WINNIPEG, Man. — Driving a truck is difficult enough in ideal conditions, and when you toss in winter weather hazards, the level of risk rises dramatically.
Western Canada has its fair share of dangerous stretches of highway – whether it’s a mountain pass in B.C., a deteriorating road in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba, or an isolated area at 40 degrees below zero in Canada’s north.
Technology and other advancements in how today’s trucks are built have helped increase safety while on the road. Stability control, automatic braking, lane departure, and other automated driver assist features can help, but nothing can prepare a driver for what they will face driving in Canada’s west during the winter months – other than perhaps experience.
Truck West talked with western trucking associations, government, and law enforcement officials about the risk of highway driving, and which roads are most in need of upgrades to make a truck driver’s job safer.
B.C. could very well fill a list of most dangerous highways in Canada, given the number of mountain passes, steep grades, and sheer sense of peril if you were to go off the highway.
Global News even did a list of B.C.’s 12 deadliest highways, with the stretch on Hwy 1 from Revelstoke to Golden topping the list with 38 fatal collisions between 2004 and 2013.
Shelley McGuinness, communications specialist with the B.C. Trucking Association (BCTA), said the Trans-Canada through the province poses its challenges because of geography, including steep grades and sharp turns.
“Highway 1 has been on BCTA’s advocacy list for years for improvements, and we are fortunate that B.C. governments have agreed and committed to four-laning between Kamloops and the Alberta border,” she said. “In sections, it is still a two-lane highway with inadequate shoulder room.”
McGuinness even pointed out that the provincial government’s website states: “There are more kilometers of two-lane highway between Kamloops and Alberta than there are between the B.C.-Alberta border and Ontario.”
The BCTA has also advocated for better winter highway maintenance standards, with more stringent conditions now in place. Service Area 11 (East Kootenay) is the first to be subject to these new standards, and two areas on Vancouver Island followed.
McGuinness said there are still two portions of Hwy 1 that need attention – the Brunette Ave. interchange with Hwy 1 in New Westminster and Coquitlam, which is one of the Top 10 crash intersections in the Lower Mainland, and Langley to Hope.
“Because of extreme congestion and the crash risk this represents, we would like to see Hwy 1 from 216th Street in Langley six-laned all the way to Hope,” said McGuinness. “This is a four-lane, divided highway, but traffic can crawl between Langley and Chilliwack and further east in both directions.”
According to the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC), collisions involving heavy vehicles average 13,000 per year (a five-year average from 2012-16). From those accidents, 58 people on average are killed.
The brunt of those incidents (9,000 on average) occurs in the Lower Mainland.
Hwy 63 north of Edmonton has the distinction of being nicknamed the “Highway of Death.”
Recent twinning of the highway will likely lower the number of collisions that occur on the section of road that stretches from Edmonton up to Fort McMurray. But that doesn’t take away from its notorious past.
In 2017, the Wildrose Party (which has since merged with the province’s PC party to form the United Conservative Party) created an interactive map of Alberta’s deadliest highways. Hwy 44 from west of Edmonton up to Westlock topped the list of deadliest stretches of highway in the province with 22 fatal collisions between 2005-14.
Second on the list was Hwy 3 (Crowsnest Highway) between Lethbridge and Fort MacLeod with 20 fatalities during that same time frame.
Chris Nash, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, pointed to Hwy 40 between Grande Prairie and Hinton as high up on the list of roads that need upgrading.
“This two-lane highway is not built for commercial traffic due the lack of road shoulders and a lack of places available for commercial vehicles to pull over to rest, or even to pull over at all,” said Nash. “This is most prevalent with the commercial traffic from Grande Prairie with the oilfield and lumber industry on the northern portion of that road.”
The fatal collision between the Humboldt Broncos bus and tractor-trailer this past April made international news and highlighted the dangers of driving in certain areas of Saskatchewan.
The National Post did an article shortly after the collision, and its title said it all – “The most dangerous road in Canada: Why it’s so deadly to drive in Saskatchewan.”
The story claims that since 2008 Saskatchewan has suffered double the national average of fatality rates every year from collisions.
Susan Ewart, executive director of the Saskatchewan Trucking Association (STA), said the province’s northern roads are in desperate need of attention.
“Trucks are a lifeline for many of those communities and make the goods (more) affordable, as the only other option is float planes which carry much less cargo,” Ewart said. “We have come a long way with northern infrastructure, but there is still a very long way to go.”
Ewart pointed out that until recently there were no communication services for businesses and trucks operating in the north, which put drivers in danger should they break down or need other assistance.
“This is typically why northern folks have such a good perception of our industry because truck drivers have saved many lives by picking up stranded people who had no means to call for help,” she said.
The provincial government announced this year its intention to build a highway to replace an ice road to access the north.
But that’s not the only need for Saskatchewan’s northern “highway” system. Ewart said Hwy 155 – the only road in and out of La Loche and only highway north of Meadow Lake, was voted Canada’s worst road last year.
“It is not only an access issue, it is a safety issue,” said Ewart. “Highway 2 is the only highway to connect the mid and east portions of the northern part of the province. There is a vast amount of resources in the north, including timber and uranium, which generate revenue for the province.”
Russ Turgeon, membership development and service coordinator for the STA, said the provincial government does have a plan to address highway upgrades, but more needs to be done.
“I would like to see an initiative where Highway 16, the Yellowhead Highway, is twinned from its current spot east of Saskatchewan to the Manitoba border,” he said, “and Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments work together to twin this highway from the border to where it intersects with Highway 1 in Manitoba.”
Accidents along the South Perimeter Highway, on the south edge of Winnipeg, continue to rise, so much so that Manitoba Trucking Association (MTA) executive director Terry Shaw said the government is taking short-term steps to remedy the problem while they look at long-term solutions.
“Our concern with the short term steps is that they remove access, meaning problems are possibly just moved down the road with significant extra miles for all road users,” said Shaw. “If the ‘short term’ really is short term then that shouldn’t be an issue. However, the longer term plan is fully expected to cost $1 billion plus and the province is currently, and dramatically, reducing road infrastructure budgets.”
Shaw would also like to see improvements to Hwy 17 in Northwestern Ontario. Though not in Manitoba, several MTA members use the highway regularly, and Shaw says the road is “treacherous.”
Another road that needs improvement to ensure the safety of truck drivers and the public, according to Shaw, is Hwy 75 through St. Norbert leading to the Emerson/Penbina port, the fifth busiest port in Canada.
“There are literally crosswalks on that road so citizens can get from a community center to residential areas,” said Shaw. “It’s crazy.”
If it’s not deteriorating roads, the isolation, lack of services, or abundance of wildlife that causes issues for motorists in Canada’s north, it will undoubtedly be the weather.
RCMP officer Marie York-Condon in the N.W.T. echoed the number of hazards commercial driver face in her region, adding that driver need to plan their route carefully.
“Research your route, understanding there can be vast stretches of road without cell phone coverage,” she said. “This can affect the response times for emergencies and should be taken into consideration using extra caution. Check weather before departing, and be prepared for unexpected delays due to changing road and weather conditions.”
Between 2010 and 2017 there were 474 collisions involving commercial trucks in the Yukon, resulting in 125 injuries and five fatalities. Hwy 1 (Alaska Highway) is the by far the busiest highway in the Yukon, with 143 of the 474 truck collisions occurring here. Hwy 2 (Klondike Highway) accounted for 43 collisions, and Hwy 4 (Robert Campbell Highway) 16.
Non-highway incidents involving trucks numbered 250.