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Opinion: Déjà vu on Highway 99

'We ignore institutional knowledge at our own peril.'
Serious accidents on Highway 99 can close the road for hours at a time.

It is said that the human body replaces one per cent of its cells daily, at the rate of about 330 billion new cells every day.

In 80 to 100 days, according to Scientific American, 30 trillion cells will have replenished—”the equivalent of a new you.”

And over the span of 50 years, every single cell in your body will replace itself (more or less—we’re simplifying things for the sake of metaphor here).

So… following that regenerative logic—are you still the same you when every cell has turned over? How much of the old you did you retain?

Do you remember the specific, hard-won lessons of the past, or the catastrophic mistakes that led to pain, injury or scarring?

You may structurally be a completely different person, but that’s not to say there’s nothing tying you to your past. You have memories, photos, friendships and family relations rooting you to your identity, even as you biologically evolve into something else entirely; maybe you’re a diligent notetaker, or a documentarian, and you remember everything about your past self and who you once were.

Or maybe your memory is mashed potatoes and you never bothered to write anything down, condemning each new iteration of you to a lifetime of careless mistakes repeated ad infinitum.

We all come from a different angle, and take a different approach to problem-solving.

And as it goes in human biology, so it goes in our public institutions—culture mirroring nature in a sublime, inadvertent example of universal synergy.

It’s a fitting metaphor, and one that surfaced in a somewhat roundabout way, as discussions kicked up in recent weeks about accidents on Highway 99.

Three different motorcycle accidents in the span of a week stirred an old debate we haven’t had in some time.

First, someone suggested we make the highway safer.

We’ve had that discussion before, I recalled, and more than once in fact; the last time I wrote about it in 2017 or so, MLA Jordan Sturdy noted the cost to divide the entire highway would be vastly prohibitive, and possibly a total fool’s errand with self-driving cars on the horizon—but incremental improvements were possible (and have been implemented since).

Then there was the predictable questions about why the highway needs to be closed so long in the first place—and the crass, insensitive suggestions from some that car wrecks and their victims should simply be bulldozed to the side so they don’t miss their lunch date in Whistler or their flight out of YVR.

And finally, a totally-brand-new discussion about how we can reduce the time of highway closures after accidents.

But absolutely none of this is new territory. Whistler has poured ample resources into this exact issue—so why start the discussion from the ground floor?

A study conducted in 2017 found that, from 2011 to 2016, the Sea to Sky highway had 699 hours of unplanned road closures, or 140 hours per year, 10 per cent of which were full road closures.

The study identified trouble spots that resulted in longer-duration closures (between Lions Bay and Brunswick Beach; in the vicinity of Porteau Cove; in the vicinity of Britannia Beach; and north of Garibaldi at the south end of Daisy Lake).

It found the average length of closure was 1.7 hours, and offered recommendations to keep the length of closures to a minimum: establish performance measures similar to other jurisdictions, i.e. at least one lane open within 90 minutes; locate specialized services on the North Shore or the Sea to Sky corridor; and focus highway patrols on those areas that have a higher frequency of long, unplanned road closures.

That report was tabled in June 2017, and in November of that year, the RCMP launched a pilot project aimed at reducing the length of closures.

Under the test initiative, police said they planned to fly a traffic reconstructionist via helicopter from the Lower Mainland on a case-by-case basis following major accidents on the Sea to Sky Highway.

ICARS investigators typically have to drive to the scene from the Vancouver area.

And what became of said pilot project? Well… the trail just kinda goes cold from there. There are no news stories on the topic beyond the 2017 Pique article announcing the pilot.

Pique reached out to the Resort Municipality of Whistler to see if it had an update on the 2017 work—and got no response.

Likewise, the RCMP also could not provide an update on the pilot project before deadline.

And so we arrive at long last at the payoff of our human body metaphor: We ignore institutional knowledge at our own peril.

I was the only one left at Pique who remembered the 2017 study. By my count, we’ve been through three RCMP officers in charge, multiple RCMP and RMOW communications staffers, a new municipal CAO, and an entire council cycle since that work was done—reducing the length of highway closures was originally a project of Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

This is just an example of one I happened to be around for; remembered at the right time—think of how much work we’ve lost to the annals of history; good, foundational efforts we could build from, but instead are starting from scratch because it existed fundamentally in one or two people’s minds.

And then time just does its thing. People retire; move away, taking their institutional knowledge with them. Workforces—at municipal hall, behind the council table, and at the local newspaper—turn over, one employee at a time, until eventually the sum of the parts is something else entirely.

Thirty trillion cells replenishing themselves one at a time.

It goes to show how important it is to plan for succession, and document our communities in things like local newspapers—along with the immense social benefit, there is a clear financial case to be made for maintaining a strong, well-documented, collective memory.

So yes—we need solutions for Highway 99, because the volume of traffic will only increase, and the number of accidents (and related closures) with it.

But as we look for solutions, let’s not discount the good work done by those who came before us. Hopefully they took good notes.