Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Super-speeders in the crosshairs of Mounties who patrol Manitoba's highways
Rise in high-risk drivers frustrates officers
It's dark and muggy when Cpl. Mark Hume gets out of his cruiser, wades through a haze of bugs swarming around his headlights and approaches the white Corvette.
It's a short walk he's made thousands of times along the side of Manitoba's highways. The flashy car was clocked at an eye-popping 136 kilometres per hour and is full of young people heading down the Trans-Canada Highway late on a Friday night. Hume is a little wary as the driver rolls down his window.
It turns out, the 23-year-old Chinese driver doesn't speak much English, which stymies Hume's well-practised spiel. The driver's friend translates as Hume checks for signs of alcohol, spots a passenger in the cramped backseat without a seatbelt and starts the paperwork for a couple of tickets that total nearly $850.
Nowadays, doling out a speeding ticket for $550, such as the one earned by the Corvette driver, is a routine occurrence. Super-speeders, those clocked at more than 30 kilometres per hour over the limit, seem to be on the rise, a trend that baffles and frustrates the team of RCMP officers who patrol Manitoba highways.
When Hume, head of traffic services in western Manitoba and commander of the provincial criminal crash investigation team, recently combed through a batch of tickets issued in the Virden area, about one-third involved cars going 30 km/h over the limit. In one week in May, Hume's officers nabbed six speeders going 50 km/h over the limit, including an 18-year-old woman from Melville, Sask., who was fined nearly 1,000 for speeding near Carberry.
Hume said RCMP officers are catching someone driving faster than 150 km/h every couple of weeks. Earlier in his career in traffic enforcement, he used to see maybe a half-dozen of those super-speeders a year.
"There's that oblivious attitude, that 'it's never going to happen to me,' " said Hume of the roughly 90 fatal highway crashes each year. "The average citizen is not in danger of being murdered, but all of us, all our families, have the chance of being hurt or killed in a collision."
Data from Manitoba Public Insurance show nearly 6,000 people were injured in highway crashes during a five-year period ending in 2012. Highway deaths far outstrip crash fatalities in Winnipeg and have been fairly stable in recent years.
The worst crashes happen in the summer, on a Friday or Saturday, at night on the Trans-Canada, MPI data show. Failure to wear a seatbelt and drunk driving continue to be implacable problems.
The Trans-Canada is, not surprisingly, the province's deadliest highway with 22 deaths during five years, followed by Highway 10 in western Manitoba that connects Brandon to Dauphin. Also dangerous is Highway 3 that runs parallel to the U.S. border through the length of south central and southwestern Manitoba.
MPI's Brian Smiley says super-speeders, those caught going 50km/h over the limit anywhere in the province, must automatically appear before a judge for a show-cause hearing to argue why they should keep their licence. They might also be forced to take a driver-improvement course.
"The ages range from teenagers to people in their older adult years," said Smiley. "Some we find are chronic and habitual. They come in front of us a number of times."
As the summer driving season comes to a close this weekend, Hume says officers were again shocked at the number of super-speeders nabbed during last June's Dauphin Countryfest, the growing number of violations around the burgeoning oilpatch in western Manitoba and the frequency of bad crashes around Portage la Prairie.
It's that same area around Portage where Hume is on patrol one Friday night in mid-August -- a very typical shift, where he catches a speeder roughly every hour.
The culprits range from a middle-aged Volvo driver clocked at 123 km/h who swears he was only going 111 km/h, a young driver hauling a trailer without proper lights who gets off with a rare warning, and a car full of young men heading to a friend's bachelor party.
As Hume steps to the window, the young man explains he was following another friend to an acreage, missed a turnoff, got separated on the highway and was speeding to catch up.
"Been drinking tonight?" asks Hume.
"Not yet," quips the driver.
That earns a chuckle from Hume, who takes a peek in the backseat for any open alcohol, runs the young man's licence to make sure it's valid and then sets about writing up a weekend-ruining $508 ticket. As the young man accepts the ticket, he flashes Hume a rueful smile that falls into a grimace as soon as the officer walks away.
Hume is hard-nosed -- mild-mannered and patient -- but hard-nosed nonetheless. He's candid about the leeway all traffic officers allow. Hume typically gives drivers a 17 km/h to 19 km/h grace, depending on whether he's patrolling the Trans-Canada or a smaller, two-lane highway such as the Yellowhead. On the Trans-Canada, though, once you clock 120, as many drivers do, you're in his crosshairs. That's when he tosses the radar gun aside, throws his cruiser into gear and peels out from his spot tucked away on a side road.
Hume, who has been on the traffic beat for 14 years, says traffic enforcement can be lonely, but it's the only kind of police work that allows him to prevent death and destruction before it happens, rather than trying to fix it after the fact.
As a trained forensic collision reconstructionist, who oversees a lot of the investigations into the worst crashes in the province, Hume has seen a lot of after-the-fact effects.
Among the worst collisions he investigated was one that occurred near Minnedosa on the July long weekend three years ago. That head-on crash killed two teens, a boyfriend and girlfriend, and Hume had to accompany the young woman's parents to the funeral home to identify her body.
"Emotionally, that was the most draining crash I've had in 14 years," he said.
He worries his officers don't have enough manpower to patrol the smaller highways, especially around the busy oilpatch. He's frustrated that nabbing texters is nearly impossible unless an unmarked car is able to drive up right beside them and catch someone in the act. He wonders whether people, especially young people, believe too much that cars are engineered to protect them during a crash so there's no need to slow down.
And, after so many years patrolling the province's highways, he's immune to excuses, especially if a driver has children in the car. Don't even bother saying, 'I'm having a heart attack' or 'My wife's in labour.' Those will earn you a trip in an ambulance.
Most of the dozen-or-so drivers an RCMP officer stops in a typical shift are sheepish and confessional but often, passengers will lean over and start arguing.
That's what happened when Hume pulled over a white Acura going 125 km/h westbound on the Trans-Canada. The female driver was resigned to the hefty ticket she was about to get, but her boyfriend in the passenger seat was borderline belligerent, saying the cruise control was set to 117 km/h. There's no way she could have been going so fast, he told Hume repeatedly. Meanwhile, the female driver was giving her boyfriend the stink-eye, telling him three times to shut up.
"That's a pet peeve," said Hume as he got back in his cruiser. "There's nothing worse."
Those traffic stops, while occasionally awkward, are the easy part. What galls him are the drivers who get away.
Often, if a driver is super-speeding, Hume can't catch up, especially if he wastes precious seconds looking for a place to pull a U-turn on the highway. It's usually pretty easy to tell which car sends Hume's dash-mounted radar machine into a high-pitched beeping frenzy, but sometimes that car has slowed down or ducked out of the passing lane by the time Hume catches up, making him less confident about issuing a ticket.
"You can't catch them all," he says after one futile, 200 km/h race down the highway. "It used to really anger me."
Does Hume ever speed?
Never, he says. That would be hypocritical.
"You should ask my girlfriend," grins Hume. "It drives her nuts."
How dangerous is your highway?
How dangerous is the highway you drive on? Click on a highway to see how many road deaths occured due to rural crashes on it between 2008 and 2014.
Based on information obtained from Manitoba Public Insurance and RCMP. The data deals with the period between Jan. 1, 2008 and July 31, 2014.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 A6
Updated on Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 4:07 AM CDT: Corrects typo.
9:37 AM: Adds interactive
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