One of the problems with having a full-time legislature is that you tend to have a lot of legislators who apparently have nothing better to do than pass useless and baseless laws.
What’s worse, sometimes those laws create more potential for harm than they can possibly prevent.
As someone who routinely drives up and down the Hwy 2 as part of my job, I’ve seen the results of one such piece of legislation up close and personal enough times to know that it’s only a matter of time before Albertans are treated to a major fatality accident that will be directly traceable back to a recent traffic law change.
I’ll spot you a hundred dollars that the buck won’t stop there, though.
A few years back, after what appeared to be a spate of traffic collisions with police cars parked on the highway shoulder during routine traffic enforcement stops, the Alberta government decided to adjust our driving laws in an attempt to reduce the danger faced by officers on the highway.
At the time, it was felt that forcing traffic to slow down or change lanes would reduce the chances of inattentive drivers plowing into vehicles parked on the highway shoulder.
Unfortunately, the real result is that it appears that the danger of routine traffic enforcement has been increased instead.
According to the law, motorists passing a police car with lights flashing must either move over one lane or reduce speed to 60 km/h when passing in the adjacent lane.
This isn’t so bad on most highways, and is actually quite workable until you apply it to the heavy traffic and high speeds of our major freeway, which was the primary source of the initial problem.
Instead of an orderly transfer of most traffic to the left lane, accompanied by a slowing of vehicles remaining in the right lane, an entirely different scenario plays out.
What usually happens is that, when faced with a set of flashing lights and the potential for a $600 fine, chaos ensues.
First, there are the drivers who think they have to slow to 60 km/h, even one lane over. Then there is the sudden shift of traffic to the left lane so they don’t have to slow down. Many are big trucks. Some slow and move over.
Fourthly, the whole mess is exacerbated by the vehicles in the left lane that have no intention of slowing a great deal, because they don’t have to.
The real result is a massive collision of intentions that can ripple back up the freeway as much as three km out of sight of the initial police stop that caused the situation in the first place.
If you’ve experienced it on a busy day, even if you’ve done everything right, it is frightening and dangerous, and completely unnecessary.
While I sympathize with police officers over this, the fact remains that collisions with police vehicles conducting routine traffic stops remains an anomaly. If there are no accidents of this type in Alberta for the next several years, it’s simply the law of averages at work.
It’s a rare enough occurrence that there isn’t any discernible difference in the numbers of these types of crashes when comparing American states with similar laws against those that don’t.
Does the driving public bear a share of the blame in this?
Of course. Drivers should be looking further down the road, and more should be aware that they don’t need to slow to a crawl when in the left lane.
At the same time, police who lobbied for this law should also be aware of the driving behaviours and should have been able to predict the real life situations that now arise daily on Hwy 2.
There has already been one fatality accident on Calgary’s Deerfoot Trail that some witnesses blame squarely on the kinds of reactions I’ve described. That means it’ll happen again.
What if such a chain reaction accident kills someone you love? Whose fault is it, really? Who will bear the legal and moral responsibility if someone’s family is wiped out because of predictable circumstances brought on by ill-thought legislation?
I’m not advocating blowing past emergency vehicles such as tow trucks or ambulances attending to roadside emergencies at 120 km/h.
I am suggesting that police officers have tools that they can use to help reduce the danger they face when conducting roadside traffic stops.
The current law is a bad deal and someone will die because of it.
If Alberta’s traffic cops aren’t already aware of this, something’s seriously wrong here.
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.