John Nicol May 7 2001



John Nicol May 7 2001




John Nicol

It has many names. The ribbon of asphalt that stretches 112 km from Vancouver to Whistler is part of what is known, officially, as Highway 99. Tourism B.C. has given this section of 99 a more poetic designation—the Sea to Sky highway. It is certainly that, running from the shoreline at Vancouver to the alpine glory of the mountains. It is also known by another name, one underscored by a three-car collision just south of Whistler on April 14 that killed three women ages 16, 21 and 57 and injured another 10 people.

Killer highway.

There are other stretches of road in Canada that have earned that monicker—Highway 101 between Halifax and Digby, N.S., and the 60 km of Highway 401 between Windsor and Chatham, Ont., for example. But Highway 99 has been particularly bloodthirsty. In the past five years, it has been the scene of2,526 crashes that resulted in 1,322 injuries and 24 deaths. What’s at fault? Critics say the undivided road— two lanes except for intermittent passing lanes—is too narrow, badly lit and lacks modern safety measures such as consistent rumble strips and reflector lights. Depending on elevation, it can be slick with rain or slippery with ice. But there is another, potentially greater peril at work.



Bad drivers.

Police investigating the April 14 crash on Highway 99 found, among other things, skid marks 40-m long at the spot where the crash took place, a sharp curve between two inclines where posted signs warn motorists to go no faster than 60 km/h. Those skid marks, police said, suggested excessive speeds—maybe an outright race between two of the cars in the collision. And those details emerged just as the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia released the results of a five-year study of Highway 99. Yes, maybe the road could be improved, the ICBC said. But the main ingredient for disaster on the highway: drivers who are inexperienced, or just unable to handle today’s high-tech cars.

Experts say that, to some extent, the problem all boils down to risk—not just the human desire for it, but the ability to adequately assess it. In the pioneering days of driving, when the experience was still new and speed could be felt in the wind on your face and the jolt of the road, drivers sensed how little there was to protect them and were apt to drive cautiously. Now, automakers have convinced us we’re invincible.

Cushioned within air-bag-filled steel cocoons, relying on antilock brakes and traction control, better suspension and steering, we’re smoking, shaving, phoning, manicuring, reading (put this magazine down if you’re behind the wheel), faxing, e-mailing, putting on makeup—sometimes all on the drive to work. (In the United States, one man was caught playing a guitar behind the wheel—no doubt Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic). Gerald Wilde, professor emeritus of psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., calls it “risk homeostasis”—the safer a car makes people feel, the greater the chances they take. “Safety ad-

vances,” says Wilde, 68, “are making driving more dangerous.”

Quite the paradox. Add to that the sheer number of new technological distractions behind the wheel—or should that be in the cockpit?—and you have a formula one for disaster. Gone are the days when a father teaching his child to drive only had to explain the mysteries of clutch, brake, gas pedal and steering wheel. Now there’s a whole dashboard of features to decode, from steering-wheel-mounted stereo systems and onboard trip computers to global positioning devices. And the problem can only increase as the car industry continues to offer more innovations, and, as some critics charge, overselling their safety features and misleading buyers.

But automakers are assessing the problem. In January, Ford Motor Co. of Detroit announced plans to spend $10 million on a driving simulator to research what level of distraction is acceptable for drivers. John Mann, director of engineering for DaimlerChrysler Canada, acknowledges that introducing new technology to cars involved “a difficult balance.” But, he believes, there are “terrific opportunities to make significant gains in safety, features and enjoyment”—without jeopardizing passengers or giving them a false sense of security.

Experts everywhere, meanwhile, are studying the way we drive, and coming up with recommendations for change. Dr. Robert Conn of Toronto says we have to reinforce forgotten lessons. “People must understand that driving is all about taking risk,” says Conn, who set aside his career as a heart-transplant surgeon in 1991 to start Smartrisk, a nonprofit charity that works with various agencies to reduce injuries. One way to do that is to continually emphasize the horrible truth: there’s an epidemic of carnage on Canadian roads, with more than 3,000 people dying every year. That is the equivalent of a wide-bodied jet going down every month in Canada, with a cost of $2.4 million a day to our hospitals and $17.6 million a day in lost property. “Risk is very personal,” Conn says. “What might be OK for one person might not be for another. We just have to learn how to manage it.”


There are many factors that drivers— andpassengers—cant control. But there are steps they can take to avoid, and survive, accidents. Some examples:


It’s important to note that although about 90 per cent of Canadian drivers regularly wear seat-belts, nearly 40 per cent of those fatally injured in car accidents in Canada in 1999 were not

wearing them. Children should also be seated in proper infant or booster seats.


Even the best drivers need time to react when something goes wrong. When you tailgate, you’re in effect letting the driver in front of you make decisions for you. Do you trust him with your life?


Some studies suggest fatigue is as dangerous as drinking. Most adults need at least

eight hours of sleep a night, but few get that much. Sooner or later, the body will make you repay that sleep debt.


What can we say about the irresponsibility of going 160 km/h when others are driving at 100? But driving too slowly is also dangerous, as are frequent changes of speed. Experts say the safest speed is the one the pack is moving at, even if it is 15 to 20 per cent above the posted speed limit.

British Columbia’s seven mountain ranges give the province, arguably, the most treacherous roads in Canada. Luckily, it also has the most research on its byways because ICBC, which insures every registered motorist in the province, has a vested interest in reducing the number of crashes. The insurer, working with municipalities, installed intersection cameras to deter drivers from running red lights, and uses hip and humorous TV ads to educate viewers about tailgating and irresponsible lane changes. Because of the high number of crashes on the Sea to Sky highway, it also launched a major study of the road in January.

The findings suggested to analysts that most collisions were the result of human error. The first part of Highway 99, just north of Vancouver, is clogged with commuters from Squamish, who are in a hurry, travelling to and from work. Weekend commuters are mostly skiers, mostly young and, if they can afford Whistler, mostly well-off and driving late-model cars. “Often, on a Friday, it’s a bit of a race to get up there to the slopes and the nighdife of Whistler,” says John Pump, provincial program manager for ICBC’s road-improvement strategy. “On Sunday, when they’re coming back, they’re extremely fatigued from a hard day of skiing or other allures, and liable to fall asleep at the wheel. And then there’s the weather.”

In other words, proceed with caution, especially when some mountain turns are posted at 40 km/h. But, as Pump says, “No engineer can solve a fool’s problem. If you get a guy overdriving the highway, and fatigued, doing 130 in an area where he should be doing 60 or 70—well, they’re still going to go off the road and kill themselves and others.” Police reports of accidents on Sea to

Sky noted that weather was a contributing factor in almost three-quarters of the crashes, well above the normal 59 per cent for the province. This falls into what Conn, 42, calls our inability to assess risk. “None of us, when we get in a car, think about the risks were about to encounter, or that they change from day to day, if not hour to hour,” he says. “Were focused on where we want to be later in the day, or were worrying about work, a bunch of kids in the back making noise, or the roof is leaking at the Whistler condo. Suddenly, my ability to manage that risk is diminished.”

Cara Johnston is trying to change that. Strikingly tall, 24 years old, she spends many of her nights in lonely motel rooms across Canada, cutting up purple ribbon she buys in bulk at Wal-Mart and sticking safety pins through the pieces. During the day, she hands the ribbons out at high-school assemblies, where she tells a story so gripping even the class clowns go quiet. Her own voice often breaks, but because she has given the speech so often in the past six years, she is prepared. She wears waterproof mascara.

Last month, at the high school in Elmira, a small town north of Kitchener, Ont., Johnston described the day in August, 1994, when, having just turned 18, she applied for a job at the Disney Store in Vancouver. As she left the mall to drive home, a familiar black sports car blasted by her on that Monday afternoon. From behind, at 3:30 p.m., she saw the car lose control on an Scurve—going 111 km/h over the speed limit. The brakes locked and the car skidded 75 m backwards down a hill and slammed into another car. The point of impact was the passenger’s door. “I know the exact second she died, because half of me died, too,” said Johnston, standing in front of a mural of the school’s crest and motto, Ab obscuritate ad lucem—“from darkness to light.” Sobs broke the silence; even the tough guys in the bleachers had red eyes. The victim had been Cara’s identical twin sister, Mairin, a passenger in her boyfriend’s car.

In Elmira, the story hit home particularly hard because the school had lost nine students to car crashes in the past 18 months. Such grim statistics are what drives Johnston to spread her message: lie, feign illness, pretend to need to go to the washroom— anything to avoid the unnecessary risk of staying in a car whose driver is impaired or likely to behave unsafely. “I started speaking because I’m sick and tired of the youth in this country dying without realizing they had a choice,” Johnston told the Elmira students. “I know, of all the schools I will speak at in Ontario this week, it will hit yours the hardest.”

After the assembly, some girls lingered to share stories and hug Johnston. Out in the parking lot, four boys piled into a black Chevy S-10 pickup with oversize tires, its V-8 engine rumbling. The scene epitomized the power of fourwheeled vehicles—and their allure to those most susceptible to underestimating risk. It is precisely the problem of kids and cars that convinced Conn to put down his scalpel—in an effort to save even more lives. In his training to be a transplant specialist, he had to harvest body parts from crash victims—many were youths. When he began working at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, he also got a chance to talk to teens involved in road bloodshed. “They were quick to tell me that safety sucks—it’s boring and it’s for nerds,” Conn recalls. “Being accepted was more important than being safe— they didn’t see the risk.”

Beyond the usual distractions associated with driving, motorists today have a slew of electronic gadgets to contend with, some good, others not so good. A selection:

1. Portable printer that syncs with personal organizer

2. Fax machine

3. Radar-based cruise control to keep vehicles safely apart

4. Night-vision display

5. Satellite-based roadside assistance and global positioning system

6. Navigation monitor

7. Souped-up entertainment console that plays CDs, CD-ROMs, MP3s and DVDs

8. Personal organizer

9. Portable e-mail pager 10. Voice-activated climate


It is high. For Canadians aged 11 to 20, motor vehicle crashes account for more than 70 per cent of unintentional deaths. Terminology is telling. “We say plane ‘crashes,’ but car accidents’—as if the latter is an unavoidable act of fate,” Conn notes. “We can avoid car crashes, but when we think it is fate, we use a sophisticated coping mechanism, denial—it won’t happen to us.” Things will get worse. Because of bad urban

automobile, congestion is a growing problem in cities. And that triggers a whole new set of human responses and compensatory behaviour, some of it dangerous. In Wilde’s book Target Risk 2, a new edition of his groundbreaking 1994 work on risk, he refers to a study showing that the longer people have to wait at stop signs because of heavier traffic, the more they will try to enter gaps between passing vehicles they earlier would have rejected as being too small. The message is clear: the more motorists are held up, the more reckless they become.

Distractions are adding to the danger. Slide in behind the wheel of, say, a 2001 Oldsmobile Aurora, and be greeted by the dashboard’s driver information centre. It addresses you by whatever you program (“Good morning, Mr. Villeneuve,” if that is your choice). The centre displays battery voltage, remaining fuel, fuel economy and oil life, all at the touch of a button. If that doesn’t distract you, the CD/cassette/stereo has a radio display that indicates whether the station gives traffic reports, the name of the song playing and the artist.

There’s more to keep you occupied as you hurtle along the highway. Check out the onboard navigation system: at the flick of a button on your rear-view mirror, you can talk, by satellite, to someone in Michigan who has maps that will direct you to alternative routes. Then there’s the traction control button, the controls to heat your seat... oh, and one increasingly overlooked but all-important feature: the windshield. “We’re already overloaded with signs on the road, the complexity of road design and so on,” says Dr. Robert Dewar, a former psychology professor at the University of Calgary who is currently a consultant. “Now you’re putting all this stuff in the vehicle. Information overload is a serious problem. It will sell a few more cars, but at what cost—not in dollars but lives?”

The most widespread debate is over cellphones. They have been banned for use by drivers in Great Britain, Italy, Spain and several other countries, but some argue, and rightly, that other distractions such as eating and drinking cause many more collisions. Dr. Don Redelmeier, a clinical trauma researcher at Sunnybrook & Women’s College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada’s largest trauma hospital, says the problem is that cellphones are adding to the list of distractions, thereby exacerbating an already serious problem. His research has found that a person using a cellphone in a car is four times more likely to be in an accident. What’s more, there is almost no difference if you use a hands-free phone or not—drivers are more likely to crash even after the phone call, because they are presumably dwelling on the conversation.

So what’s the answer? According to ex-auto racer Gary Magwood, the solution is simple: stop using 1950s driver training methods for 21st-century cars. “Despite all the things we’ve done over the years to make the driving environment less destructive to the species, we’ve done nothing about the primary causes of

crashes,” says Magwood, 59, who is based in Madoc, north of Belleville, Ont. “You and I still drive them into ditches—we never learned how not to.” Now a freelance auto writer, Magwood organized some winter driving clinics earlier this year, and was so swamped with requests for more that he now tours icy parking lots in Ontario with his DrivAbility Car Control Clinics, teaching students aged 16 to 86 how to brake, steer and use their eyes to direct them out of a crisis. “For most people, the first chance they’ll ever get to learn how to manage a crisis is their first crisis,” he says. “We put pilots in simulators, so why not drivers?”

As well, any advanced course must drive home the point that, although its graduates may be better trained, there is still an enormous amount of risk on the road. In other words, avoid a false

sense of security. “The Norwegians showed that youths who were trained to handle skids ended up in more collisions,” says Wilde. Incentives, he says, may go a long way towards safer driving. People should be rewarded for maintaining good records: Wilde suggests major insurance discounts for being -c collision-free, or awarding free I driver’s licence extensions to s those who avoid smashups.

1 Because, in the final analysis, f our love affair with the car will continue. Any government that wants to control drivers, Wilde says, must understand that “we want to assert our autonomy. We pick routes and ways of life that we think serve our purposes best. Thank God that’s the way we are, or we would still be living like we did in the Middle Ages or earlier.” Before the steering wheel, and the onboard navigation system, and the heated seat. What we must do is not allow modernity, and technological advances, to mask the fact that we are hurding over hard surfaces, often at very fast speeds, more and more of us every day.

What’s your candidate for the worst traffic spot in Canada?