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Summer Cruisin' on Highways 63 & 881

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Cruising along Highway 63 or 881, it’s the destination and the people waiting there that are forefront for most drivers.

THEY’RE NOT CONSCIOUSLY LOOKING TO BE THAT DRIVER who kills, crushes or maims a cop, firefighter, paramedic or even a tow truck driver because they didn’t follow the rules of the road.

Those rules call for drivers to slow down to 60 km/h or less and moving over to give them room to work on a single-lane highway like 881 and the untwinned portions of 63, when passing “anything with flashing lights.”

If it’s a double-lane highway, drivers can maintain highway speed, but have to move to the far left lane. Only the lane adjacent to the shoulder would slow to 60 km/h.

Those were the safety messages being driven home by the Coalition for a Safer 63 & 881 with many of its partners June 12 on Highway 63 at the Algar rest area about 58 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.

RCMP, Alberta Sheriffs, Fort McMurray Fire Department, Eastern Mechanical Inc., Fort McMurray Victim Services and reps from Coalition member companies as well as Phoenix Heli-Flight were all on hand for the session.

Drivers clocked speeding past the first vehicles set up with lights flashing were stopped for some education.

Some people lied; some obviously weren’t that interested and there were even a couple of drivers who actually argued the rules of the road with the officers.

“As we work with our law enforcement partners, we’re hearing that motorists are not slowing down. I think a lot of them just don’t know,” explains Debbie Hammond, Coalition executive director, adding the demonstration was to help them understand the rules.

“Their lives are already at risk so when you see those flashing lights, slow down and show them the respect they deserve because they’re saving our lives; they’re keeping us safe. The least we can do is help keep them safe.”

For anyone looking to blow past these vehicles take note: Speeding fines double. Demerit points also double.

Having so many partners at the driver awareness program, Paul Spring, owner of Phoenix Heli-Flight, added it demonstrated “what we do in a real accident scene; the helicopter, the fire truck, the police, EMS and we do need that room to work. It was good awareness program.

“I think the drivers who were stopped for speeding appreciated the fact they didn’t get the ticket this time, but next time it won’t be so friendly and it could cost a life if they don’t slow down.”

RCMP Cpl. Craig Beson, a member of the Integrated Traffic Unit, (ITU) added “We wanted to show people that they need to slow down to the 60. A lot of people think that’ it’s just police they have to slow down for. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s firefighters, that it’s medical personnel, that it’s tow trucks, that it’s anybody with flashing lights on the highway.”

Excuses heard? “I didn’t know I had to slow down for a tow truck,” relates Beson. “Or if it’s a police vehicle, ‘I didn’t know it was a police vehicle.’ Or ‘Oh I didn’t know I had to slow down. I’ve never heard of this.’ We get a lot of: ‘Sorry. I thought you were bylaw’ or ‘Sorry. I thought you were conservation.’”

If a driver maintains the 100, 110 kilometre highway speed while passing emergency vehicles, or other vehicles with flashing lights, the usual $351 fine for 50 over doubles to $702 plus double demerits.

“That’s a pretty hefty fine,” states Beson.

And such a large penalty red flags that driver to the Service Alberta motor vehicle branch which issues a letter advising the offending driver they’re under review.

“Slow down to 60 or less. Give us the room to work,” he stresses.

“A lot of people like to ride up against the police car. That’s very dangerous for us. We open our door and we get clipped; then you’re looking at another issue.

“We’ve had members killed roadside by getting sideswiped or getting hit by a vehicle passing by.”

Beson has been sideswiped by a vehicle when he was stopped behind a broken down vehicle in town. He recalls that as he got ready to open his door to get out of his cruiser, he checked his side mirror. An approaching vehicle was trying to move over, but the driver was maintaining his speed. A semi travelling in the same direction wouldn’t move over causing the vehicle to hit it then bounce back into the cruiser.

“If it wasn’t for me looking in the mirror before I opened the door, I would have been stepping out into that.”

Even 60 kms is still pretty fast when talking about a 4,000, 5,000 or 8,000 pound vehicle.

“We don’t stand a chance especially if we’re standing out on the roadway.”

Officers will use their cruisers to create a safety pocket for themselves and the people they’re dealing with on roadsides. That’s why stopped cruisers remain partially on the road. They also do it for tow trucks.

“People have to be cognizant to give us room, at least that buffer zone so we can open our door safety.”

With a focus on tow truck drivers, Eastern Mechanics was at the demo, invited by AMA and the ITU.

“Like anyone else working on the side of the road, we’re not necessarily there because we want to be, but because we’re just doing our job,” notes Rick Hines, general manager.

“Most people don’t realize that’s it’s illegal not to slow down to 60 km/h or less and move over when passing a tow truck with its work lights activated, but it is.”

He points out the dangers are very real for tow truck drivers who are out on the roadsides helping someone whether topping up the gas, changing a flat or towing a broken down or damaged vehicle. At any time, a driver could make a mistake and end up in a lane of traffic which could end up fatal if oncoming traffic isn’t following the laws of the road.

“Remember,” advised Hines, “that could be your father, mother, brother, sister or close friend out there and no one wants that sad news delivered to them so please slow down and move over when approaching tow trucks with their work lights activated.”

For Justin Cooper, health and safety co-ordinator at Connacher Oil and Gas, participating in the event was important because he believes that everyone has a responsibility for others’ safety and wellbeing.

“If I can help this effort by passing on a bit of information to help make someone’s workplace safer, than I’m morally obligated to do so and would always welcome the opportunity to do so.”

He added the Connacher team was honoured to participate and help lead the change and educate motorists on 63.

It was evident over the course of the education demo there is a serious disconnect between legislation and the drivers on 63, he noted, adding, he believes this is a systemic problem across the province, not one isolated to 63.

Victim Services members often attend emergency scenes alongside RCMP and they also want to stay safe on roadsides.

They want to know, says Sarah Mason of Victim Services that they, along with their colleagues, “will return home to their families at the end of their shifts because motorists have given them the respect to do their jobs and slowed down accordingly.”

The education session is a great way to provide some crucial information to motorists and show the public how busy scenes can get and why that 60 km/h speed limit is so important.

Mason said perhaps the most concerning excuse was from a few drivers who admitted they simply weren’t aware of the speed they were travelling or the scene they were rapidly approaching.

“This highlights the dangers we all face in responding to those in need as a result of motor vehicle collisions on our local highways,” she stressed.

Jeff Epp, a safety advisor with URS-Flint, said the session not only advanced the Coalition’s work, but also helps member companies move the daily safety messaging beyond the work site.

“This was a great example of how we can put our words into action and show everybody we care a lot about our people; people who actually travel 63.”

He pointed out these people on the side of the road all have someone waiting for them to return safely home.

“My family travels on the highway. My friends travel on the highway. My co-workers travel on the highway.”

He recalled a conversation with a colleague who used to live in Fort McMurray who predicted it was just a matter of time before Epp would know someone who will have passed away on 63.

“I don’t know anybody that has passed away yet and I don’t want to and if there’s something that I can do - whether its through the actions of the Coalition in raising awareness about safe driving on that highway or helping somebody think twice before speeding through a construction zone or making a poor judgment decision when driving - to keep someone from being killed, l would love to be part of that.”

Photo captions: RCMP Const. Jonathan Johnson checks the speed of passing traffic.

RCMP Const. Samuel Hilliard chats with a driver about the rules of the road.

RCMP Cpl. Craig Beson educates a motorist about the 60 km/h rule.

A couple of members of the RCMP and Alberta Sheriffs Integrated Traffic Unit keep an eye on the speed of passing traffic.


One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.