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An accident waiting to happen

Nearly half of all highway fatalities include one preventable cause -- an unbuckled occupant

An RCMP officer records the scene where three vehicles collided with a semi trailer on the Perimeter Highway near Budd Road Friday morning.

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An RCMP officer records the scene where three vehicles collided with a semi trailer on the Perimeter Highway near Budd Road Friday morning. (WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

'It’s a mentality they have in rural areas, that bad things can’t happen to them,' says CAA spokeswoman Liz Peters. 'But they can.'

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'It’s a mentality they have in rural areas, that bad things can’t happen to them,' says CAA spokeswoman Liz Peters. 'But they can.' (POSTMEDIA ED KAISER)

At the approach of every long weekend, a part of Cpl. Bob Dowd cringes just a little.

This Thanksgiving won't be any different. While hundreds of thousands of other Manitobans have their minds on turkey and football, Dowd will be working backup to the on-call officer in his RCMP Selkirk detachment. On a bad weekend there will be five or six calls, a few often fatal. With long weekends -- especially in this year of spiking motor vehicle deaths on Manitoba highways -- it's almost become an unfortunate routine.

The only difference: Far more people are on the roads and they're stressed to get to their destination.

"Everybody's going somewhere," Dowd said. "Everybody's in a hurry. And everybody's thinking of something else. So you hunker down and wait for the worst to start. And wait for the calls to come in."

There have been 79 deaths resulting from vehicle collisions so far in 2013 in RCMP jurisdictions, similar to 2012 (77), but higher than the five-year average (69). And it's only October. So if the summer of 2013 has seemed more deadly on the highways, that's because it has been.

"It makes your jaw drop," said CAA spokeswoman Liz Peters, "when you pick up the paper and see two more people have died for whatever reason."

Experts will tell you such spikes cannot be readily explained, although the major culprits remain constant: Alcohol, speed and lack of seatbelt use -- the latter a deadly disparity between rural and urban drivers.

While hard data is difficult to accrue -- seatbelt use in driver's surveys can't be trusted -- most industry experts (RCMP, WPS, MPI, CAA) acknowledge rural drivers are generally less likely to buckle up. Meanwhile, the vast majority of fatalities occur outside city limits.

"In their mind, they're not travelling very far," said Manitoba Public Insurance spokesman Brian Smiley, of rural drivers who don't use seatbelts. "And they're familiar with their surroundings."

Another reason more rural drivers don't buckle up? The short answer, said Dowd: "They think they're less likely to get caught."

A sense of complacency, however, is habit forming, meaning when rural drivers venture outside the confines of their community they still don't put on their belts -- while travelling at higher speeds than within city limits. The result: On average, 40 per cent of people killed in traffic collisions in rural Manitoba are not wearing a seatbelt or helmet, according to RCMP figures, representing about 35 people every year.

In Saskatchewan, where the rural population is even larger, there have already been 100 fatalities reported between Jan. 1 and Oct. 8. The five-year average is almost 140, with more than 40 per cent of victims -- identical to Manitoba -- not wearing seatbelts.

South of the border in North Dakota -- where the state population is smaller than Manitoba's but still rural based, the story is worse. There were 170 road fatalities in 2012, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Of those fatalities, 67 per cent were not wearing seatbelts.

"It's a mentality they have in rural areas, that bad things can't happen to them," Peters said. "But they can."

"All the airbag is doing is slowing them down when they're going through the windshield, unfortunately," Smiley added, bluntly.

That might sound graphic, but Dowd, a 25-year veteran who now works reconstruction on collision sites, sees the grisly results of traffic fatalities up close every week. These aren't just numbers to him. Said Dowd: "I've carried enough dead children to last forever."

For those in the collision-prevention business, the peak in deaths is a disturbing trend.

"We're definitely seeing increases," Smiley said. "There's drivers who will continue to drive impaired, there's drivers who will continue to speed and there's drivers who continue to text. And some will do all three at the same time. That's right, you'll have a drunken, speeding, texting driver. It's literally a four-wheel collision waiting to happen."

The introduction of electronic devices, and drivers who continue to use them behind the wheel, will only contribute to the fatality totals, said Dowd, noting, "It's almost like we're creating more and more ways to be distracted."

Just as the recent spike in collisions can't be immediately explained -- sometimes the difference between life and death is blind, random luck -- neither can this: The number of deaths from vehicle collisions within city limits so this year is eight. In 2012, there were 15 fatalities, 13 in 2011 and 19 in 2010.

"I'd like to see that trend continue," said Winnipeg police Sgt. Rob Riffel, commander of the central traffic unit. "It could be a blip, who knows? But it's encouraging to say the least."

Things are not so encouraging outside the Perimeter Highway, however.

"We do know people are dying on Manitoba roadways because of the choices that are being made," said RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel. "That's a fact. (The deaths) are preventable."

Dowd agreed. After all, there's every chance he'll be called to a crash site this weekend. Maybe it will be a family heading for Thanksgiving supper. Or a driver who had too many. Some will be wearing seatbelts, some won't.

Some will walk away without a scratch. Some won't.

Dowd will arrive at the scene, survey the human damage, and begin taking notes. Before he's finished, he will almost undoubtedly identify the one fatal decision that inevitably led to a completely avoidable tragedy.

"This is so preventable," he said. "Every crash I say, 'What a waste.' "

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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