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Thursday, 13 July 2017

Driving - A little rant

The QE II between Edmonton and Calgary on the weekend drives me nuts. People passing on the left, on the right, trucks swerving between lanes. I see red when an 18 wheeler flashes his high beams in my rear-view mirror while I’m
passing another car at 120 km/hr in the far-left lane. For those of you who may not remember, the speed limit for this stretch of road is 110 km/hr. What’s going on? How can the driving conditions in Canada be so much worse than Europe where speed limits are considerable higher and fatal vehicular accidents much lower? Here are some results of my investigation.

In the table, I’ve listed a number countries and road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants and road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. I’ve driven in all these countries except Sweden and Finland which I’ve included because they share similar driving conditions to Canada.

Road Fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per year
Road Fatalities per 100,000 vehicles.
North American Countries

United States

Central & South American Countries

Costa Rica
East European Countries

Bosnia & Herzegovina
Turkey (Not part of E.U.)
West European Countries

United Kingdom

You’ll notice that the numbers for Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica, are not much different from Canada when comparing road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants but when you change that to a comparison with fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, the numbers become frighteningly high.

For me, the most intimidating country for driving and the one I would most recommend against would be Mexico. In Mexico City, we were pulled over by the police who took my driver’s license and passport and, without giving me a ticket, demanded $100 U.S. for the return of my identification. Extortion in other words. Fortunately, we were able to scrounge enough Canadian and American currency to satisfy the “officers.” Then there’s the cartels that control certain Mexican states where the Canadian government doesn’t even recommend travel.

Cool Stuff in Mexico when you drive
But why the vehicular fatalities per 100,000 vehicles is so high I wouldn’t have predicted based on driving in the country. The toll highways were practically empty and the secondary highways are so inundated with random speed bumps that travelling at any speed is impossible or liable to catapult you off the road. Maybe that’s the source of the problem. Neither do I understand the high fatality rates in Panama and Costa Rica. Without GPS, both countries are difficult to navigate but as far as danger from other vehicles, I never felt any. Both their capital cities are dangerous but I’m not sure how that would reflect on vehicular fatalities.

The roads of Eastern European nations are not nearly as safe as those in the Western Europe. It would seem the further a country is from the West, the worse the driving conditions. Take Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example. Estonia is located just across the Gulf of Finland from Finland. Vehicular
fatalities for that country are not much different from Canada. However, Latvia
located just south of Estonia is a different matter. Passing into oncoming traffic is common practice there. A
 car or truck heading straight for us alarmed me the first few times it happened. Then I discovered it was common practice. The passing car remains in his/her lane. The approaching car moves toward the shoulder as does the car being passed. Out of a two lane road, you get three. The situation gets a little dicey when it involves a truck or two. I can't help but wonder if the stats don't reflect the stupidity of this custom.   

The Eastern European countries located in the south display equally dismal vehicular fatality statistics. We started our trip in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina driving a nine passenger van through rugged mountain terrain to Mostar. Fortunately, the beast I was driving had manual transmission that gave me greater control along the narrow twisty roads. We were pulled over by the police and I had a flashback to Mexico. Fortunately, the guy charged me with the minor infraction that involved only a small exchange of currency. From my reading, I understand the roads here can be very bad in the winter with no guardrails or reflectors along the edge of high steep cliffs. The poor quality of the country's drivers and their frequent high levels of intoxication compound the danger of driving these difficult roads. 

Camping in France 2001
Which brings me to one of the safest and, ironically, fastest countries to drive a car. In Germany, I averaged about 140 km/hr and felt considerably safer than I do travelling 115 on the QE II. When I checked the stats, I realized my feeling reflected a reality. How can this be? How can they travel faster and yet have their highways safer. I would suggest it has a lot to do with the compliance and enforcement of certain basic rules.

Rule #1: Pass only on the right (or left when driving in the U.K. or Ireland.) Once you’ve passed, get back in the centre or far left lane as fast as possible. If not, within seconds, you may find someone flashing their high beams in your rear-view mirror. Where the “bleap” did he come from? you wonder. In Germany, that car is usually a Porsche or Mercedes, cars that were built to travel at high speeds.

Back in the late 1990s, we drove through Montana when the speed was limited by the adverbs “reasonable and prudent.” Crazy huh? We’d be passed in our Dodge Caravan by junkers like ’74 Oldsmobiles or Ford Galaxies of equal vintage floating along on worn shocks and springs at more than 120 km/hr, the speed I was driving my 1996 dodgy Dodge Caravan.

Travel was fast when it wasn’t interrupted by spectacular, disturbing accidents that required road closures for hours at a time. We were delayed for an hour of more at least twice. Not surprisingly, the “reasonable and prudent” speed limit was overturned in 1999 and has since been replaced by an 80 mile per hour one. You can see how well that’s been doing for Montana with 22.6 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants which would put it on a par with Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan.  

Rule #2: Trucks and cars pulling trailers in Western Europe must stay in the far-right hand lane and cannot exceed the 55 mph speed limit. In fact, the governor on their trucks are set at 56 mph. Trucks have approximately twice the stopping distance of a car and are not nearly as maneuverable and so this rule seems reasonable. Yet in Alberta and Canada, trucks, cars and vehicles pulling trailers all obey the same speed limit. Crazy. I wondered how speed limits are monitored as I was driven to Brighton by my daughter's fiancé. "I haven't seen any police," I say to him to which he replies, "Photo-radar." Ah yes, the photo-radar, my greatest dread when speeding. And you'll notice that the U.K.s vehicular fatality rate is a mere 2.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. I believe they are used in other European countries such as France, Spain and Italy.

Rule #3: Mandatory inspections. In Germany, any car over three years of age must be tested for road worthiness every two years. Road worthy checks are required of all vehicles driving in the European Union. You’re not going to get the old junkers we saw in Montana still travelling the road. Think how much more comfortable you’d be if you knew all the cars on the road had been tested. It’s unlikely you’d see any held together by duck-tape like we’ve done with the moulding on the windshield of our Honda Odyssey. In Alberta, the only way our 2002 Odyssey is going to be checked would be if we had purchased it from another province. 

Rule #4 - Lower maximum driving times for truckers. The standard for the European Union is a maximum of 9 hours per day or 10 hours twice a week. Daily rest must be at least 11 hours with the exception of 9 hours, three times a week. Driving time cannot exceed 56 hours for one week. For two weeks, that driving time cannot exceed 90 hours. 
In Alberta, the maximum driving time for trucker is 13 hours after 8 hours off rest. No driving after 16 hours on a shift. 

So, let’s review. Rule 1 – pass only on the right. Rule 2 – trucks and cars pulling trailers must use the far-left lane and cannot exceed 90 km/hr. Rule 3 – mandatory vehicular inspections for vehicles especially the older ones (like our Honda Odyssey). Just think how much safer the roads would be. If you were travelling fast, you could be assured you wouldn’t have an 18-wheeler suddenly pull in front of you or some self-righteous S.O.B. thinking that no one should drive faster than him (almost always a him) and so he can drive in whatever lane he likes. If you change from the centre lane to the right-hand one for an upcoming exit, you don’t have to worry about getting hit by another vehicle going faster in that lane.

There'd be complaints by truckers and trailer pullers and people who own old junkers. But, wouldn’t it be worth it? 

Traffic fatalities are not a given. We don’t have to accept them. If we’re willing to invest in a little infrastructure and obey a few rules, we can save lives. In 1997, Swedish legislator adopted "Vision Zero Initiative" whereby "no loss of life is acceptable." It includes lights and speed bumps for all pedestrian walkways and 2+1 roads in rural areas where drivers take turns passing in the middle lane. If we were to adopt such an initiative and bring down the number of road fatalities to that of Sweden’s, we would save over 200 lives over year. Heck, if we if we even brought it down to Germany’s numbers with their drive at any speed autobahn, we’d save about 145 lives a year. 

The problem I see is do we have the will to make it happen. Let me know what you think.