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The Globe and Mail

Humboldt team bus crash is a tragic reminder that we need safer roads

This is how young men die in Canada.

Not gunned down in the streets, not in terror attacks, not going off to war.

They die sitting on a bus, or behind the wheel of a car, on the way to work, or on the way to play, on highways and byways and city streets.

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We barely take notice until they die 15 at a time.

“Everyone has been on that bus,” Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid said in reflecting on the tragic deaths of the young men on the Humboldt Broncos team bus.

That “been there, done that” statement that sends a shiver up our collective spines doesn’t apply only to junior hockey players and charter buses.

Everyone in Canada – especially in rural and remote parts of the country – knows someone who has died in a motor-vehicle crash. Coming across the scene of a horrific collision on the highway is not an uncommon experience. Near misses that leave hearts racing are a daily occurrence of Canadian life.

We live in an immense, sparsely populated country, and spend an inordinate amount of time in cars and trucks and buses.

It starts with small kids who board the school bus daily, early morning drives to practice, long trips to visit grandma and explorations of this vast land during summer holidays.

Coming of age, for many, still means the driver’s licence, the first car, the freedom of the open road away from the watchful eye of parents.

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Parked in the driveway is often the ultimate status symbol – wealth and power reflected in horsepower.

We have built modern society around the car, and it comes at a price.

In 2015, the most recent year for available detailed data from Transport Canada, 1,858 people died in motor-vehicle incidents. Another 161,902 were injured badly enough to require treatment, including 10,208 who suffered severe injuries that required lengthy hospitalization.

Statistics are abstract. But one in five of those “numbers” are young people.

They have names such as Logan, Tyler, Brody, Adam, Jaxon, Parker, Conner, Jacob, Evan, Stephen, Mark that we know from this tragedy. But the one dead teen a day on average goes largely unnoticed and unnamed.

Motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death, disability and injury of Canadians under the age of 24. Nothing comes close, except suicide.

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Yet, paradoxically, we think of our vehicles as a haven, a safe space, a cocoon from the outside world.

The good news is that motor-vehicle fatalities are dropping – down almost 50 per cent in the past two decades, thanks largely to technological innovations such as air bags, better seat belts and crash-resistant design of vehicles.

We have not so much made roads safer as we have made vehicles and their occupants better able to withstand crashes that we deem inevitable.

There are three principal causes of motor-vehicle crashes: impairment with alcohol and drugs, speeding and distracted driving.

Studies tell us that 94 per cent of crashes are attributable to human error or bad choices. We make mistakes all the time but, when they occur at 120 kilometres an hour in a vehicle that weighs up to 40 tonnes, the consequences can be brutal.

The cause of the headline-making tragedy near Armley, Sask., has still not been determined by police. But, from the violence of the crash, it is clear that one of two vehicles failed to yield at an intersection where fatal crashes have occurred before.

Making a single intersection safer is not the solution. The discussion we need to have is how to make driving safer.

With 1.4 million kilometres of roads in this country – fewer than half of them paved and only 17,000 of those kilometres consisting of large expressways – and 24 million vehicles on those roads, travelling an estimated 333 billion kilometres a year, that is no small challenge.

Faced with those daunting numbers, enforcement of traffic laws by police is always going to be a losing battle.

Now, we are looking to autonomous, self-driving vehicles that could make crashes near impossible by removing the human factors. But they are far from ready for prime time or mainstream acceptance.

In the meantime, we have to recognize that human-driven vehicles are a significant public-health risk, one that needs to be managed and, ultimately, eliminated.

Too many lives, young lives, are being lost. The carnage of the car age has gone on far too long.

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