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Trying to Tame Canada's Highway of Death

Wide loads, dangerous weather, and crazy drivers — the deathly trio of Alberta's Highway 63

by Morgan Modjeski
Feb 6 2013, 6:06pm

A shot from a fatal accident on Highway 63 last September.

Dubbed the Highway of Death by media and those who drive it, Highway 63 is the only major highway connecting Alberta’s oil sands to the rest of the province. The highway has become known for its many fatalities, wide-loads, and poor weather conditions, but now the Province of Alberta is going to spend roughly $2.1 billion trying to take the dying out of Canada’s “Death Highway.” 

From 2002 until 2010 a total of 66 people have died driving Highway 63, leading many drivers to opt for the neighboring Highway 881, a small strip of road that was gravel until 2006. Just over two weeks ago, a pickup truck slammed into a tractor-trailer. One person was killed.

For the majority of its 443-kilometre stretch, Highway 63 is a single-lane highway. It is heavily used by the oil sands industry to transport massive amounts of equipment, goods, and even entire houses — all in effort to quench the world’s incredible thirst for fossil fuels. Although Highway 63 has a lower than average collision rate for Alberta highways with similar traffic volume, there are a number of contributing factors to the highway’s dangerous conditions.

According to a 2009 fact sheet from the Oil Sands Developers Group, Highway 63 carries some of the heaviest and largest loads ever transported on Canada’s highways, as well as the highest tonnage per kilometre in Canada. The type of traffic you will find on Highway 63 would be hard to find anywhere else in the country. In Alberta, the legal width of a vehicle is 2.6 metres — roughly 8 feet and 6 inches — and any vehicle wider requires a permit to legally travel. According to a recent report on Highway 63, the Alberta government issued 13,928 single-trip permits between May 2011 and May 2012, with the same report indicating this number will increase over the next several years.

In addition to industry transport, Highway 63 also serves the entire population of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) — with the majority of individuals residing in Fort McMurray, the RMWB’s urban service area. According to recent census numbers, 72,944 residents live in Fort McMurray, 4,192 residents live in rural communities, and 39,271 live in work camps — a population largely made up of individuals coming from other parts of Canada to get their share of Alberta’s oil money. These oil sands workers often come to work in Fort McMurray for short stints, usually 14 days of 12-hour shifts, and then head back to Edmonton, Calgary, and other Canadian cities — many of them using Highway 63 to return home afterwards.  

An extensive database compiled by the Edmonton Journal regarding fatalities on the highway from 1990 to 2012 indicates: 28 per cent of the fatal accidents occurring on Highway 63 were a car vs. car collisions; the second highest number of fatal collisions, at 24 per cent, were listed as car vs. semi; and 17 per cent of fatal collisions were listed as single vehicle. The remaining 31 per cent were listed as various collisions, involving wildlife, pedestrians, commercial vehicles, and others.

One of the most horrific accidents to occur on Highway 63 in recent memory was when seven people, including two children, were killed on April 27, 2012. The CBC reported six of the people died at the time of the crash, with one dying later in the hospital.

For many of Fort McMurray’s residents, these deaths were the breaking point. No longer could they stand by and watch another life be cut short. This was the case for Ashley St. Croix, a six-year resident of Fort McMurray and organizer of “Twin 63 Now,” a group calling on the provincial government to accelerate the twinning of Highway 63.

“I was going into the office at the end of the day and lots of people were talking about this big accident on Highway 63, and it’s something we commonly hear up here, but this one was a little bit more tragic. It involved some families and there were two vehicles. As far as I knew at the time, because there hadn’t been a whole lot of information released, there were quite a few fatalities,” said St. Croix, whose family was supposed to be traveling the highway on the same day at the roughly the same time.

“They were on their way back up from Edmonton and I tried to reach them, but all four of their phones were going directly to voicemail or they were ringing with no answer, so for me, my heart dropped. You think the worst,” said St. Croix.

She explained that after an hour of trying to track down family she found out they too had heard of the accident and decided to stay the night in Edmonton. Even though it wasn’t her family involved, St. Croix said she was still impacted by the deaths.  

Very dire protest messaging.

“It just kind of struck home,” said St. Croix. “This time we were very lucky that it wasn’t our direct family, but there are still community members that are continuously dying on this highway, so that launched the Facebook page,” explaining a friend had challenged her to take action.

She continued, “I had no idea what it was going to spiral into, but I woke up Saturday morning and there was over 1,000 people on the Facebook page [there are now almost 17,000 members in a Facebook group calling for the twinning of the Highway], talking about it, wanting to do something, and initially it was very heated and very angry.”

St. Croix said the emotion on the Facebook page was running high, with some people even suggesting a shut down of Highway 63. But after realizing a shut down would only hurt residents, a peaceful protest to honor those who had died on the highway was held instead.

“That’s where it all started, the Twitter account came from there, the website came from there, and the protest that happened on May 6 (2012) all spiraled from that one day — that final straw,” she said.

In addition to being known as the Highway of Death, Highway 63 is also referred to as Fort McMurray’s gateway to Alberta. Although the media has favored the grisly nickname, the latter is more common for those who live in Fort McMurray and the RMWB.

A recent closure of Highway 63 due to extreme weather conditions demonstrated how the area would be impacted without the highway. People in Fort McMurray took to social media with concerns and complaints about possible fuel and food shortages, while others commended the government on the closure.

Melissa Blake, the mayor of the RMWB, knows the importance of Highway 63 better than most. Blake has served as an elected official since 1998, and has been serving as mayor since 2001.

She explained that the issues and the controversy surrounding Highway 63 is something at the forefront of her constituents’ mind, as almost every resident of the RMWB has traveled the highway at one point in time or another.

“It is a topic of high priority,” said Blake. “When we think about the communications that we have with each other, if we suggest that we’re going to Edmonton for the weekend the inevitable first words are ‘drive safely,’ and there’s an increasing awareness just based on the amount of publicity that the road is actually getting.”

There have always been dangerous factors on Highway 63, even when Blake moved to Fort McMurray in 1982 as a kid. But one dramatic change is the volume and type of traffic the highway carries. 

“Thirty years back when I first arrived it was the pretty much the same types of hazards without the volume,” she said. “If you think about the weather conditions that are prevalent in the north, in the winter months in particular, if you look at the wildlife that habitates the boreal forest, they’ve always been part of the mix of safe driving behaviors, but when you add the volume that we’re now seeing on the road, it’s exacerbated by how many more people are using it and how careful or conscientiously they’re behaving.”

Blake went on to explain that those calling on the provincial government to twin 63 reside in the regional municipality and beyond, as a number of people who drive the highway have families across the country — and sometimes a death on the 63 can impact people hundreds of kilometres away.

“I think there’s a discourse between who’s using the road and why they’re using it. When you figure out that the people involved in a fatality are actually community members, your heart goes out just a little bit more and this is because you’re more likely to have known them, versus once it happens with an unfortunate worker who’s coming from another part,” said Blake.

“But the second part of that is because they’re somebody coming here for work purposes, their family has every right to expect them home safely, wherever home may be. So the rallying cry for the necessity of accelerated twinning on this road was not generated exclusively by the north — it was a call from the nation saying ‘make this road safe.’”

More from Morgan Modjeski:

Taking the Pulse of Winnipeg: Canada's Murder Capital

Fort McMurray
Vice Blog
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morgan modjeski