Sea to Sky Highway safety crucial part of Whistler's success 

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Everyone in Sea to Sky country likely paused in their day Saturday when they learned that Highway 99 had taken two more lives.

Many likely checked in with loved ones travelling that day to or from the resort, perhaps holding their breath a little longer than normal until their calls were answered.

In learning about the tragedy we all thought that it could happen to any of us — or to those we know and care about.

At this time there is no obvious explanation as to why four girls driving in their Jeep Cherokee crossed the centre line of the highway a few kilometres north of Lions Bay as they made their way to ski on Whistler. Their vehicle struck a southbound Silverado pick-up truck and the devastating impact killed the Jeep's driver and the friend sitting behind her. The other two young women were injured as well, though not critically. The pick-up driver walked away.

Maybe it was black ice on that chilly clear morning around 7:30 a.m.? Maybe they were in a hurry to get to the resort? Maybe they were unfamiliar with the road and this curvy portion snuck up on the driver with a tragic result?

Whatever the reason, the accident has sent ripples through our community, through the Sea to Sky corridor, through the families of those touched by the accident and through all levels of government.

In the cold light of the day, as the investigation into the accident continues there are hard questions being asked. Why are there no concrete lane dividers on this section of the highway? Why must the highway have stayed closed for 10 hours?

We learned this week that Lions Bay Mayor Brenda Broughton drew attention to these very curves when the engineering was being done for the $600 million upgrade to the highway for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. She wanted dividers then and she still wants them today.

The Ministry of Transportation said the stretch of road near Logger's Creek was widened and the alignment of the curves improved as part of the upgrade. Other improvements included construction of 80 km of new passing lanes, 36 km of new median barrier, shoulder widening, realignment to provide better sightlines, enhanced pavement markings with rumble strips, and other measures to reduce hazards, shorten travel times and enhance traffic flow.

In an email to Pique, a spokesman said the ministry would be working with the agencies investigating the accident to see if more safety improvements need to be made to the road.

Not to be indelicate, and not to take away from the important role the highway plays in the lives of those who live up and down it, but it does also bring travellers to Whistler — travellers that contribute $1.1 million in tax revenues every day.

Providing a safe highway is a crucial part of the Whistler puzzle both in the summer and the winter.

Too often over the years the highway has been closed for hours due to winter accidents, some of which were likely caused by drivers heading out without snow tires, or even visitors arriving at our airports, renting cars that are not mandated to come with snow tires and setting out to drive an unfamiliar mountain road to a ski resort they don't know.

Each time this happens, officials say steps are being taken to reduce the impact for the next time.

Statistics from the Ministry of Transportation from 2001 to last year tell an interesting story. In 2001, there were three crashes with fatalities and 100 crashes that resulted in injuries, 2002 saw four fatal crashes and 89 crashes with injuries, 2003 saw one fatal crash and 93 crashes with injuries, 2004 saw five fatal crashes (it should be noted that in this year 14 people died in these crashes) and 86 crashes with injuries, 2005 saw six fatal crashes and 89 crashes with injuries, 2007 saw no deaths and 91 crashes with injuries, 2008 saw two fatal crashes and 62 crashes with injuries, 2009 saw two fatal crashes and 58 crashes with injuries, 2010 saw one fatal crash and 64 crashes with injuries, 2011 saw two fatal crashes and 57 crashes with injuries, and in 2012 there were four fatal crashes and 67 accidents with injuries.

Between 1998 and 2007 an average of 6.3 people died on the highway per year.

There is little doubt that the highway is much safer, though the same can't be said for the drivers who use it.

And that being said there is only one option for corners such as the one that took the lives of these young women and cut the corridor in two for close to half a day — put in centre-line barriers.


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