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by Cedric Hughes, Barrister & Solicitor with regular weekly contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.B.   

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Driving Into the Danger Zone

Article Number: 
767

The Coquihalla highway connecting Hope and Kamloops BC is a 186km-long modern freeway (completed in 1987) through mountainous terrain but of such quality engineering and surfacing that its speed limit—after much debate and re-assessment—was increased in July 2014 from 110 to 120 kmh.

Approximately half way along “the Coquihalla” is the city of Merritt BC, a gateway to the eastern BC interior.  When all is well weather and traffic-wise, a Coquihalla drive is a photo-inspiring, ‘Beautiful BC’ experience.  But the name Coquihalla, we are told, is from the Halq'emeylem language of the Stó:lō, means 'stingy container’, referring to a salmon fishing rock near the mouth of the Coquihalla River that, according to Stó:lō oral history, limits fishing success from the rock to only a certain few. 

Unfortunately, so goes the modern Coquihalla driving experience—not reliably smooth sailing.  The website www.dangerousroads.org describes it as “one of the worst roads in all of North America in winter. … In [other seasons] it's a breeze, but in winter there are at least 400–500 accidents and plenty of fatalities.”

Winter 2018 has been a bad one for the Coquihalla.  The number of misfortunes is such that there is a challenge in trying to keep the news stories straight.  One disaster occurred on Sunday February 11, at 12:30 pm about 30 km south of Merritt near Larson Hill, when a 35-year-old man from the Lower Mainland was struck and killed by a vehicle while attempting to assist at an already existing crash.

The Larson Hill crash also resulted in a critically injured 78-year-old Kamloops man being airlifted from the scene (reports says his condition has improved).  Two others went to hospital with minor injuries.  Reports quote the RCMP as saying the collision was caused by speed relative to road conditions and sudden changes in road conditions.  The crash involved six vehicles and the northbound lane of the highway was closed for almost 10 hours.

One report also noted “[Just] days before [the Larson Hill crash], a tour bus was involved in another collision.”  Two weeks later (Sunday February 25th), at about 8 pm, about 25 km north of Hope, a crash involving two buses, two semi-trailers, and two vehicles sent 29 people to hospital with injuries ranging from critical to stable, and 136 others (uninjured) to a ‘warming centre’ in Hope.  The crash response involved 22 ground and air ambulances, three fire departments, four search and rescue teams, and a six-hour road closure in both directions between Hope and Merritt.

One RCMP responder was quoted as saying, “on a scale of 1 to 10, [this last mentioned] crash [was] off the charts.”  Earlier that day BC's Ministry of Transportation had warned of poor visibility on the highway.  A witness described how the nearby hill when slippery causes traffic to backup presenting an unavoidable hazard to vehicles coming from behind and setting up a chain reaction, as apparently happened in this case.

And then on Friday March 2nd,another nighttime crash occurred, again closing the highway in both directions between Hope and Merritt.

The warning:  If you are planning to drive the Coquihalla in winter, check the forecast and set your speed according to the conditions.  Drive a vehicle that is properly equipped.  Drive extra carefully.  Drive during daylight hours.  Expect the worst.  Drive defensively.  This is a danger zone.

Cedric Hughes

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