By Xavier Kataquapit
Winter is fast approaching and I worry about all my family members and friends from up the James Bay coast and in northern Ontario that have to deal with the treacherous conditions on our highways during the snowy and icy season.
I have been driving these roads and mostly on Highway 11 and the 400 series for the past 25 years and I have seen the conditions of the roads become even more dangerous over that time and the traffic in transport commercial trucks increase.
There are many accidents involving transport commercial trucks on Highway 11 and it is getting to the point that myself and most of my friends and family will not venture out onto the highways when the weather is not so great.
Thirty years ago not many people from up the James Bay coast owned vehicles that they drove on highways in the south. That has changed a lot with better winter road access to the south and my people finding more opportunities for employment in all kinds of resource-based companies so that they could afford vehicles. So many people have been getting their drivers licences and purchasing vehicles over the past couple of decades and now it is normal to see family and friends hitting the highways to tour the province and beyond in all seasons.
This is fantastic in so many ways but at the same time I realize that there is always the danger of an accident with so much traffic on our highways and the huge number of transport commercial trucks on the road. I find it even more worrying during the winter months when people up the coast drive south on the winter roads and then travel on the snowy and icy highways in the south.
Last year in Ontario 359 people died on highways in motor vehicle accidents. Canada sees about 160,000 car accidents annually and more than 2,000 people die in those mishaps.
According to the Weather Network weather-related vehicle accidents kill more people annually than huge weather disasters. Interestingly, it takes up to 10 times longer to stop on snow and ice than it does on dry pavement. A four-wheel drive can be good to get a vehicle to cope with deep snow or slippery surfaces at low speed, but the fact is that they do not stop much faster than a regular front or rear wheel drive vehicle.
The four-wheel drive vehicles are also usually more heavy which requires more distance to stop. So many of my family and friends have four-wheel drive trucks and SUVs and they are under the false impression these vehicles are safer in snowy and icy winter conditions.
The Ontario Provincial Police attended 9,110 transport truck-related crashes in 2022 and that number was the highest provincial total in more than a decade. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the major causes of death in Canada and every year things seem to be getting worse.
Ontario privatized winter highway maintenance in 2000 under the Conservative government at the time. The province began turning over winter maintenance work to private contractors in the 1980s and, by 2000, it was all taken over by them. This was all put in place by the Conservative government of the time and was kept in place during the Liberal governments over the years.
Decades ago the highways road maintenance and snow removal was all the responsibility of the government and making a profit was not a concern when it came to keeping citizens safe on our roads. These days this is done by companies who are dedicated to making a profit and that does not always guarantee making critical choices to protect the public. Perhaps there is message here for those wanting to support the privatization of our health care system.
Some tips I received from a long-time highway grader operator a few years back have helped me in making my decisions on when to travel the highways. My friend Phil Heneberry, who has since passed, told me long ago not to hit the road in the winter until later in the morning if there was a snow-storm that night as this gives the plows, graders, sanders and salt trucks time to get out and improve highway conditions. He also suggested that when it is very cold, like -30 or -40 degrees Celsius and windy we have to realize that the sand and salt will often not stick well to the highways and that you might be travelling on more of an ice rink than a good road surface when this happens.
He also advised that, if possible, safely check the surface of the road you are driving on to determine just how slippery it is. He reminded me that it was always a good idea to check weather and highway conditions before heading out and to think twice about taking the risk if the state of the roads are very poor.
I have known too many people who headed out for that important trip in bad weather on icy roads and ended up dead or badly injured. Stay safe this winter.