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Highways That Look Like a War Zone

At the time of writing, media coverage over the past 24 hours of local and international stories has included images of car crash wreckage that seem surreal.  We are brutally reminded of the limitations of the latest safety features.  We are seeing pulverized metal frames more or less wrapped in smoldering tatters of who knows what—metal, fiberglass, plastic, glass?  The inexpert eye sees the only blackened ruin.

The ‘international’ story is from Florida interstate Highway 75 south of Gainesville where, in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 29th, a fast-moving, dense cloud of fog and smoke from a local brush fire obliterated visibility in both directions of the six-lane divided highway.  On both sides chain reactions of crashes created a mile-long stretch of wreckage.

At the time of writing, at least 10 people have been confirmed killed and 18 people injured.  One witness described initially talking to the man in the car stopped next to him when another vehicle hit the man’s car crushing it under a semi-truck stopped in front of them.  The witness said his car was then hit twice, and he and his passenger ran for cover.  He said that all around the cars and trucks were exploding and burning.  He said it “looked like someone was picking up cars and throwing them.”

The ‘local’ story is from the stretch of the Sea-to-Sky Highway just south of Whistler near ‘Function Junction’ where a head-on crash on late Saturday night between a northbound pick-up truck driven by a 19-year-old Calgary man and an Aerocar limousine driven by, a 54-year-old professional chauffeur and a father of two, resulted in that driver’s death.  The driver’s area of the wrecked limousine was completely crushed.  The truck driver allegedly crossed the center line and is being investigated for impaired driving issues.

Such media coverage is not media-created sensationalism.  These stories are inherently sensational and need to be told as cautionary tales.  They shock us out of our relative complacency about road risk, a complacency partly resulting from inconsistent media attention on the steady regularity of the problem.  Yes, we get a daily dose of ‘crash reminder’ in morning traffic reports, but it is much subordinated to the main message.

 In this regard, we should also be asking more of the government.  A not-so-sensational aspect of crashes is crash statistics.  Throughout North America, as noted in a recent white paper for Toward Zero Deaths: A [US] National Strategy on Highway Safety “accident statistics often take a long time [years later!] to materialize in usable databases, …by which time they are of little relevance to [risk-management experts] and little interest to the media.”

In France, the recent modernization of its system of gathering and disseminating road statistics is credited with vastly improved road safety performance.  Police forces are able to return information to the national level within a few days after each month end and “the monthly publication of road accident date by means of a press release is a big event.”

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