Fatal errors

Four killed in wrong-way tragedy. Campbell River woman killed in wrong way crash.

The aftermath of a head-on collision last December

The aftermath of a head-on collision last December

Four killed in wrong-way tragedy. Campbell River woman killed in wrong way crash.

The headlines are different, but the reaction to them is almost always the same: surprise, shock and incredulity. How could this happen — on a divided highway no less?

As it turns out however, motorists make this sometimes fatal error far more often than one might think.

Donna Davies can attest to that. She was driving on Highway 4A about two years ago when she saw a driver turn towards oncoming traffic right by the Rod and Gun.

“It was at about 2 p.m.,” she said. “People had to swerve out of his way. I couldn’t believe he made it through all the traffic and it’s lucky he did, because he had passengers.”

Sometimes the drivers don’t make it, however, and when that happens, the results can often prove tragic.

On June 26, 2005, a 49-year-old man driving the wrong way on Highway 19 slammed into a vehicle carrying a Campbell River family, killing four. Just days later, police had to intervene to prevent a similar tragedy when another man drove against the flow of traffic on the same highway.

In 2004, just one year earlier, an elderly driver was killed on the same stretch of road near the Parksville exit while driving the wrong way and in December of last year a 60-year-old Campbell River woman was killed near Qualicum Beach while driving south in the northbound lane.

A local paramedic, who asked not to be named, said he has seen more than his fair share of near misses — and worse.

“I was driving north about two years ago and I saw headlights way up the road,” he said. “I thought it looked weird, because it looked like they were on my side of the road.”

As it turned out, they were.

“Everyone was dodging this individual as she travelled south in the northbound lane,” he said. “I just saw this full-sized car with an elderly lady driving and she was totally oblivious to what was going on. She just drove by. There was no accident reported, so she must have made it.”

He said it’s a sad fact that some people continue to drive long after they’ve lost the ability to do so safely.

“Some of these elderly people have outlived their driving skills,” he said. “At one time they might have been really good drivers, but now they’re totally oblivious to the obvious.”

He suggested the carnage could be reduced if off ramps from the highway were divided.

“If they had concrete barriers in the middle, you couldn’t turn left to go up the off ramp,” he said. “It seems like a simple solution.”

Is age a key factor in the ongoing litany of wrong-way near misses and crashes? Ministry of Highways spokesperson Jeff Knight doesn’t think so.

“The demographics are not a factor,” he said.

Maybe so, but a 2000 study released by the Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands showed drivers aged 70 or older were responsible for 32 per cent of all wrong-way crashes, compared to the next highest demographic, those aged 25 to 39, at 24.3 per cent.

ICBC figures from 2007 show that of the 29,845 motor vehicle crashes of all types recorded, it was actually drivers between the ages of 46 and 50 that accounted for the highest number — 5,996 crashes — followed by drivers between the ages of 61 and 65, who were responsible for 4,009 crashes. This dropped sharply in the 66 to 70 age range, to 806, while those aged between 71 and 75 dropped to 657.

However, drivers between the ages of 76 and 80 spiked up to 1,463 incidents, before dropping back down to 325 incidents between ages 81 and 85, and then to just 130 incidents between ages 86 to 90.

Although she said age may well play a factor, registered clinical counsellor Rosemary Drummond suggests it’s a little more complicated than that.

“One thing that strikes me is there are a large number of ladies who are unaccustomed to driving,” she said. “I wouldn’t say they are too old, but maybe 55 and up. There’s a habit from a certain generation where the husband does all the driving.”

When the husband dies or is otherwise unable to continue driving, that chore falls to the wife who, in many instances, hasn’t done much driving at all.

“The women get unused to it and are very nervous drivers,” Drummond said. “That’s a recipe for this going down the road the wrong way sort of thing.”

Of course, not only women are at fault and, in at least once case, said local psychologist Dr. Neill Neill, age had no bearing at all, because the incident was no accident.

“I’ve had seven incidences of meeting another car coming towards me, but in the latest, this fall, somebody did it deliberately, as a shortcut,” he said. “I was coming off the ferry and was at the intersection just past Big Boys’ Toys and a car came out of the entrance. There’s only one way to go, which is right, but he turned left.”

The vehicle went up the exit ramp and then drove on the shoulder to get to the intersection so he could go the other way.

“It was quite deliberate,” Neill said. “It was at night and his headlights were on. Someone could have panicked so easily and with all the traffic going so fast, you could have had a pileup. He just didn’t want to bother going on to the next place where he could legally turn around.”

Such a stunning lack of compunction is rare though. In virtually all cases, it’s an honest mistake. The question remains however, why that mistake is made.

Some suggest a lack of proper signage may be at fault. Robert Hayward thinks it might at least be a contributing factor. He was driving north on Highway 19 just south of Exit 51 onto Highway 4A when he passed an accident scene.

“I tried to figure out how that lady driver could have got going the wrong way,” he said. “The next possible entrance is at Horne Lake Road and it is described as an at-grade signalized intersection.

“A driver coming up Horne Lake Road from Qualicum bay is almost always faced with a red light and has to stop. Assuming the drier intends to head south, he would start to make a left turn, and this is where I think things could go wrong. If, instead of going out across the two northbound lanes and around the centre median, the driver turns a shade more to the left, he is then headed south in the northbound lane of Highway 19.”

The signage at the intersection, he said, is adequate, but not particularly attention-grabbing.

Knight disputes the possibility that signage may have been the cause of the December fatality, noting officials did an in-depth review of the incident and found the road to be adequately marked.

“At the intersection where the driver entered the highway it is well signed,” he said. “The ministry reviewed the signage, but it is properly signed.”

“Why is it happening here as opposed to there? That’s the million dollar question,” said Oceanside RCMP Corporal Richard van de Pol.

“It could be partly because of demographics in the area, although it’s not always old people involved It could also partly be signage, although I think it’s pretty clear.”

Van de Pol noted Alberta highways have more prominent wrong way signs than those used in this province.

He also said a high number of British expats could possibly also play a small role.

“I don’t know if that would be an issue, but it could be,” he said. “If I was to go to England I might end up with that sort of problem when I’m used to driving on the right side of the road — literally.”

Knight stressed incidents of drivers going the wrong way are not confined to Oceanside.

“It’s not unique to Highway 19,” said Knight. “It doesn’t happen here more than elsewhere.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to find tragic instances from elsewhere. Three people were killed in Delta in February of last year when a minivan driving the wrong way slammed into another vehicle and in October a minivan north in the southbound lane on the Coquihalla Highway, killing two.

In 2007, a 61-year-old Fredericton woman found herself in the wrong lane and was unable to turn around before her vehicle crashed head-on with a car driven by a longtime family friend, killing him instantly.

Whatever the reasons, says ICBC road safety co-ordinator Caroline Robinson, the incidents of wrong-way driving stand as yet one more reason for drivers to keep their wits about them at all times.

“Don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “Even if you are from the area and know the roads, you still need to exercise caution and be aware of what’s going on around you.

“It’s easy to let your guard down and sometimes people let their attention wander and before they know it, they’re in a situation that could be a problem.”