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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Blinded by the light

A car’s super-bright headlights might work great for the driver, but what about all the other drivers out there? —
A car’s super-bright headlights might work great for the driver, but what about all the other drivers out there? — 123RF Stock Photo

There’s a little kink in Nova Scotia’s Highway 104 that I’ve always loved.

If you are going north, it’s just past the sign that reads “Marshy Hope” — it’s a small, tight S-bend between steeply climbing hillsides on both sides of the road.

Through that narrow gap runs the highway, a railway line and Barney’s River — the three virtually fill the small valley. Barney’s River cuts under the road: it’s a bright, peaty, fast-running brook that looks, in summer, as if it were meant for rolling up your pants to your knees and standing in, feeling the water sweep by your ankles.

That stretch of road is, however, a part of a stretch known for being among that province’s most dangerous roads.

The 38 kilometres of road between Sutherland’s River and Antigonish has seen 414 collisions and 16 deaths in the last decade. It’s a busy road, the main link to Cape Breton and then on to the ferry to Newfoundland, carrying an estimated 15,000 vehicles a day — 2,500 of them transport trucks.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the road itself that’s the danger — it’s the drivers, and sometimes, their cars.

The highway is scheduled to be twinned, a $195-million project with a completion date of 2024, but right now, it’s a bottleneck where drivers come off a four-lane divided highway with a 110 kilometre an hour speed limit, into a 100 km/h two-lane. And any driver covering a long distance knows how hard it is, once you’re comfortable at a higher speed, to bring your driving down to what feels, by comparison, almost impossibly slow.

The transition from the ease of divided highway to the tighter confines of two lanes — even with paved shoulders — is difficult, and even more so at night.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the road itself that’s the danger — it’s the drivers, and sometimes, their cars.

I know — I was almost put off the road there last week. Not by bad driving, but by something else.

It was nighttime, and I was on a schedule. I was trying to get to Truro from North Sydney before a forecast snowstorm started. I had a rabbit — another car out in front of me that I could follow with only the low-beams on, with the other car’s taillights to show me upcoming bumps and bends before I reached them.

It was steady, straightforward driving; no eager speeders trying to pass where they shouldn’t, no transport trucks slowing to below 70 km/h on the long uphills and then racing back and filling up your rearview mirrors on the downhill runs.

I watched the rabbit enter the top of the S-bend. I’d been expecting Barney’s River, remembering it from daytime drives, wondering if I would be able to pick it out in the lightless night. I figured, if anything, my headlights would catch the rock face on the left-hand side of the road.

Then, the comforting twin red lights ahead winked out as the other car went around the corner.

Black, except for my headlights.

Then, I was slammed with the brilliant blue-white light of the kind of after-market super-bright headlights that seem to be popping up more and more often. You’ve seen them: headlights so bright they hurt your eyes. Not high beams; the driver coming the other way didn’t apologetically dip the lights. No, just — without warning — a wall of bright-white blinding light, followed by a welter of green afterimages.

Around the corner I went, into a maelstrom of other lights: two RCMP cars, light bars flashing, a wrecker gathering up car parts from the road, two cars pulled over with their hazard lights flashing. I was right in the middle of it, completely by surprise.

If my eyes hadn’t been so dazzled by the bright-white headlights, I might have seen the red and blue lights of the RCMP cars reflecting off the trees even before I got around the curve. I know I saw those reflections after I passed the scene, as my eyes readjusted.

The driver of the other car, heading north in a comfortable cone of brilliant visibility?

Probably delighted with the effectiveness of his new headlights, and completely oblivious to the fact that there are other drivers on the road, and that they have to be able to see as well.

If I’d wrecked, the driver whose car would have been the cause would probably be thanking their lucky stars they weren’t involved.

They might even think their headlights had kept them that much safer on the night road.

But what about everyone else?

Other columns by this author
RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Not all tales are hypnotizing

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: On memory

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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