Changing Lanes

Making Alberta’s roads safer requires drivers to not only put their cell phones down but also to change their mindsets

by Robin Brunet

Illustration: Heff O’Reilly
Illustration: Heff O’Reilly

As the Canadian Automobile Association notes, drivers engaged in distracted behaviour, such as text messaging, are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near-crash compared to motorists who keep their eyes on the road. In fact, driver distraction is a factor in four million motor vehicle crashes in North America every year. From a purely economic standpoint, these types of mishaps cost Canadians about $10 billion annually in health care and lost productivity.

“The real root of the problem
lies in behaviour, fortified by the
propensity of young people to think
taking risks on the road is OK.”
– Debbie Hammond, executive director,
Coalition for a Safer 63 and 881

Yet, ask drivers if they’re responsible behind the wheel – as Debbie Hammond, executive director for the Coalition for a Safer 63 and 881, has done on numerous occasions ­– and most will say they are. “While cell phone use and other habits are the cause of collisions and fatalities, the real root of the problem lies in behaviour, fortified by the propensity of young people to think taking risks on the road is OK,” she says.

Hammond’s organization is dedicated to making Highways 63 and 881 – the busiest routes in and out of the northern Alberta oil sands and the scene of dozens of fatalities in recent years ­– safer for motorists. She recalls being at a noisy bar with a trucker who had just downed three scotches and was heading back to his rig. “I suggested he could take a cab instead, and suddenly you could have heard a pin drop,” she says, “so misplaced pride also compels some drivers to do the wrong thing.”

Underscoring the bad behaviour is the common belief that one’s skills and road knowledge more than compensate for distraction and even inebriation. This begs the question: Just how knowledgeable are Albertans about the rules of the road?

Several years ago, the University of Calgary decided to find out, as there had been very little documented about the knowledge level of the typical Albertan motorist. Its Alberta Drivers’ Knowledge of Road Rules test measured the acumen of 2,394 drivers with at least 10 years of driving experience via an online survey and exam, and the outcome was alarming: only 11.4 per cent passed the test, which consisted of 30 multiple choice questions.

The test – which also found that risky driving behaviour tends to decrease with age – went a long way in explaining why, in 2005 alone, 466 road users were killed and 24,504 injured in Alberta, making the province one of the poorer performers in Canada relative to the country’s average.

Some of the mishaps that have plagued Highways 63 and 881 are due to the fact that long stretches of the thoroughfares are single lane. Hammond’s organization is accordingly calling for certain sections to be twinned.

However, she stresses that this is only part of the solution; the other part is to help drivers identify their dangerous driving habits and offer them safe alternatives. To that end, she and her members (who range from industry groups and regional municipalities to safety organizations) are using a variety of different media. “Originally, we focused on the work sites but have since included residential communities, where youth risk-taking has proven to be most prevalent,” Hammond says. “We give lectures, go to schools, provide written material – in short, we try to be a physical and constant presence because putting up a poster simply isn’t good enough.”

As well-intentioned as cell phone bans and tough drunk driving laws may be, the mindset of drivers is a tough thing to change. But Hammond is determined to make a difference, and more than 4,000 Albertans have pledged on her website to be safer drivers by abiding the following rules:

  • not travelling alone unless necessary;
  • not getting behind the wheel if alcohol or drugs have been consumed;
  • not driving while tired;
  • respecting the speed limit;
  • passing another vehicle only when it is safe to do so;
  • not using mobile devices; and
  • ensuring one’s vehicle is in safe working order.

Hammond concludes: “Every action taken means more safety for the driver and other motorists. I got involved in this cause simply because the statistics chilled me, and judging from the number of pledge-takers to date, a lot of other people share my concern.”

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