It stretches just about 40 kilometres, but for many people in the Avalon region of the province, driving the Veterans Memorial Highway can be a nerve-racking and sometimes terrifying experience.
The mere mention of its name these days conjures up images of dangerous, out-of-control driving and serious crashes.
And no wonder.
The numerous serious accidents and fatal collisions in the past few years — not to mention the many videos circulating on social media showing careless drivers — have prompted many people to call on the government to make major changes to the highway. Some believe more passing lanes should be added, while others say it’s time to make it a double-lane, divided highway.
There was even a petition pushing for passing lanes. It had 8,500 signatures when it was presented to the provincial government earlier this month.
But RCMP Const. David Bourden says the reputation the highway has gained as a dangerous and deadly road has little to do with the road and more to do with the people who drive it.
“I don’t see it as problematic, not the highway itself,” said Bourden, B division’s provincial collision analyst.
“There really are no big (structural or road design) issues.”
The cause of the serious crashes on the Veterans Memorial Highway is not something that can be fixed by changing the physical structure of the highway, he said.
In fact, the recent fatal collisions have not been in areas where the drivers were attempting to pass, he added.
The problem, he said, has been distracted drivers.
“Everyone has a phone these days and become more concerned with checking Facebook or texting their buddy than keeping their eyes on the road,” Bourden said. “That’s when crashes occur.”
But that’s not to say there aren’t other issues.
Impatient drivers, speeding and even driving too slowly are also big concerns on the Veterans Memorial Highway, which sees up to 9,000 cars every day — an increase from a daily average of 5,600 in 2010, according to statistics provided by the provincial government’s Department of Transportation.
Bourden knows the highway like the back of his hand.
Having been stationed in the Trinity Conception region, at the Harbour Grace and Bay Roberts detachments, for several years, he was a daily commuter from the metro area. He and members of his traffic division in Holyrood still patrol the area in partnership with area detachments.
Besides his experience as a police officer investigating serious and fatal accidents, he is also a civil engineer who spent time working for the Department of Transportation, so he knows a thing or two about road design and speed requirements, as well as placement of passing lanes, signage and guiderails.
Riding along Veterans Memorial Highway with Bourden in his RCMP rig, it’s easy to tell he’s familiar with the road.
“As you can see, the road is in very good condition,” Bourden said.
“I’ve driven it at every time of the year and I can honestly say there is no area where I can say, ‘Oh this is a bad spot,’” he said. “We don’t even have areas here where there’s a lot of snow buildup, like there is in the Galway area of the Trans-Canada Highway.”
Along the drive, Bourden stopped at each of the two locations where two recent fatal collisions occurred.
“See there? There’s still some debris there and marks on the road,” Bourden said as he pulled over to the shoulder at one spot, just a few kilometres from the TCH where, on Sept. 11, three people were killed following a two-car head-on collision.
It happened around noon at the section of highway from Makinsons to Roaches Line. He said two people were in each vehicle, each of which had good tires and wasn’t being driven at high speed.
“Based on my work, it appeared the vehicle coming in the opposite direction crossed over the solid line into the oncoming path of this vehicle,” Bourden said.
The second fatal crash happened at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 6 about a quarter of a kilometre south of the North River turnoff, with similar circumstances.
“For some reason, (the driver) carried on in a straight line and came on into oncoming traffic,” he said.
While these crashes are still under investigation, Bourden said it was clear that neither happened because the driver was trying to pass “or would’ve even thought of passing.”
“It was just the opposite,” he said. “They actually happened on turns, curves in the highway, where, for some reason, the driver kept going straight.
“Nothing against the people who are advocates (of adding passing lanes) and trying to make things better here. … But people just automatically assume (the crashes happened) because someone is trying to pass, but that wasn’t what caused the serious collisions here.”
Bourden agrees it would be nice to have a few more passing lanes on the highway, saying it would be “a luxury” — especially when you get behind a tractor-trailer or vehicles hauling camper trailers crawling to climb a grade in the road. But he said based on the traffic counts and volumes of vehicles, the government has determined it doesn’t meet the requirements to put in passing lanes.
During the drive, he points to one area where a passing lane would be a good idea, but said they aren’t necessary if drivers would just obey the rules of the road and be patient.
“Ideally, I’d love to see a divided highway right across the province, but that’s not something we can afford right now,” he said.
“But I don’t think passing lanes would necessarily make the (Veterans Memorial) highway safer.”
The Veterans Memorial Highway was constructed in 1993, with the final phase completed in 2003. Before that, motorists had to travel along Route 70, or Roaches Line, now commonly known as “the old way.”
“If you had to go to Harbour Grace from the Trans-Canada, your day was written off, you’d have to drive so slowly,” Bourden said.
While the Veterans Memorial Highway has allowed motorists faster travel time, Bourden said, it can still be a slow process, since the highway — for the most part — is still a two-lane road. And with six access roads leading to various communities, some motorists pull out onto the highway at low speeds.
Slow drivers have become a big issue, so much so that the RCMP has been handing out tickets.
“A lot of people living in Bay Roberts often go to Carbonear for shopping or doctor’s appointments, and some prefer to take their time,” Bourden said. “I always say to those drivers, if you want to do 70 (kilometres an hour), take Route 70.”
Drivers who choose to drive slightly slower than the posted speed limit can also show courtesy by pulling over when a long lineup builds behind them, Bourden added.
But some drivers get frustrated with other vehicles at any speed, he said.
“That’s one of the problems I’m seeing — people are becoming impatient,” Bourden said. “People think they have to get out and pass every car in sight.
“They may only be going to Bay Roberts (from the TCH), which at the legal limit would only take you 15 minutes at the most. But they want to get there in 13. For what? That extra couple of minutes is not worth it. It’s like they’re not allowing enough time in their day.”
Whether or not there are passing lanes, Bourden believes some people will still speed.
“It’s human nature for some people.”
Bourden points out that even those who exceed the speed limit to pass, and then slow down once they do, are still breaking the law.
“It’s a common misconception,” he said.
At one section of the highway, just before the South River/Makinsons turnoff, passing on solid lines has become such a problem, a double solid line was laid down, and a no-passing sign erected.
Driving past each of the six access road turnoffs in the drive along the highway, Bourden explains that only one — the second exit to Harbour Grace — has a decreased speed limit to 70 km/h. A few also have merge lanes, while one, the Bay Roberts-Shearstown turnoff, has an overpass.
He said at many other turnoffs, such as the first turnoff into Harbour Grace — known as Jamie’s Way — vehicles exiting the community must pull out directly into oncoming traffic on the 100 km/h highway.
He said at the Bay Roberts-Shearstown interchange, where a great deal of trucks travel, he regularly sees vehicles crossing the solid line just to get ahead of them on the way to the TCH.
“It’s just to gain those extra couple of minutes, but it’s not safe,” he said.
At the North River turnoff on the highway, Bourden sees vehicles regularly making illegal U-turns.
“Again, they’re trying to save a few minutes and avoid having to go the longer way,” he said. “I just don’t understand some of the actions of drivers.”
Bourden said there have been some cases of people not wearing seatbelts, which may not be causing collisions, but certainly adds to the death toll.
“It’s a huge part of the whole equation,” he said.
With each serious accident he attends, Bourden said, it’s difficult seeing the heartbreaking results, knowing they could have been prevented.
“It’s so frustrating, especially after processing the scene and I go back in the office. I have a lot of time, weeks sometimes, analyzing these scenes, looking at photos, reviewing measurements, airbag modules, and it becomes even more frustrating when you get more evidence,” he said.
“People have to start getting the message. They need to buckle up, show a little more patience and avoid distractions.”
And that, he said, goes for all drivers on every highway in the province.