Deaths prompt police, insurers to target N.L.'s 'insane' driving culture
Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, September 28, 2017 10:49AM EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Tom Hickey says he feels safer on the roads almost anywhere else in North America -- Toronto, New York, L.A.
"It's insane," said Hickey, president of Wedgwood Insurance, one of Newfoundland and Labrador's major providers. "And it's not just the speeds at which people drive. It's the aggression and the way they drive."
Nineteen people have died in 12 crashes in the province since Aug. 1, including a 65-year-old man killed Wednesday in a single-vehicle accident on the Trans-Canada Highway southwest of St. John's.
Despite that deadly toll, officers say they still clocked drivers racing up to 173 kilometres an hour during a blitz last weekend.
"You go to a city like Toronto and people merge, traffic flows," Hickey said in an interview. "But here, if you're trying to merge in, the person in the lane is like, no, you're not getting ahead of me. I'm not going to let you in.
"I feel safer in California. I feel safer in New York. I feel safer in Ontario."
Social media updates from traffic officers tracking multiple drivers hitting over 140 kilometres an hour prompted Hickey to send a blunt notice this week to clients across the province.
"While there are many factors that influence accidents, there is one that we see that comes up over and over," it said. "Speed kills. So here is our message to you drivers doing 144 km/h: We don't want your business."
The note goes on to say: "We'll do everything within the rules to see that you end up in Facility Association where the worst drivers belong at the highest prices. Maybe that will slow you down. Why? Because we want to protect our good clients from you."
Hickey has been "bombarded" with calls and messages of thanks since he spoke out, he said.
"I'm sort of shocked at the reaction it has got but obviously there's an undercurrent here of frustration at what's going on on our highways."
RCMP Cpl. Oliver Whiffen has been a crash reconstructionist for 11 years. The past two months have been especially horrendous, he said in an interview.
Four people died in one accident, and two other crashes killed three people each. They are under investigation.
So far in 2017, 26 people have died in 19 incidents, compared to 30 deaths in 21 incidents at the same time last year, Whiffen said.
"So even though we've had a large number of incidents lately, we're still below our numbers for last year."
That's not to minimize those tragedies or downplay the seriousness of reckless driving habits that contribute to an average over the last six years of 28 incidents and 30 to 32 deaths a year, Whiffen said.
"I've seen people reading the paper" behind the wheel, he said. "What people fail to realize is driving is probably one of the most dangerous things you'll ever do.
"You're hurtling down the road in vehicles that are 3,000 and 4,000 pounds. When you pass another vehicle, you're no more than two feet from them."
Control is lost "in a heartbeat," he said. "Driving is a task that requires total concentration."
Still, officers continue to see the four big killers on the roads, said Sgt. Paul Didham of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. They are: impaired driving, not wearing seatbelts, distracted and aggressive driving, and speeding.
"I see it every day myself," Didham said in an interview. The constabulary works with the RCMP to enforce traffic laws in different parts of the province. Collisions in its jurisdiction are down to 5,200 last year from almost 6,300 in 2013.
"It's still a lot," for a population of about 240,000 on the northeast Avalon Peninsula plus the city of Corner Brook and the Labrador West region, Didham said.
Drivers here are paying for it through escalating insurance rates that are the highest by far in Atlantic Canada, and among the most expensive in the country.
The average yearly premium for vehicle insurance on the island of Newfoundland in July 2016 was $1,117. That compares to $813 in Nova Scotia, and $775 in both New Brunswick and P.E.I., said Tom O'Handley, Atlantic region manager of government relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
Premiums recently went up again.
"Newfoundland does have a higher frequency of claims as well as the cost per claim is much higher," O'Handley said in an interview.
The province's Public Utilities Board is now reviewing automobile insurance in the province, including a study of resolved claims. It continues as police say they're stepping up patrols to target aggressive, dangerous and distracted drivers.
Speeding to save a few minutes isn't worth it, Didham stressed.
"I can speak to hundreds of situations whereby people have had life-altering injuries as a result of these preventable collisions," he said. "Slow down. The drive is part of the adventure -- getting there."