Is Kelowna the most dangerous community to drive within the Okanagan?
According to ICBC’s most recent vehicle-related crash statistics dating back to 2015, Kelowna experienced 9,600 crashes compared to 7,700 overall for Vernon (2,900), Penticton (2,400) and West Kelowna (1,900).
Casualty-related crashes in Kelowna numbered 1,900, compared to 1,300 combined for the other Okanagan community trio.
Interpreting these stats, ICBC offered no insight beyond noting these three factors:
• After years of a stable crash rate, the number of crashes across B.C. jumped by 15 per cent in two years, from 260,000 in 2013 to 300,000 in 2015.
• This increase in crashes is not unique to B.C. as many other jurisdictions across North America have experienced similar crash rate increases.
• The number of vehicles on the road in B.C. topped three million for the first time in 2015 based on insurance policies; a 10 per cent increase since 2011.
Paul Hergott, a West Kelowna lawyer who specializes in accident claim cases, said he is not surprised by the crash rate increase in Kelowna.
He points to minimal accountability for inattentive driving habits and the focus behind crash prevention initiatives as being misguided, two points that he has advocated about for many years as road safety columnist for the Kelowna Capital News.
He says while the use of electronic devices while driving is a prime distracted driving element, he says drivers are still allowed to use hands-free devices to carry out the mental gymnastics trick of carrying on a phone conversation while supposedly concentrating on driving your vehicle.
“Electronic devices play a factor, but it doesn’t totally explain why the crash numbers have gone up the last two years. Cell phones have been around for a lot longer than that,” Hergott said.
“It is really a larger attitude thing, realizing that vehicles pose a danger if you are not paying attention behind the wheel. About 50 per cent of the cases I handle involve someone driving into the back of another stopped vehicle.”
Hergott said five years ago, he made a conscious decision to routinely place both his hands on the steering wheel when driving at the “10 and 2” positions.
“I have not had a close call in the five years since. It can be uncomfortable to always have your hands on those spots on the steering wheel but that’s the point, the discomfort requires your attention. It’s a subconscious thing. If your hands wander, your mind starts to wander as well.”
Const. Steve Holmes, with the Kelowna RCMP Municipal Traffic Section, shares Hergott’s assertion of drivers taking greater responsibility for their actions on the road, citing the need to think out ahead of time where you are going and what driving conditions you might encounter.
Holmes acknowledges the driving pressure in Kelowna intensifies at certain points of the day – the morning and evening commutes- and during the summer when vacation traffic hits town.
“I’ve experienced that personally just going to work, where it takes 25 minutes in heavy traffic situations and five to 10 minutes when traffic volumes are less,” Holmes said.
He said adding to the driving pressure to get somewhere quickly in the city is busier roadways necessitating more traffic lights and left turns, both signalled and not.
Holmes noted that police no longer refer to vehicle collisions as accidents, because an accident denotes something which could not have been avoided, which is rarely the case in a motor vehicle crash.
“Crashes tend to result from people’s lapse in judgement or being distracted, some contributing factor that if a person was more prudent behind the wheel, the crash may not have happened,” he explained.
“Sometimes road conditions can be the closest thing to an accident we get, but typically speaking most crashes relate to drivers having made poor driving choices.”
Rafael Villarreal, City of Kelowna integrated transportation manager, said the city is going through the transportation grid growing pains of changing from a small town to medium-sized city, which requires a different approach to driving safely.
Villarreal said Kelowna is also a major hub for traffic from across the Okanagan, from commuter workers to vacationers, which adds to the volume traffic pressure.
“Our population in Kelowna is now 127,000 according to the latest census, but in reality the population of our economic region is 200,000 and most key things regionally happen in Kelowna so people are pouring into the city every day,” he said.
“For us, safety is always a big thing. For any major city, that is at the forefront of any transportation plan.”
There are different approaches the city engages in to relieve that motorist pressure, from creating roundabouts and signalled left-hand turns to providing access for alternative transportation means, whether than be transit, cycling or even encouraging ride sharing among similar location bound commuters, he said.
Hergott said a Transport Canada report done in 2007 roughly calculated the actual cost of accidents at about $8.8 billion.
“When you think of all the resources drawn upon from emergency response to hospital costs to deal with a crash, today I would be willing to bet that figure would be closer to $15 billion,” Hergott said.
“The car crash industry is a massive industry. To make an impact on that you need to ban use of cell phones or other electronic devices and change driving attitudes. “
Helping to change those bad driving attitudes, Hergott calls for harsher penalties for those who cause vehicle crashes due to inattentive driving decisions such as higher insurance rates and roadside suspensions similar to what impaired drivers face.
“You can’t have accountability if there are no consequences.Our governments need to send a message to start changing our driving habits,” he said.