The Alberta Construction Safety Association (ACSA) has a workplace safety policy which forbids their own employees from driving Highway 63, while the government moves forward with accelerated plans for twinning the dangerous road.
“For us as an organization, we are discouraging people from driving on Highway 63 and we always have,” said ACSA executive director Dan MacLennan.
“All of our staff fly to this area and we provide transportation. They are picked up when they arrive or provided with a rental car. As part of the Safer 63 coalition, we have always taken this position and it is not an option for us.”
A “no drive” policy was implemented by the ACSA in response to fatalities on Highway 63, which is known as the most dangerous stretch of roadway in the province.
“We had, as recently as last year, people in our organization that have lost relatives and friends on that highway,” said MacLennan, who could not confirm media reports that an ACSA employee was killed in a crash several years ago.
Highway 63 is a busy 240-kilometre highway running north of Edmonton to the oilsands region near Fort McMurray.
Traffic on the highway has increased rapidly during the recent oil boom due to oilsands development.
Heavy industrial traffic shares the road with passenger vehicles, which can lead to road congestion and dangerous passing conditions.
A map produced by ConocoPhilips estimates that there were 114 fatalities on Highways 63 and 881 to Fort McMurray, between 2003 and 2012.
As a result, Highway 63 is known by people in the region as the Highway of Death.
In response, the ACSA became a member of the Coalition for a Safer 63 & 881, which launched a campaign in 2010 to raise public awareness about the dangers of tunnel vision.
The mindset is often adopted by drivers when they are faced with the long, monotonous highway.
It influences bad decisions such as unsafe passing, distraction and road rage.
Nexen, Japan Canada Oil Sands, ConocoPhillips Canada and Total E&P Canada are also members of the Safer 63 coalition.
“The industry is doing a fantastic job moving people in and out using planes and airports,” said MacLennan.
“There are also a lot of things going on to make the road safer.”
For example, there are currently five private airstrips operating in the Region at Syncrude/Mildred Lake, CNRL/Horizon, Shell/Albion Sands, Suncor–Firebag and the Liesmer Strip at Conklin.
Flying workers in and out will help these companies attract and retain workers, by eliminating the need to drive on Highway 63, which is no longer able to accommodate the volume of traffic generated in Fort McMurray.
Transportation Minister Ric McIver announced on Oct. 19 that the 240 kilometre section of Highway 63 between Grassland and Fort McMurray will be twinned by fall 2016.
The commitment to complete the twinning by 2016 represents an investment of about $1.1 billion over the next four years.
The plan includes enhancements to Highway 881 over the next six years.
Alberta Transportation decided to fast-track several projects on Highway 63 in response to public pressure, after seven people were killed on April 27 in a head-on collision between two pickup trucks, about 50 km north of Wandering River.
It was the worst collision in the history of the highway.
Parker Hogan, McIver’s press secretary, said the tenders will be going out in the next few weeks. They include clearing forest and muskeg and putting down the road base in sections that are already cleared.
He also pointed out that the responsibility for safety on the road belongs to the driver.
“You can build any road to any safety standard, but if people don’t use safe driving practices, there is still a problem,” said Hogan.
For this reason, the ACSA is launching a poster campaign to encourage its 46,000 member companies to drive safely or stay off the road.
“We have thousands of students going through courses, so we are giving out posters to students to emphasize the importance of driving safely,” said MacLennan.
“The campaign and the poster deal with the issue of texting.”