Runnin’ with risk

by James Menzies

BIGGAR, Sask. – Each day when Saskatchewan-based crude oil hauler Wayne Whitney gets home from work, the first thing he does is embrace his wife and plant a kiss on her cheek.

That’s because when he parks his rig for the night and kicks off his work boots, Whitney considers himself lucky to be alive after tempting fate yet again on Saskatchewan’s deadly highways.

“I don’t know if I have guardian angels or not, but if I do, they’ve been doing their job,” says Whitney. “I get up in the morning and wonder, am I going to make it through this day?”

As the province’s Thin-Membrane Surface (TMS) roads continue to crumble away under the tires of big rigs like Whitney’s, the risk of driving rural secondary highways escalates.

“I’m afraid I’m going to kill one of my neighbors,” says Whitney, who slows down to about 50 km-h each time he approaches oncoming traffic. “That’s a pretty sad situation, but that’s everyday thinking out here.”

Whitney hauls oil on one of Saskatchewan’s most notorious highways, the stretch of Hwy. 51 linking Biggar, Sask. to the Alberta border.

This piece of road has been the centre of heated debate lately, following the tragic Nov. 24 car accident that claimed the lives of three people, including a six-year-old girl.

That disaster prompted Karen Zimmer and a group of other concerned residents to form the Hwy. 51 Action Committee. The committee has been pushing the government to fix the highway, before more lives are lost.

“The road should be declared a disaster area,” insists Zimmer. “We can’t wait any longer to get this road fixed because the longer we wait, the more lives are at risk.”

The committee held a demonstration on Jan. 14 for government officials, to show them first-hand just how bad Hwy. 51 has gotten. A bus-load of delegates, including Saskatoon MLA and former Transportation Minister Pat Atkinson, followed a tractor-trailer down the highway to the Alberta border.

They could see for themselves the dangers faced by truckers and other motorists on a daily basis.

Zimmer says it proved to be a real eye-opener for those on-board the bus, as there were some scary incidents.

“We met semis hauling oil, we met a triple-axle tractor … We had to get over so far that the bus tires were over the shoulder of the road,” says Zimmer.

Atkinson, who was there representing Premier Lorne Calvert, says she wasn’t too surprised. However, she says with 7,500km of TMS roads in the province, there’s simply not enough money to go around.

“As a result of the increase of truck volume in the province, which has gone up over 800 per cent in the last few years, this obviously has an impact upon the TMS surfaces in the province,” says Atkinson.

“Like a lot of TMS highways in the province of Saskatchewan, these were roads that were never built for the kinds of truck traffic presently going over these roads,” she adds.

While today’s standards require new roads to be a minimum of 28.2 feet wide, erosion of this unmaintained stretch of highway has caused it to span no more than 19 feet, 11 inches in places. Thus it’s not surprising many of the province’s truckers are facing seven years bad luck after shaving off a mirror when encountering an oncoming vehicle.

“Ninety per cent of the blame falls on the trucker (when there’s an accident),” says Whitney. “But all the trucker is doing out there is fighting every day to keep his truck on the road. There’s no other word for it, we have to fight every day … the steering wheel is never steady in your hand.”

Doug Savage used to haul expedited auto parts throughout the province in his single-axle day cab.

But the condition of Saskatchewan highways prompted him to update his resume and look for another line of work.

“I just got sick of being out there,” says Savage. “There were spots where you couldn’t even drive the speed limit. Some areas are so rough you can hardly steer.”

Savage says that the current state of the province’s roads has exacerbated the driver shortage.

“Many guys I know have just said, ‘To hell with it,’ and gone on to other jobs like me,” says Savage.

In defence of her former department, Atkinson is quick to point out $311.7 million is earmarked for roads – more than in any other year.

“We have a multi-year budget for the department and in that period we will see 800km of TMS roads rebuilt,” says Atkinson.

Following the demonstration, she reported back to the Premier, and suggested the province stay the course in committing nearly $1 billion to roads over the next three years, despite revenue shortfalls caused by the slowing economy.

“It’s now up to the government to determine what they do,” says Atkinson, noting that it’s too soon to tell whether Hwy. 51 will make the cut when the next provincial budget is announced in late March.

Zimmer says the committee will remain hopeful, but they aren’t overly optimistic since current Transportation Minister, Mark Wartman, has reportedly shrugged off concerns by suggesting that Hwy. 51 is a low-volume road that shouldn’t see much heavy-haul traffic.

Those comments don’t sit well with local residents, however, as the area supports a booming oilfield industry and there are no alternative routes available other than the under-spec’d Hwy. 51.

“These semis have no choice but to be on these roads,” says Zimmer, noting the truckers are simply caught in the middle.

Nexen Inc. is one of the major players in the region’s oil and gas industry, and the company has also expressed concern over the state of the highway.

“In our heavy oil division, we pay about $32.5 million in oil royalties directly to the government,” says Nexen’s heavy oil safety specialist, Richard Schultz.

“This is not taking into consideration any personal income tax that people pay who are employed by us or any of the fuel taxes paid by our contractors or our own vehicles.”

With the company operating more than 325 heavy oil wells, three oil treating facilities and a trucked-in oil terminal within 12km of Hwy. 51, Schultz says it’s about time the road receives some government attention.

“What we would like to see the government do is put some of this money back into the areas on our secondary roads that we have to use every day to do our business,” says Schultz.

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