Two weeks ago in Nova Scotia, the provincial and federal governments announced a combined total of $285 million — $90 million from the federal government, $195 million from the province — to twin a dangerous stretch of Nova Scotia highway.
The 38-kilometre span between Sutherland’s River and Antigonish has seen more than 400 accidents, with 16 deaths, since 2009.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, $4.8 million is being spent to add rumble strips, passing lanes and new on-ramps to the Veterans Memorial Highway, after more than 200 incidents on the 40-kilometre stretch of road in the past four years, and a string of fatal accidents.
But will the money really reduce car accidents, or just move them to different places?
First, let me be clear that I’m not suggesting that the work doesn’t need to be done, nor that people killed and injured are to blame for what happened to them.
I’ve driven both roads; they’re poorly designed for their respective traffic loads and use, and are in need of the critical upgrades they’re now getting. They are pinch-points where people get killed, and if we can fix those hazards, that’s a good thing.
But that’s only part of the story. Will the work significantly change the number of highway accidents and deaths in the Atlantic region? Probably not.
The Atlantic provinces have had a long-running history of constant highway improvements. Year after year, brush is cleared, bottlenecks are repaired, bridges are widened, dangerous curves are rebuilt and things like rumble strips are added.
Our cars are safer every year, too, designed to absorb the energy in crashes in ways that protect the driver and passengers. New cars surround people in airbags, and blind-spot indicators warn those among us who can’t keep track of traffic behind us. There are cars that warn their drivers when they are travelling too close to the car in front; there are automatic braking functions in case something darts in front of your car. Driving is easier and more comfortable than ever.
But there are still crashes, and plenty of them.
Because driving well is as hard as it has ever been — and may be harder than ever, as our vehicles lull us into a false sense of 110 km/h security.
So, the roads are better, the cars are better, the technology is better, the view planes are clearer.
Whether I’m walking or driving, I see mistakes made by inattentive drivers every single day.
What hasn’t changed?
And what has gotten worse?
This weekend, in driving rain, I drove towards St. John’s and saw a camper, clearly in trouble, driving slowly with its inside wheels on the shoulder, four-way flashers flashing. I saw it first from almost a kilometre away — distance enough that I could slow easily while watching other speeding traffic approach the trailer before a bloom of taillights as car after car jammed on their brakes before running into the camper. Cars sped up tight behind me before swinging into the already clogged passing lane, making an already-dangerous situation even more dangerous.
Whether I’m walking or driving, I see mistakes made by inattentive drivers every single day. Drivers on cellphones, drivers texting, drivers making right turns while steadily looking left. Saturday, I watched a cellphone-talking driver miss almost an entire cycle of a flashing green arrow, only to turn onto a two-lane section of road and drive with the centre line directly underneath his car.
If you’re ill-prepared for the road, is that the road’s fault, or yours?
My mother used to be quite blunt: “You can’t fix stupid,” she told me on more than one occasion.
You can fix all the roads in the world, but it will make no difference if you can’t find a way to fix bad driving, too.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.