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Car crashes mean death, misery and expense -- all avoidable

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They can happen as you back out of your driveway, stop at a red light or turn onto a busy street in morning rush-hour traffic.

Car crashes can occur anytime, anywhere, to anyone, and records released through a freedom of information request reveal they are so common, an average of 143 are reported to Manitoba Public Insurance on any given day in Winnipeg -- about one collision every 10 minutes.

A staggering 261,875 claims were reported in Winnipeg between 2005 and 2009, the latest available MPI data. That's an average of 52,375 crashes every year.

These are not all major incidents, and claimants did not identify the crash location in about half of all collision reports.

MPI says the collisions range from fender-benders in back lanes and parking lots to cars that bump into trees or poles or get smashed up after run-ins with potholes. The numbers also include single-vehicle rollovers and multiple car pileups.

Police respond to a fraction of these -- about 12,000 every year -- typically, the ones that tie up traffic or cause injuries.

While the bulk of reported collisions are relatively minor, the most recent police data show 2,690 people were injured in automobile crashes in 2009 and 13 people died. MPI anticipates as many as five dozen crash victims will sustain life-altering brain injuries from the impact each year, and another 10 people will be para- or quadriplegic.

The real rub is these crashes are largely preventable and take a staggering emotional toll on victims and financial toll on society.

MPI does not calculate the total direct and indirect costs of road accidents, which include everything from hospitalization and insurance rates to police and paramedics. However, estimates out of Edmonton peg the annual cost of road crashes in that city at $500 million.

While the total number of road accidents has remained relatively stable in the past few years, critics say Winnipeg still lags behind other cities when it comes to making roads safer and needs to explore what more it can do to ensure motorists are not on a collision course.

"Many, many other cities in Canada and in the U.S. are far, far ahead of us in terms of the progress they've made. They're making it a more hospitable environment for cars and bikes and pedestrians," said CAA Manitoba spokeswoman Liz Peters.

"I think we've got a long way to go."

Winnipeg is unique among cities of its size as it does not have freeways and relies on major roads such as Kenaston and Lagimodiere to funnel traffic to other regional streets. City road engineers say they use traffic signals to control the flow of vehicles on every major road, and there are 620 intersections and 157 pedestrian corridors across the city.

Intersections are conflict points and, by design, increase the risk motorists will collide with another vehicle or a pedestrian.

That's because they are the point at which drivers have to decide whether to stop, go or turn. Road-safety experts say there are 32 points of potential conflict at an intersection, compared to about eight for a roundabout.

"Every time you have to stop, you increase the risk of a crash because the person behind you may not feel it's appropriate to stop and they keep going," said Toronto-based traffic engineering consultant Alison Smiley, president of Human Factors North.

In Winnipeg, intersections with the highest traffic volumes -- including Kenaston and McGillivray boulevards and Leila Avenue and McPhillips Street -- have recorded the most crashes.

Kenaston and McGillivray see upwards of 45,000 vehicles on a daily basis, which is only expected to increase with more cars on the road, new housing and big-box developments such as Waverley West and Ikea.

Between 2005 and 2009, three people died and 1,500 injuries were reported at the 10 intersections that recorded the largest number of crashes. Fridays were the worst days, recording 1,233 collisions in total, and the afternoon rush-hour is the worst time period for crashes, with 2,020 reported in a five-year span.

Snowy, blustery winter days recorded the highest number of crashes, and January was the month that recorded the most car accidents.

"It's astronomical," Winnipeg police Patrol Sgt. Damien Turner said. "It's a huge, huge drain on resources."

The data MPI collects paint a clear picture that crashes happen every day, everywhere. Yet the statistics do not say much about what causes them or why some intersections are more accident-prone than others.

Cities such as Edmonton have devoted traffic analysts and statisticians to interpret crash data.

Edmonton has used the information to move toward more evidence-based policing on things such as speeding, and to measure the outcome of programs targeted at nabbing drunk drivers.

MPI officials record the date, time and location, if reported, of all crash-related claims. Police collect similar information and inform the city's public works department, which keeps tabs on intersections of concern that may need engineering improvements.

In general, the usual suspects -- speed, alcohol, driver distraction and road conditions -- play a big role.

MPI does not track how many crashes are caused by speed, but the public insurer says it and distracted driving account for a large number of collisions.

About one-third of all collisions reported every year are rear-enders. Another 15 per cent are T-bone crashes at intersections, which are considered the most serious since they tend to cause more severe injuries.

Though drinking and driving remains a huge problem, MPI CEO Marilyn McLaren said it causes fewer crashes than speeding and inattention. However, she said, drinking and driving is more likely to cause catastrophic injury and death and tends to have a larger "impact" in terms of the severity of the crash.

"We can say that speed is certainly a factor, and I think distracted driving is another big category, for sure," McLaren said.

The good news, McLaren said, is the percentage of injuries has dropped and the total number of yearly crashes has remained relatively stable despite a spike in the number of newly licensed drivers. That's in part due to better vehicle design and construction, she said, since things such as airbags and passenger-side airbags can help prevent more serious injury.

The same trend is seen across parts of the globe, where a focus on safe driving and better road design and construction has helped reduce the number of fatalities in the last half-century. In Canada, the number of fatalities due to car accidents has dropped 60 per cent in the last 40 years.

The bad news is, there is still a lot of work to do.

Transport Canada statistics show one person dies every four hours or is admitted to hospital every 90 minutes as a result of a traffic collision somewhere in the country. The human and financial toll is huge, and MPI pays out $2,300 for every non-fatal claim and about $90,000 for every traffic-related death.

Gerry Shimko, director of Edmonton's office of traffic safety, said people would not tolerate 20 airplanes crashing in Canada every year, but road accidents kill roughly the same number of people. He said governments need to better integrate their road-safety systems to reduce costs and save lives.

"I think there's an opportunity to turn the other way. It's not easy," McLaren said. "Most crashes are absolute accidents, but it also fundamentally means somebody could've done something to avoid it."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Winnipeg collisions

This map shows the location of the 150 intersections that recorded the highest volume of collisions between 2005 and 2009, as reported to Manitoba Public Insurance. The Free Press obtained the claims data through a Freedom of Information request.


View Larger Map

 

Click on any dot to see the number of crashes at that intersection. Use the scale at left to zoom in or out on the map, and click-and-drag to move around. 

Legend:

Small dot: Less than 300 crashes
Medium dot: 300 - 700 crashes
Large dot: More than 700 crashes

Source data: MPI

Map by Wendy Sawatzky

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2011 A1

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