Safety message being heard

The only sure bet on Alberta’s roads and highways is that there is no sure bet.

The only sure bet on Alberta’s roads and highways is that there is no sure bet.

But there are a number of safe bets — or perhaps safety bets.

The release of provincial government statistics this week makes the danger on streets and highways startlingly clear. For more than a decade, the number of reportable accidents has risen steadily in Alberta: from 98,601 in 1998 to an astonishing 158,055 accidents in 2008. That’s an average of 433 reportable collisions a day, or 18.5 an hour every day, around the province.

Alberta Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette points hopefully to a reduction in the number of fatalities last year (410 in 2008, from 458 in 2007 and 453 in 2006) and a decline in the number of injuries from accidents (22,015 in 2008, 24,530 in 2007 and 25,964 in 2006).

“I’m hoping like heck it has a lot to do with the amount of work we’ve been doing with all our stakeholders on traffic safety,” Ouellette told reporters this week.

“I’m sure a lot is attributed to all the sheriffs on the road now enforcing our traffic laws.”

Ouellette is right: the initiatives taken by the province have no doubt increased safety for drivers. More policing, better signage and lighting on rural roads and intersections, and public education have all paid dividends. As well, advances by car manufacturers have made vehicle travel safer.

But the human element remains most critical when it comes to any discussion about road safety.

And there are some alarming numbers in the analysis — and more than a few recent tragedies that suggest the 2008 numbers might be an anomaly rather than a trend.

Start with this month.

Between July 1 and July 26, 34 people have been killed on Alberta’s roads.

That’s above the daily average for any of the last three years, and the deaths come at a time of exceptional travelling conditions: clear, dry roads and plenty of daylight hours.

Most of the recent deaths have occurred on rural roads, and in fact that is consistent with longer-term trends in Alberta: rural roads are far more likely to be visited by death. Last year, 70 per cent of the fatal collisions occurred in rural Alberta.

In addition, four factors remain at the heart of collisions in Alberta:

• Driver error was a factor in 90 per cent of accidents.

• Alcohol was a factor in 23 per cent of fatal crashes and 5.3 per cent of injury accidents; the percentage of drunk drivers involved in fatalities has remained constant for three years.

• Thirty-five per cent of all fatality victims were not wearing a seatbelt.

• Young drivers and passengers are most vulnerable: those aged 15 to 24 have the highest proportion of casualties; and male drivers 18 and 19 are the most likely to be involved in a crash.

The basic messages are as important as they are obvious:

• Wear a seatbelt at all times: drivers without seatbelts are injured one-third of the time they are involved in an accident, but drivers who wear their seatbelts are injured just eight per cent of the time.

• Pay attention, be aware of the risks, and don’t text or talk on the cellphone. A new American study found that drivers who text increase their collision risk by 23 times. And accidents in Alberta are most likely to happen on Friday afternoons, when people are in a rush, anxious and already thinking about the weekend ahead.

• Rural roads are higher-risk areas and require greater attention, particularly at uncontrolled crossings.

• If you drink at all, don’t drive.

It all seems so simple; just common-sense, really. But we make tragic mistakes all the time, or make tragic choices. And hundreds of people die every year.

It’s a sure bet that hundreds more will die on Alberta roads this year. It’s a safe bet that you can protect yourself with a little effort.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.