Before the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project was even complete, there were concerns raised about the lack of a concrete divider between lanes. Those concerns resurface every time there’s a head-on fatality on Highway 99, such as the accident that caused the death of two UBC students on Nov. 23.
The highway upgrades did create new four-lane sections with centre dividers, plus additional passing lanes, a wider centre line, centre and shoulder rumble strips, wider shoulders, new speed-controlled areas in residential areas, and other safety features. The highway was also straightened and levelled, improving sightlines and reducing the number of hairpin corners. As a result there’s no question that Highway 99 is safer than it’s ever been — except when it’s not.
There were good reasons given as to why the entire highway wasn’t divided. One was the cost, or what the province was willing to pay for the highway upgrade under the public-private partnership deal with the contractor. We were already spending billions of dollars at the time to ready the province for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and an economic meltdown was well underway by late 2007.
Another reason is terrain. The highway is hemmed in between rock faces and railway tracks, oceans and rivers, and some sections are simply too narrow to allow for a properly divided highway.
There were also other issues raised with the divider idea, like access for plows and emergency vehicles that sometimes need to move into the oncoming lane, and the question of what would happen if a lane was closed because of a stall, accident, falling rocks, maintenance or some other delay-causing event. Drivers would be stuck on one side of the barrier with no easy way to go around or turn back.
Both sides of the argument make good points, but safety should trump all other concerns.
People lost lives, and thousands were delayed for over 10 hours while emergency responders and investigators closed the highway. People want answers, or at least some assurance that this kind of thing isn’t going to happen again.
There are so many factors to consider in any accident: like speed, tire treads and knowledge of the road, but the main cause usually falls into the wide range of human errors and imperfections that are impossible to predict or completely eliminate — all the things a centre highway barrier would protect against.
If something can happen, then history shows that it probably will. We can’t bubble wrap the world and it’s impossible to make everything completely safe, but in this case we’re talking about a curvy section of a highway with significant blind spots, where even vehicles travelling the speed limit — 60km/h around some of those corners — could hit each other with the impact of a single vehicle driving 120km/h into a brick wall.
We can do better.
— Andrew Mitchell