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Brian Jones: N.L. needs new strategy to stop highway carnage

Three people were killed in a head-on collision involving two vehicles about half a kilometre west of the Howley Junction. Department of Transportation and Works personnel cleared the debris that had been scattered across the highway.
Three people were killed in a head-on collision involving two vehicles about half a kilometre west of the Howley Junction. Department of Transportation and Works personnel cleared the debris that had been scattered across the highway.

Upon reading the news this week of another highway accident that killed another three people, my first thought was, “What the ---- are you people doing?”

The province’s highways have devolved into zones of literal lawlessness, but in this instance the “you people” referred not to the police, but to the drivers.

Social convention forbids blaming victims or criticizing the dead, especially during instances of immense tragedy and heartbreak such as the numerable traffic fatalities that have happened this summer.

And yet, the most important question to be answered in these situations is indeed, “What were you doing?”

Traffic deaths invariably bring comments of condolence from police, and of thoughts and prayers from politicians. The average person — to whom the dead are strangers — can imagine the heartbreak and sorrow felt by the victims’ families and friends, despite the oft-made, erroneous claim that such pain is “unimaginable.”

We need a shift in social consciousness regarding the term “accident,” just as there has been a shift in thinking about drunk driving.

“Traffic accident” is a euphemism. It softens the horror, if that is possible, of what has occurred.

If we were willing to face the blunt truth, we would use words such as mistake, error, failure, malfunction. Regarding that last one, police seldom say a traffic accident/collision was due to a mechanical malfunction.

However, police often refer to the “factors” of alcohol, speed and road conditions — all of which lead to the essential question about the drivers: “What were you doing?”

It must be frustrating for police officers to hear criticism of their enforcement efforts. Their personnel is limited, the number of hours they can work is finite and there are hundreds of kilometres of roads to patrol. And there are so many speeders that ticketing a reasonable portion of them would be an immense task.

The RCMP and RNC obviously recognize the problem. Both forces regularly put out public advisories about road conditions or impending weather. They advise people to slow down. They warn drivers to be on the lookout for children when school reopens, or during Halloween.

It is impossible to know how effective these efforts are. Not very, it is tempting to conclude after the recent tally of deaths on the roads. So-called safety awareness and education don’t seem to work.

Perhaps the police should try a different strategy. In addition to their advisories to motorists in an attempt to prevent accidents, the police should release after-the-fact advisories.

I read most of the RNC and RCMP news releases sent to the media, but I’ve never seen one that said something along the lines of, “We have concluded our investigation into the fatal highway accident that occurred on (date) near (town). Investigators determined that the driver was travelling at a speed of 130 km/h at night on wet pavement and tried to pass another vehicle on a solid-line no-passing section, resulting in a head-on collision with oncoming traffic.”

A 180-degree change in approach could be beneficial. Start at the end result and work your way backward.

Theoretically, there should be no traffic accidents. Each time one happens, there is a reason. By definition, an “accident” is something that is not foreseeable. But if you drive at 130 km/h, if you don’t slow down during rain or snow, if you pass on solid lines, if you text while driving, it is absolutely, entirely, completely foreseeable that you could be in an “accident,” which won’t be an accident at all, strictly speaking.

What the public doesn’t ever get is a full after-the-fact explanation from the police about an accident. This approach might do more to raise people’s awareness that their driving habits could have tragic consequences.

Such reports from the police would be shocking and painful, but certainly no more so than the deaths that keep occurring.

 

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at bjones@thetelegram.com.

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