By Volker Beckman
The shocking and tragic death of MLA Danielle Adams in a car accident on Highway 6 highlights the risk Northern Manitobans face. Adams was trying to pass a semi during a snowfall and hit another semi head on! A terrible, terrible accident. Sadly, it is indicative of what Northerners often deal with when they travel south and back.
As a part time downhill ski instructor, I taught Danielle freestyle skiing at Mystery Mountain Winter Park in Thompson in the mid-1990s. Two weeks ago, I saw her at Thompson’s Christmas parade with her MLA car. She mentioned to me she was excited and looking forward to teaching her 4-year-old son how to ski this winter. That would be the last time I would ever see her. More so, her little boy will never realize what his mother wanted for him.
Thompson is the Hub of the North, and a great amount of goods flow to here daily. Highway 6 is a well-traveled route that services northern Manitoba. It is also one of the most dangerous highways in the province, especially in winter. Accidents do happen everywhere, yet I personally know of over 25 people who have been in accidents from roll overs where they walked away to other friends who ended up with a broken neck, paralyzed, or dead like our MLA. I defy anyone in Winnipeg to make a list that long. Dozens of freight semi-trailers travel the route daily. On two occasions my wife and I counted every semi we saw on that 750 km trip: 78 and 96. That’s about 10 an hour or one every six minutes between Thompson and Winnipeg. No problem in the summer on good pavement with long daylight hours. Yet, in winter, when you must pass a semi or stay behind one with billowing snow that can blind you, it becomes very, very treacherous.
I personally have had several close calls. It becomes a white-knuckle experience when you are driving to Winnipeg with your family or students for a shopping trip, holidays, or sport teams travel. With shorter daylight hours in winter, it becomes even more dangerous.
Over 20 years ago, Northerners supported the idea of double length trailers with the promise it would reduce freight costs and improve economic development. All good for the trucking industry.
Yet, many groups have lobbied for years for wider shoulders and passing lanes. Is there anywhere else in Canada where they allow double length trailers on single lane highways? Considering all the taxes the North has generated over decades from hydro sales, mining taxes, liquor sales, income taxes from high income urban communities, and even VLT revenue, there is no reason not to improve northern roads for economic AND pure safety reasons. Whose job is it to speak up for the public and for safety’s sake?
For decades and regardless of which government, when Ministers come to visit the North, they fly… It’s quick and convenient. In and out on the same day. I challenge any minister to drive to Thompson and back. Maybe on a visit with your family. Maybe in winter when it gets dark by five. Experience for yourself the stress in your car each time a semi comes by. Would you be more fearful if YOUR family was in the car? Yet, Northerners just put up with it and assume the risks. Well, it’s time for a change and a determined effort for improvements.
I believe in 2021 the province is spending $100 million on road and bridge improvements down south along Highway #75 and #1 to improve trade corridors. All good. The province has provided passing lanes and rumble strips on Highway 6 between Winnipeg and Warren. All good. Yet, the North still has none of that. Nor public restrooms for 100s of kilometres. Nor any trash collection at trucker rest stops or highway junctions. That’s another topic.
When my wife and I were in our 20s and 30s, our risk tolerance was high. We all believed we were bullet proof. We’d drive anytime of the day or year to get to the south. Now in our 70s, my wife and I hesitate to drive to Winnipeg anymore in winter in the evening. Daylight driving only for exactly those safety reasons. A friend, who works in the trucking industry, drove to Winnipeg recently with his granddaughter. He admitted the road and snow conditions were very challenging, and it was a very stressful drive. It’s totally unacceptable that Northerners must constantly endure this when we travel.
There are solutions that can alleviate these conditions. There have been recommended for decades made by municipalities, First Nations, and Northern chambers of commerce. Regular passing lanes would be huge life savers.
Wider shoulders to park in full safety so no vehicle would have to stop and still be partially located on the pavement. More rest stops between towns that are 150 km apart would allow tired drivers to pull over to rest or nap during their 8 to 10 hour trip. In 2006, Sweden introduced a 2+1 lane highway model that has reduced deaths by 50-plus per cent. It’s been suggested for northern Ontario. The province could initiate a plan to make that happen. Where there is a WILL, there is a WAY.
With all due respect to southern ministers, it’s time for the province to focus on where the Golden Boy on the Legislative Building is looking! Northerners deserve that. Every northern municipality, First Nations, and chamber of commerce should send a strong message to make safer highways a priority for the North. We do not need this conversation again when the next traveler is killed.
Rest in Peace, Danielle.