The horrific crash between a tractor trailer and a bus carrying a Saskatchewan junior hockey team on April 6 that claimed 16 lives shook Canada to the core. The accident was mind-boggling on many levels: the insanely high death toll for an accident that took place on a rural road; the majority of those killed were young people; and the fact that it happened when the Humboldt Broncos were travelling to Nipawin to play in the semifinal series of hockey — the national sport — struck a chord in the hearts of many Canadians.
For me, the tragedy has a personal ring to it. For one year, I lived in a small town called Meadow Lake in northwest Saskatchewan, way before Meadow Lake became a city in 2009 when its population crossed the 5,000 mark. In small and closely-knit communities where everybody knows everybody, an accident of this nature is decimating, and the loss reverberates throughout the entire community.
My sojourn in Saskatchewan where the nearest Walmart is a two-hour drive away also gave me insight into the travails of driving on rural roads, which are beguiling and deadly all at once. Top on the list is falling asleep behind the wheel. Driving in cities means constant stimulation in the forms of road signs, weaving traffic, neon lights and wailing sirens. The need to stay vigilant and respond quickly to evolving traffic conditions also mean that adrenaline keeps drivers in a sustained, heightened state of alert, making it that much harder to nod off.
Rural roads, on the other hand, have unending plains that can have a soothing, lulling effect. Try driving through remote areas where cars are sparse and rolling hills remain unchanged for hours on end, and you will know what I mean. The eyelids start to feel heavy, the rate of breathing slows down and if measures are not taken to jolt one back into a full state of awakeness, torpor soon becomes slumber.
Fatigue aside, highway hypnosis — a state in which brain activity slows and does not register what the eye sees — can also set in with long drives. There is also the danger of wildlife crossing your path with little warning. Rural roads are often unlit, presenting the additional hazard of overdriving one’s headlights after the sun sets.
Driving during dusk is no walk in the park either, especially when your route requires you to travel in the direction of the sun. With little buildings or trees in rural areas, the sun’s glare can make it hard to see stop signs and what is in the road ahead. Vehicles in rural areas also tend to travel at higher rates of speed than on city roads where traffic is heavier.
During one of those endless drives, I often wondered what would happen if my car had landed in a ditch in a remote area? Assuming that I was not injured seriously and was able to reach out to my cellphone to call 911, getting reception, which is at best spotty in rural areas, is like playing Russian roulette. Investigators are still trying to figure out what caused the collision in Saskatchewan, but one thing is clear: rural driving may seem romantic, but they are decidedly deadlier than city roads.
As summer beckons and plans for road trips and cottage getaways are being mapped out, I would like to urge travelers to keep the dangers of driving on rural roads top of mind. Have a safe summer.