Six deaths in 1 year prompt Highway 3 safety reckoning in N.W.T.

The tragic death of Kelly Washie, who was struck and killed by a transport truck on Dec. 31, has prompted a big discussion about safety on the road between Yellowknife and Behchoko.

In the legislature Monday, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty explained that Washie had wanted to use the restroom, and since there are no washrooms along the road, he had to go outside. He was at the back of the vehicle when a truck went by raising a cloud of snow. “Couldn’t see anything,” Lafferty said. “That was when Mr. Washie was struck by this transport truck.” 

Washie’s death was the latest in a string of fatalities on the deadly stretch of highway. The Tlicho Government says six lives were lost in 2020 alone. A 2018 traffic collision report (the latest published by the Department of Infrastructure) suggests that Highway 3 in 2020 saw more highway deaths than the entire territory has experienced in one calendar year in at least a decade.

Lafferty pressed the minister of Infrastructure, Diane Archie, to consider lowering speed limits, making clearer safety protocols around stopped vehicles and upping highway enforcement. Lafferty also pressed Archie for statistics on the number of Highway 3 accidents involving tractor trailers.

A death on New Year’s Eve prompted a major highway safety meeting in Behchoko on Feb. 1. (Tlicho Government)

On Feb. 1, Tlicho chiefs invited community leaders, government, industry and RCMP for a highway safety meeting prompted by Washie’s death. 

Behchoko Chief Clifford Daniels says that, even on short notice, the meeting was well attended. 

“It really hit the nerve, I guess,” Daniels said of Washie’s death, noting that the majority of life lost along the highway was from Behchoko. 

Daniels cites many factors for the increase in fatal accidents, including trucks resupplying the mines, poor weather and a growth in local commuter traffic between Yellowknife and Behchoko. He says the solution should be holistic. 

“We the chiefs have said we would go on the radio and try to ask the public to slow down and abide by the rules in place,” he said. “Be really safety conscious. Don’t stop anywhere.”

Daniels, like others, wants to see better cellphone service for when accidents do happen. He wants fewer people to park on the edge of the road for two or three days at a time. 

He also acknowledges that the condition of the road can make things tricky. “It’s like a roller coaster,” he said of the road which has dips in places over marshy and boggy land. “Sometimes you get a jolt and you feel it in your back.

“But we’re like a suburb of Yellowknife and we rely on Yellowknife quite a bit.” 

Not just trucks

Though Archie didn’t offer any numbers on accidents involving transport trucks, Blair Weatherby of Yellowknife’s Weatherby Trucking said fatalities involving big trucks are relatively rare.

The highway is expected to carry 6,000 truck loads of goods this year destined for the winter road to the diamond mines, which opened Monday. That prompted some fears of a surge in traffic. Weatherby said about two thirds of those loads are already landed in Yellowknife, which means traffic won’t change significantly. 

 As for speed limits, Weatherby doesn’t think they’ll work if they’re not enforced.

He recalled a time some years ago when separate speed limits were imposed on the Ingraham Trail: 50 km/h for trucks and 70 km/h for regular vehicles. Weatherby said that’s the most dangerous combination of all because it leads to local traffic passing trucks in dangerous conditions. 

“It’s not enforcement that’s gonna save lives. It’s people’s attitudes and how they drive,” he said. 

He’d like to see people stop parking on the side of the road to visit cabins or do anything else. 

“Everybody has to be in control of themselves. Don’t trust anybody. If you’re on the side of the highway, that vehicle coming down the road could kill you.”

That echoes a list of advice the Tlicho Government issued to drivers following the meeting, which includes taking your time, following speed limits, keeping distance between yourself and other vehicles and using safety vests or pylons to warn others if you must stop. 

Whati Chief Alfonz Nitsiza was also at the highway safety meeting.

The ice road to Whati, which goes through Behchoko, has been open for over a week now, and Nitsiza expects the road to Gameti to open within the week, bringing additional traffic. 

“Most of it is education,” Nitsiza said. “Telling people not to stop on the highway unless they really need to.”