talk to them after a crash. To get an idea of that, a powerful commercial entitled Mistakes from the New Zealand Transport Agency gives a glimpse in a pre-fatality conversation. See it at www.youtube.com/user/NZTransportAgency.
To help bring attention to the consequences of risky driving closer to home, Boulianne penned ‘Please God, I’m too young to die’ about 25 years ago. Some may know it as ‘Please God, I’m only 17.’
“It spread like…poof. Everybody copied it. I put it in one newspaper in Fredericton and somebody else put it in another.”
He pays no mind to others putting their names to it because, “It’s all good for everybody. Mission accomplished.”
Though written about a teenager, the message resonates with all ages about that one reckless mistake.
When he has to notify a family that their mother, father, wife, husband, daughter, son was killed because of the actions of another driver, he admits it’s especially difficult.
“Just imagine, a knock at the door, two o’clock in the morning, and when the people open their door, I’m staring at my toes with a message of death that their loved one became a statistic because they were the victim of a collision on Highway 63, because somebody was driving inappropriately for the road conditions and lost control and hit the other vehicle head on,” he recalls.
Debbie Hammond, executive director of the Coalition for a Safer 63 & 881, points to a 2007 seatbelt study by Peter Rothe, Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research at the University of Alberta. The study revealed that northern oil workers believe that taking safety risks is an essential characteristic of who they are and where they work. And that risk carries over to their vehicles.
As she read the report, she started to see a picture: “It’s a very secluded lifestyle and there’s this inherent acceptance that the risk is high because the job they do is away from their family and they’re working very long hours for an intense period of time.”
When it’s time to head home, all the safety practices they’re aware of at work are thrown out the window.
“As humans….We minimize our risks if the stake is high enough.”
For example, she cites, when their two-week shift is over, “They’ll minimize any risk: the road conditions are bad, ‘Oh okay, I’ll go slow.’ If it’s a snowstorm, ‘I’ll do whatever I need to do.’
“We start to talk to these workers about understanding that before they get on the road, here’s what could happen and you have to be prepared to stop. I think in many cases, they haven’t worked that into their plans: ‘I’m going to get home; I’m going to get out. I don’t care.’”
But Hammond points out, the research is pretty clear: “If you’re going five kilometres over, you’re not going to get there much more than five to 10 minutes earlier. There’s a real distorted perception between how fast you go and how fast you get there.
“Is it worth you not getting home to your family?” she wonders of the risk-taking. “They’ve taken these jobs because they pay well … they want to provide for their family, but if you don’t get home, what happens then?
“Just think about those things when you’re making those decisions behind the wheel. Give yourself a three-second count; if you’re not sure it’s the right thing to do, then don’t.”
And, adds Supt. James Stiles, Alberta Sheriffs, “Other people are waiting for other people to come home too, and if you do something stupid and cause harm to another person, you’re affecting other people.”
Stiles thinks some drivers believe they can handle going 20 or 30 kilometers over the limit because they think they’re good drivers, but there are factors on the roads they’re not aware of.
“One is they may not be aware of what their actual driving ability is. They may not be aware of what the road conditions are and they can’t contemplate what others’ actions might do to them and the lack of reaction time that they’ll have because they’re going at such a high speed.
“We’ve had some incredible tragedies up there and everyone knows what has happened in the past and that should make them more attuned to some of the hazards that occur up there,” said Stiles, admitting sadly it’s not always the case.
“We’ve got our Sheriffs and our RCMP members that are on (63) every day and they, quite frankly, shake their heads at some of the speeds that they get up there.”
Last year, the Fort McMurray integrated unit laid 11,150 speeding offences; 228 were for over 50 kilometres over the speed limit on 63 and 881.
“Some people just don’t get it,” speculates Stiles. “But the more people that do get it and obey the rules of the road, the safer everybody is going to be.”
Waiting until the last possible minute before starting the return trip to Fort McMurray is something Stiles calls poor planning. Drivers likely estimate it’s going to take five hours from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, but that doesn’t count if the roads suddenly worsen or they end up behind wide loads “and that’s something you don’t know about till you get there so it just makes sense to give yourself lots of time,” he advises.
“Is (speeding) going to get you to your destination quicker? Maybe, but probably not and at great risk.
“It’s risky behaviour and as we’ve seen in the past, can lead to tragic results. You have to be responsible in your driving. The laws that are out there are designed for a purpose: to keep you safe and others on the road safe.”
Please God, I’m too young to die…
It happened on my graduation day. The sun was shining the weather was great, with thoughts of a wonderful summer vacation to come. I borrowed my father’s car to go to my graduation party with my friends. I had a few beer during the evening, too many beer I guess, even so I thought I was able to drive the vehicle home. The last thing I remember was driving too fast and as I tried to pass a car that seemed to be moving too slow, I lost control of my vehicle. Suddenly, I was trapped in the wreckage of my father’s car. I had deep cuts, broken glass and jagged metal all over my body. It seemed strange that I couldn’t feel anything. The seat and my clothing were covered in blood from an artery cut in my arm by the broken bone that protruded from my forearm just below my elbow. I saw a policeman and two ambulance attendants trying to free me from the wreckage of the vehicle, without success. “Hey don’t put this blanket over my head , I can’t be dead! I’m only 17-years-old.”My name was put on file as another ‘Fatal Accident’ victim. I became another statistic.
My father came to the morgue to identify my body. He looked at me and said to the orderly with tears in his eyes, “Yes, he’s our son.” My funeral was a strange experience. I saw all my friends passing by my coffin. They were crying while they looked at me and touched my hands. My grandparents looked like zombies, they could hardly move. My mother was in shock, she cried and screamed, “Not my son.” It was horrible to see my mother in such pain. Suddenly, my dad looked like an old man.
“No, don‘t bury me, I still have a lot to do. I want to dance, listen to music, smile, cry and love. Please God, I’m too young, give me one more chance and I’ll be the most careful driver in the world. Please give me one more chance Lord, I’m only 17!”