On Friday, September 1, traffic laws are changing province-wide. Drivers who are in the closest lane next to roadside workers will have to slow down. The changes in the provincial law have been expanded to include highway maintenance workers and snowplow operators, in addition to police, ambulances, fire trucks and tow trucks.
Previously, the province announced that the traffic laws would include motorists in all lanes travelling in the same direction on multi-lane highways having to slow down to 60 km/h when passing roadside vehicles as well as slowing down to 60 km/h when travelling in either direction on single lane highways. However, that was walked back after the province announced a several-month delay in the implementation of the traffic changes in March of this year.
The current changes that are coming into effect by the week's end have had several key stakeholder groups voicing their disappointment at what they say is the province changing little to existing legislation.
Veteran firefighter with the Crossfield Fire Department, Captain Joe Holstein is one of many firefighters who are disappointed. He has echoed much of the same sentiment that The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association has expressed. However, for Captain Holstein, the disappointment is also deeply personal. He was one of the firefighters who witnessed a horrific collision involving a Crossfield firefighter nearly 23 years ago.
In early November 2000, during a blizzard, Captain Holstein and other firefighters from Crossfield were responding to vehicles travelling Southbound on the QEII, that had ended up in the ditch due to near white-out conditions.
"We were going to bring the people back to town because you could hardly see out there. Then by chance a tow truck just showed up," he said. "So, one of our firefighters, Brian Baker, went to escort the lady back to her car, and I was watching and as he was walking across the highway and out comes this car driving excessively fast for the conditions."
Captain Holstein watched as his fellow firefighter was struck by the vehicle, his body thrown several meters.
"When Brian was hit, I literally felt sick. I thought, I just witnessed one of my firefighters get killed. Thankfully, he did survive; with life-altering injuries."
Baker was later awarded the Medal of Bravey for his actions, as he had pushed the civilians out of harm's way when the car was travelling towards them. While what happened to Baker was tragic and horrific, it is something that Captain Holstein fears can happen to any roadside worker who is responding to a call on the side of the road.
"When you're in one lane working on the scene - that one lane however wide it is -15 to 20 feet, they're [vehicles] still whizzing by. That still puts you in danger, especially in the winter. We've had several near misses with people almost losing control because they would not slow down."
Captain Holstein noted that even with current laws in place, motorists do not abide by the regulations.
"People [aren't] slowing down, they're not paying attention. They're on their phones, taking pictures and videos of us. It is very scary out on the highway, working around traffic."
Airdrie Fire Chief, Mike Pirie also expressed concern over the incoming changes. Previously, Chief Pirie noted that oftentimes, when fire departments respond to calls on highways, debris from a collision doesn't confine itself to a single lane.
"A big benefit of that previous bill was to be able to have vehicles slowing down in both directions. I'm disappointed there was no consultation, and I look forward to seeing what the facts are that drove it."
New fines with regard to the amended traffic laws will also be in effect on Friday. Drivers who fail to comply with the new safety rules could receive a $243 fine and three demerits. Drivers passing any stopped roadside vehicle with flashing lights activated could also receive speed fines.
As Captain Holstein recalls the collision from many years ago, it is perhaps what he saw in the Fire Hall after the collision that is most poignant.
"I remember coming back to the [Crossfield Fire] hall, and we're volunteers - we're going out there risking life and limb to help people you know," Captain Holstein concluded. "Everybody is getting ready to go [home] and I look over at Brian's locker and his coat... There's [his] shoes there on the floor it really hit a hard that one of our guys may not come home."
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