By: Thia James

Statistically, long weekends and holidays are among the deadliest on Saskatchewan roads. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader-Post are releasing Safe Travels, a two-part series examining the data behind fatal road collisions and the solutions that could curb future tragedies.

Safe Travels, Part 2: How data drives solutions on deadly Saskatchewan roads

View our interactive map here.


Alexandra Zbaraschuk waited at the stop sign, looked left and right and proceeded across the icy highway.

She had followed her father’s truck in her car from RW Collision to the Whitford Road and Highway 3 intersection west of Prince Albert. Alexandra, then 16, had her licence for 28 days on Nov. 22, 2018.

“The last thing I remember was my car stalling on the ice,” Alexandra, now 19, says.

On the other side, parked along the grid road, her father, Brent Zbaraschuk, waited. He watched his daughter’s car suddenly go “tap-tap-tap,” he says, lightly clapping his hands in rapid succession. Alexandra’s car stopped in the middle of the highway. He remembers thinking, “

Come on, Lex.”

 

The snow was high, and the car was white.

Moments later, a semi with a heavy-duty moose bumper, hauling a trailer, clipped the vehicle.

Alexandra’s car spun out and slid about 100 metres away into the ditch beside the westbound lane in front of the repair shop. Brent raced out to follow it. The shop owner ran out to help.

Brent prayed that his daughter wasn’t trapped under the semi-truck suffering. The owner called him over to Alexandra’s car and saw her under the airbag, telling him to hold her hand before first responders arrived.

Alexandra sustained a basal skull fracture, facial fractures, nerve damage, partial facial paralysis, and pelvic fractures. Her heart became displaced by half an inch — and still is.

safe travels, part 1: examining 5 years of fatal crashes on saskatchewan's most dangerous roads

Alexandra Zbaraschuk stands for a photo with her dad next to Highway 3 just outside of Prince Albert where she survived what could have been a fatal collision. PHOTO BY MICHELLE BERG /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

During her recovery, Alexandra became fascinated with other crashes on that stretch of highway.

After learning about a deadly collision involving a man and a boy, she told her father she had to do something. He advised her to write a letter to Premier Scott Moe.

Alexandra wrote letters and received responses from provincial and local leaders.

“The big thing that I wanted was the twinning, and I was told only passing (lanes) for a bit. The next thing you know, they’re twinning it,” she says.

Twinning a highway means creating either two parallel roads, each going in the opposite direction, or a widened road with a barrier to separate traffic flowing in both directions.

Brent agrees with his daughter that action is needed on sections of highways that have chronic safety concerns.

As they revisit the crash site in early July, the highway traffic moves slower than usual. Orange markers line the lanes as workers use heavy construction equipment beside the road. West of Prince Albert, from Highway 2 to the Shell River Bridge, Highway 3 will be twinned, with four lanes and a concrete median barrier.

“You know what the sad thing’s going to be? They’re going to build this highway and unfortunately, there’s still going to be accidents. People are still going to die. But we’re trying to mitigate how many,” he says.

In May, Alexandra spoke at an event announcing the start of the project. She’s become an advocate for the safety of municipal roads and other highways.

On a printout of her notes, in handwriting, she has written “more shoulders” underlined, “if no passing lanes (+wider),” “lower speed limits” and “barriers.”

Alexandra uses Highway 2 between Prince Albert and St. Louis, which has little shoulder space. She thinks she may push for that next.

safe travels, part 1: examining 5 years of fatal crashes on saskatchewan's most dangerous roads

Alexandra Zbaraschuk, an advocate for twinned highways, had a long road to recovery after her collision in 2018. PHOTO BY MICHELLE BERG /Saskatoon StarPhoenix


INFRASTRUCTURE

During the five years between 2016 and 2020, 511 people died on Saskatchewan’s roadways — not just highways.

The province’s Crown insurer, SGI, provided the Saskatoon StarPhoenix with a detailed data set of fatal collision statistics for Jan. 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2020. The information was de-identified to protect the privacy of those involved.

Postmedia’s analysis found that although people — drivers, passengers and pedestrians — have died on 60 different highways in this time span, Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, had the highest recorded fatalities on a single roadway with 36. On Highway 16, there were 32 deaths, and on Highway 2, 24 deaths.

On Highway 3, where Alexandra survived her serious collision, there were 14 deaths in the timeframe analyzed.

A further look at the information found that of the roadway deaths in the province, 221 crashes involved a single vehicle, 200 involved multiple vehicles and 70 involved pedestrians. Most often, pick-up trucks are involved (201 instances), and in most fatal collisions, only one person dies.

This same period included the April 2018 tragedy involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team that killed 16 people and injured 13 others when a semi-truck struck the team bus at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335. The truck driver failed to stop at a flashing stop sign, later pleading guilty to dangerous driving charges.

Drivers are supposed to be responsible for the safety of their vehicles, themselves and their passengers. But in 214 fatal crashes on Saskatchewan roads, a motorist or pedestrian was found not to have not caused the collision. In collisions where a driver was at fault, the number one contributing factor was impaired driving (135 instances). In many other cases, other human causes, such as inattention, failure to yield, distraction and speeds, were either leading or secondary contributing causes, as were weather conditions.


INVESTIGATION: SEARCH FOR CAUSE — AND EFFECT

“Sometimes we have a fatality, and we don’t now have that person to tell us what happened,” says Cpl. Nathan Kicenko. He’s with the RCMP collision reconstruction unit based in Moose Jaw.

When he arrives at a scene, he surveys it, looking for tire and gouge marks on the roadway. He takes photographs from the ground. With drones, he can take aerial photos and examine the debris field.

A highway can be closed for a collision reconstruction investigation, on average, for about four hours — a multi-vehicle collision can cause closures of more than six hours, Kicenko says.

The collision investigators are often up against the weather, such as fallen snow, which can hide evidence in the winter. Evidence has to be gathered in as timely a manner as possible after the collision.

New technology has come along to help, like surveying equipment that uses GPS technology, which means only one collision investigator has to go to the scene.

Other emerging technology includes photogrammetry, which can stitch multiple photos together to get a larger, more detailed picture and precise measurements. Kicenko says it could be rolled out for use by RCMP in the next two to three years, reducing lengthy highway closures.

For Kicenko, the end is to find out why the collision happened and how to minimize the likelihood it will ever happen again.

After a fatal collision, Kicenko says, the highways ministry asks if anything needs to be repaired or if an engineer needs to re-evaluate the highway design.

“Sometimes those answers come out after our investigation,” he says.

safe travels, part 1: examining 5 years of fatal crashes on saskatchewan's most dangerous roads

RCMP investigate a crash between a car and semi 20 km north of Regina on Highway 6 in August 2019. PHOTO BY TROY FLEECE /Regina Leader-Post


RECOVERY

Every year, on the anniversary of Alexandra’s collision, she goes to the site. This year will be the last as she continues her healing journey.

When Alexandra woke up in the hospital, she was surrounded by her family, connected to several machines and had a breathing tube.

“I didn’t know what was happening at all,” she says.

She re-learned how to eat, drink water, sit up and brush her hair, among other things, before being released in time for that Christmas. After that, she had a new battle: post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alexandra says during the pandemic, the Fit for Active Living physical rehabilitation program at City Hospital changed her life and let her know she wasn’t alone. She felt accepted by other people who had also experienced an accident and could relate to her pain.

“Ever since that day, I kind of learned that I need to keep it up, otherwise, my body is going to go out of place, then I won’t be a happy person anymore,” she says.

When Alexandra thinks about her recovery journey, she says she’s happy for herself and feels like a new person. She is currently studying to become a teacher, but is also considering becoming a physiotherapist.

“I want to push forward and think about other people now.”

Storytelling: Thia James

Data analysis: Austin Davis

Photos: Michelle Berg, Liam O’Connor

Edited by: Russell Wangersky, Ashley Trask 

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