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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Take care on winter roads

BY Xavier Kataquapit Nov 13, 2023

Winter is fast approaching, and I worry about family members and friends in northern Ontario who deal with the treacherous conditions on our highways during the snowy season. 

I have been driving these roads, mostly on Highway 11 and the 400 series, for the past 25 years. I have seen conditions become even more dangerous over that time as the traffic in transport commercial trucks increased. There are many accidents involving commercial trucks on Highway 11, and it is getting to the point that I and most friends and family will not venture out onto the highways when the weather is not so great. 

Thirty years ago, not many people from up the James Bay coast owned vehicles that they drove on highways in the south. That has changed with better winter road access to the south and as my people find better opportunities for employment that enable them to afford vehicles. Now it is normal to see family and friends hitting the highways to tour the province and beyond in all seasons. 

This is fantastic in many ways but at the same time there is always the danger of an accident with so much traffic on our highways and the huge number of transport trucks on the road. I find it even more worrying during the winter months when people drive south on the winter roads.

In Ontario last year, 359 people died in motor vehicle accidents. Canada sees about 160,000 car accidents annually and more than 2,000 die in those mishaps. 

We should keep in mind that it takes up to 10 times longer to stop on snow and ice than it does on dry pavement. A four-wheel drive can be good to get a vehicle to cope with deep snow or slippery surfaces at low speed, but they do not stop much faster than a regular front- or rear-wheel drive vehicle. The four-wheel drive vehicles are also usually heavier, which requires more distance to stop. Many of my family and friends have four-wheel drive trucks and SUVs and they are under the false impression these vehicles are safer in snowy and icy winter conditions. 

The Ontario Provincial Police attended 9,110 transport truck-related crashes in 2022 and that number was the highest provincial total in more than a decade. Ontario privatized winter highway maintenance in 2000 under the Conservative government at the time. The province began turning over winter maintenance work to private contractors in the 1980s and by 2000, it was all taken over by them. This was kept in place during subsequent Liberal governments.

Decades ago, the highway road maintenance and snow removal were the responsibility of the government and making a profit was not a concern when it came to keeping citizens safe on our roads. These days this is done by companies dedicated to making a profit and that does not always guarantee making critical choices to protect the public. Perhaps there is message here for those wanting to support the privatization of our health-care system. 

Some tips I received from a long-time highway grader operator a few years back have helped me in making decisions on when to travel the highways. My friend Phil Heneberry, who has since passed, told me long ago not to hit the road in the winter until later in the morning if there was a snowstorm that night, as this gives the plows, graders, sanders and salt trucks time to get out and improve highway conditions. He also suggested that when it is very cold, like -30 or -40 and windy, we should be aware that sand and salt will often not stick well to the highways and that you might be travelling on more of an ice rink than a good road surface when this happens. He also advised checking the surface of the road you are driving on to determine just how slippery it is. 

I have known too many people who headed out for that important trip in bad weather on icy roads and ended up dead or badly injured. Stay safe this winter. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.