Except for the particulars, of course, the tragedy that unfolded last week on a rural highway in Alberta is not, alas, unique. It happened about 20 km west of Calgary on Highway 22, about 5 kms northeast of the townsite of Redwood Meadows. It was nighttime and dark, around 10 pm on Thursday, October 3rd. A 53-year-old female resident of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation driving her minivan with one passenger, a man in his early 40s, had vehicle trouble—trouble enough that it stopped running.
The driver got out to try and flagged down help. It may be likely that the traffic on the highway at that time and in that place was light. When a southbound pickup truck hauling a covered utility trailer showed up, she attempted to stop it. At this point reports of what happened exactly are silent. But the results were horrendous: the pickup truck struck and killed her.
Cochrane RCMP responded to the calls for help. Paramedics declared the woman dead at the scene. Her passenger, who had remained in the minivan, was “taken to hospital with medical concerns unrelated to the incident.” The pickup truck driver and his passenger were uninjured, and it was determined that the driver was not impaired.
A vehicle breakdown is dangerous wherever and whenever it happens. The problem is most acute on highways because higher vehicle speeds defeat slower reaction times. By the time a driver has sorted out that a vehicle ahead is stopped and that someone is on the roadway, the braking distance may be insufficient to avoid ploughing into the scene.
A rule of thumb linked to always preserving a safe following distance and always looking as far ahead as possible is to begin braking immediately upon detecting any disruption ahead in the traffic pattern. But this is the quintessential challenge of highway driving: remaining constantly alert while being lulled into complacency by the long periods of steady, unchanging traffic flow.
Nighttime driving is particularly challenging. In the darkness, it takes longer to determine whether or not a vehicle in trouble is actually stopped. Vehicle lighting is a double-edged sword. An odd effect of activated flashers and high beams is to attract rather than alert and repel oncoming traffic. Emergency responders are particularly vulnerable to this counterintuitive phenomenon.
Vehicles break down on bridges, in tunnels, in HOV lanes, on arterial road shoulders, in parking lots. If possible, moving your vehicle as far to the roadside as possible, activating your emergency flashers, phoning for help on 911, exiting your vehicle, if safe to do so only from the right side and staying off the roadway— all of these actions need to be considered at a time when clear-headedness and steadiness of purpose will be difficult.
Of course, prevention is the best advice: Don’t run out of gas; don’t ignore problems; don’t drive a vehicle that needs mechanical attention. Even so, with all the best efforts made, modern vehicles are conglomerations of highly complex bits and parts. When driving, we should always contemplate the possibility of breaking down and how to respond as safely as possible.