Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Staggering road toll creates human wrecks

Reporter reflections: Our staff revisits stories from the past year

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I hate to admit this, but I don't have a perfect driving record.

The right side of my car's bumper has what I like to call cellulite, a patchwork of indents from run-ins (and back-ins) with poles, walls and my former neighbour's BMW. A few years ago, two of my low-speed mistakes -- one parking-lot collision and a roll through a pedestrian corridor -- landed me back in driving school for a weekend refresher.

We took turns introducing ourselves and explain what road rule(s) we broke to end up in class. Some stories terrified me and gave me a glimpse of what was happening on Winnipeg roads: One guy was busted driving close to 200 km/h on Pembina Highway; another man blew through so many red lights, he owed several thousand dollars he didn't feel he had to pay.

I've since worked enough night and weekend shifts to see what happens when driving turns deadly and the mangled wreck of metal and families collisions leave in their wake.

I was blown away this year when I investigated the cost of fender-benders and major crashes in Winnipeg. A staggering 261,875 claims were reported to MPI over a five-year period, which works out to about one crash on Winnipeg streets every 10 minutes. The financial, emotional and societal toll of these collisions is huge.

While some parts of Canada and Europe now operate with the mentality every crash is preventable and one road death is too many, there's been little public outcry about road safety here. It struck me as odd that we can be so cavalier about our driving habits, and yet so concerned about things such as homicides, which affect fewer people.

There's been much discussion about Winnipeg's 38 homicides this year.

There's been a lot less chatter about the 11 people killed on city streets in road crashes to date this year. More than 100 others have been killed on Manitoba highways, a new record. The lucky ones who survive serious crashes deal with struggles I suspect most people would have trouble imagining.

I sat in with a support group run by the Manitoba Brain Injury Association, where I met Marilyn, a 40-something victim of a crash that left her in a coma and wiped out much of her short-term memory. She wasn't speeding, drinking and driving or doing anything untoward at the time of the accident.

She was in the passenger seat, on her way to work. A typical drive on a typical day.

What happened after her door was T-boned by a driver on his cellphone was anything but ordinary. She nearly died and couldn't remember who she was or who her family was when she awoke from a medically induced coma. Years later, she is still trying to relearn and remember basics, such as how to cook pasta or turn the stove off afterwards.

I wasn't sure how long she would remember me, but I got my answer a few weeks later.

When the story ran in the paper, Marilyn called to say she had been inundated with messages from people who congratulated her for having the courage to share her story. Several minutes later, she suggested I write a story about brain injuries.

I think about Marilyn when I see someone in the car beside me talking on a cellphone or pulled over for speeding, or I see police tape blocking off a road after the latest bad crash.

One bad decision can literally change someone's life forever.

It's difficult to convince drivers these sad situations do happen and possibly even tougher to convince cash-strapped governments to put more money toward infrastructure, education and technology that can help prevent them.

Until that changes, I will keep telling my family and friends one simple thing: Drive safely.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2011 A8

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