Twin Highway 63 - Because You Can't Cure Stupid

09/11/2012 01:53 EDT | Updated 11/11/2012 05:12 EST

There is a great deal of debate in this province over a little northern highway. This highway has become infamous in recent months, a subject of media focus and government attention. The highway, of course, is Highway 63, the route that links Fort McMurray with the rest of the world.

On April 27, 2012, a horrific crash on that highway took 7 lives, including two children. That accident caused a firestorm within the region, and demands that the provincial government finally meet the promises they had made and make progress on twinning the highway. Twinning would virtually eliminate the head-on collisions that tend to result in fatalities, and it would relieve some of the stress of wide loads, loads that can take up all lanes, force traffic to a virtual standstill, and oncoming traffic onto the shoulder. And yet both within and outside the region the debate continues as to whether or not the highway needs to be twinned at all. People will point to accident statistics showing that the rates are not high enough to merit twinning, or that traffic volume simply isn't high enough to warrant the investment of that kind of money. They will point instead to the liability of drivers, pointing out that these accidents are usually caused by unsafe driving or speeding or alcohol. And they are not wrong. In fact, fundamentally most highway accidents are preventable if we address poor or negligent driving habits - and yet we continue to twin highways like Highway 2 and others. Why? Because the reality, as a friend pointed out to me, is you can't cure stupid.

As a species we are remarkably clever at offing ourselves in the most ridiculous ways. One only has to read the book series "The Darwin Awards" to see that very clearly. If there is an asinine way to kill ourselves or others we will likely do it, not by intent but by mistake. We like to think we are reasonably intelligent and yet somehow every year people kill themselves by dropping a blow dryer into the bathtub, or changing a light fixture after forgetting to cut the power, or deciding to pass on double solids and into oncoming traffic. We are prone to bad judgement and serious lapses in common sense. It's one of our traits as humans, I think, and so we do things to protect ourselves.

We do things like place warning labels on hair dryers to remind us to not use them in bathtubs, and we launch advertising campaigns to advise us to be wary of electricity, and we twin highways because people will pass on double solids and straight into the path of a semi-truck. And it's not because we have a death wish, as most of us rather like continuing to exist. It's just that we aren't always that clever.

And that is why we need to twin Highway 63. You can talk about bad driving and negligence and speeding all you like and about how if we just address all those things the problem would end - but the reality is you cannot completely change human behaviour. While some people may change there will always be someone who chooses to drive 200 km per hour instead of 100, or pass a dozen vehicles and play chicken with oncoming traffic. And so just like warning labels and advertising campaigns we must spend the money to protect ourselves and others from those who will continue to exhibit poor judgement.

There are many other very good reasons to twin Highway 63 - an expected growth that will likely see our regional population more than double by 2030, a rapidly expanding oil sands industry, and the accompanying increased volume of traffic. There are reasons like the kind of traffic we see on the highway, wide loads unlike those seen anywhere else in the country, and like the fact that this little region in the north is driving the provincial (and, if are honest, national) economy and needs a highway that is safe enough for us to continue being that economic engine. But one of the main factors is the same reason we twin highways anywhere - to stop people from dying when they exhibit poor judgement and a lack of common sense. Because in the end, as my friend says, you can't cure stupid - so instead we need to protect ourselves against it.