How my family survived a highway crash

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The five occupants of this 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan — my son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren — survived a head-on collision on the TransCanada Highway Thursday evening. I offer the following details in hopes that other families will find it helpful to understand the factors that decisively improved their chances of survival.

Shortly before 5 p.m, August 26, my family was westbound on Route 105 in Lexington, Nova Scotia, just north of the Canso Causeway, when a severe rain squall hit the area. Daughter-in-law Jenn had just slowed down when an eastbound car apparently hydroplaned and spun across the centerline into their path.

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Grandson Jacob, age 6, suffered a broken femur. The others — Jenn, my son Silas, Jacob’s twin brother Josh and sister Maggie, 8 — were badly bruised and badly shaken. Surgeons at the IWK-Grace Hospital in Halifax repaired Jacob’s leg Saturday. Doctors expect all to recover fully. We are grateful to them, and to the EMTs and volunteers who responded to the crash.

The driver and lone occupant of the other car, Marlene MacDonald of Port Hawkesbury and Washabuckt, died at the scene.

I offer my sincere sympathy to Ms. MacDonald’s daughters, grandchildren, and siblings. Events like this cause those affected to reflect on counterfactual alternatives; since Thursday, our family and friends have thought constantly of the MacDonald family’s suffering, and how easily it could have been ours. I am sorry for their loss.

Death and injuries in car crashes result not from a vehicle’s collision with another object but from what’s sometimes called the second collision — that of the occupants with the inside surfaces of the car. The second collision occurs a fraction of a second after the first.

Here are some of the factors that made the second collision survivable in my family’s case:

  • Jenn reduced speed to reflect driving conditions, lessening the force of the subsequent impact.
  • In response to legislation, insurance company pressures, and consumer demand, automobile manufacturers have made tremendous improvements in the crashworthiness of their cars over the last decade. Modern vehicles are better engineered to absorb and dissipate the force of sudden impacts while maintaining the integrity of the passenger compartment.
  • Jenn and Silas drove a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan equipped with front and side airbags. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety gives this model a “good” rating (its highest) for “frontal offset” and “side impact” test results. You can check the crashworthiness of your car here.
  • All the occupants were secured with optimal, industry-recommended safety equipment: the adults with standard lap-and-shoulder belts; the eight-year-old with a child’s safety booster seat held in place by a  lap-and-shoulder belt; the six-year-olds by properly secured child safety seats appropriate to their size and weight.

The last point merits emphasis. For many families, child safety seats are expensive to purchase and tedious to install and use. After Thursday, the expense and inconvenience look pretty small to us, the benefits enormous.

Finally, a word of thanks to the numberless, nameless engineers, auto executives, safety advocates, insurance industry risk analysts, and legislators who helped my dear family survive.

Their survival is not a miracle. It is the result of considered steps by real people to improve highway safety.

The Negro Motorist Green Book

The New York Times previews a play and a forthcoming children’s book about a nearly forgotten travel guide that helped African Americans (and African Canadians) navigate the segregated accommodations that prevailed into the 1960s.

A Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor H. Green conceived the guide in response to one too many accounts of humiliation or violence where discrimination continued to hold strong. These were facts of life not only in the Jim Crow South, but in all parts of the country, where black travelers never knew where they would be welcome….

Historians of travel have recognized that the great American road trip — seen as an ultimate sign of freedom — was not that free for many Americans, including those who had to worry about “sunset laws” in towns where black visitors had to be out by day’s end…

“The ‘Green Book’ tried to provide a tool to deal with those situations. It also allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was both a defensive and a proactive mechanism,” [said Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture].

In the introduction to his guide, which became known familiarly as, “The Green Book,” Victor Green wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

It ceased publication in 1964, the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.


In response to the fuss over Halifax sewage sludge, Contrarian reader S.P. points out that the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, District Sewerage Commission has been selling processed sludge under the brand name Milorganite for more than eight decades. The name, a contraction of Milwaukee organic nitrogen, was the winner of a 1925 naming contest in National Fertilizer Magazine.

MilorganiteA corporate history on the commission’s website explains that product grew out of a pollution control program. Early in the last century, the city formed the commission to clean up organic matter flowing into Milwaukee’s waterways. The commission opened a laboratory to study a British chemist’s scheme for aerating sludge with oxygen and then allowing it to settle in ponds. It decided to incorporate the system into a new treatment plant on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The only question was what to do with the microbial solids that accumulated during the process. The visionary commission established a fellowship at the University Of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture to investigate the use of activated sludge as fertilizer, and by the mid-1930s, it was selling 50,000 tons of Milorganite a year to golf courses and home gardeners. My parents used it when I was a child.

The process is tightly controlled with daily testing that keeps contaminants an order of magnitude below the EPA’s upper limits for “exceptional quality” fertilizer. Further evidence, if more were needed, that the fuss over what we might call Halorganite is ill-informed to the point of silliness, and runs counter to best environmental practices for dealing with human waste. Journalists and city councillors need to start distinguishing between science-based environmentalism and magical belief systems.

The biosolidity of Ellen Page

If the admirable Ellen Page* wants to contribute to the environment of her home province, she might consider pressuring the Dexter government to rethink its politically expedient decision to delay regulations to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Mercury is a dangerous element with well-known impacts on human health, especially the health of young children. The province and Nova Scotia Power have known about their obligation to clean up mercury emissions for years, if not decades. [Disclosure: both NSP and the NS Govt. have been my clients.] The government’s decision to back away from that legislated commitment in the face of a threatened power rate increase came as a huge blow to morale in its Environment Department.

Power rates have been the third rail of Nova Scotia politics ever since they caused the defeat of Gerald Regan’s government in 1978. Darrell Dexter is nothing if not cautious, and he made the pragmatic decision to sacrifice a near-term improvement in public health for political longevity. That’s real politics, and a figure of Page’s stature could make a real contribution by weighing in on the side of health.

That would be a better use of her talents than opposing the productive recycling of biosolids, as she did in this appalling CBC-TV interview. Money quote:

I’m an advocate of hu-manure and utilizing our urine as a great nitrogen source for gardens and plants, but biosolids are very much not hu-manure… I like to refer to it as sewage sludge. It’s highly toxic. Look, I’m not a scientist, so I’ll say that obviously, but I’m a very concerned citizen and I’m worried because this is highly toxic material that is already being put on our land without the transparency of letting citizens of HRM and of Nova Scoti know.

Ellen Page
Ellen Page

To paraphrase, Page sympathizes with government’s desire to recycle human shit and urine, and she acknowledges that she brings no scientific expertise to the discussion, but she believes Halifax’s sewage sludge contains too many toxic contaminants, whose implications have not be fully disclosed to or discussed with residents.

No single word is more misused, in journalism and in environmentalism, than “toxic.” It’s a relative term that is almost invariably tossed about as an absolute. The public imagines that everything is either toxic or not toxic, whereas toxicologists and serious environmentalists know that virtually everything, including pure water, is toxic at sufficient dose. Dosis sola facit venenum. Dose is what determines risk.

My hero: Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541)

Mercury is highly toxic at low doses. That’s why scientific risk assessment justifies spending lots of money (and political capital) to keep it out of our air. Untreated sewage also harms the environment, so most countries have stepped up efforts to remove solids from the waste stream. The question is what to do with them.

To answer the question, HRM built a biosolids processing plant at Aerotch Park to treat sewage sludge using the commercial N-Viro process. The HRM website has a description of the plant and the process, together with a schematic. The N-Viro Corporation website has a more detailed description of the process.

The provincial website offers a list of links on the use of biosolids throughout Canada, and a fact sheet on biosolids [PDF] (though the latter, frankly, is long on reassuring generalities and regrettably short on technical specifics.)

When the use of biosolids in Colchester County touched off a not-in-my-backyard furor a few years ago, the province held a public Biosolids Forum at which a variety of experts discussed their treatment and safety. (View their presentations.) Nova Scotia also established a broad-based committee to review provincial policy on agricultural use of biosolids. That led to revised and stricter guidelines [PDF] for biosolid use here.

The guidelines are worth a quick read. In contrast to the raw cow, pig, and chicken manure farmers apply freely to their lands, the HRM biosolids will be treated to kill pathogens. Samples from the plant will be tested regularly for fecal coliform, salmonella, Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Lead, Selenium, Zinc, dioxins, furans, and PCBs. The guidelines restrict the use of biosolids on farmland by proximity to 14 categories of land and land use, including watercourses, drinking water supplies, bedrock outcroppings, drainage ditches, roads, buildings, etc. The setbacks vary according to the slope of the land, and depth to groundwater and bedrock.

Want more information? The Food Action Committee of the Ecology Action Centre (an environmental group I belong to and support) has a short position paper [Word doc] opposing the agricultural use of biosolids, but it’s very general, and focuses on an alleged lack of transparency. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment’s Biosolids Task Force has a website. A search of US educational websites for “biosolids safety agricultural use” yields 42 scientific papers; the same search on Canadian websites turns up 28.

Forums, task forces, stakeholder committees, websites, guidelines: Is it fair or accurate to describe all this as a lack of transparency?

On balance, HRM’s biosolids program offers a responsible way to recycle critical nutrients that would otherwise pose a pollution problem. Environmentalists ought to celebrate it, not oppose it.

One final note: Even by the lame standards of environmental reporting in Canada, the CBC’s treatment of this story is beyond disappointing. It took this unpaid blogger only a few hours to assemble the information and links included in this post, yet host Tom Murphy appeared to have no research at hand to contest Page’s wild claims about toxicity and non-transparency:

Murphy: But you know there is research out their suggesting, hey, it’s OK, and in this case the city put on, I think, about 25% of the manure they were using was this, so what do you say to that when they roll out the scientists to say it’s OK?

Page: At one point, doctors told us to smoke, so, you know what I mean?

So much for science. So much for journalism. I know television is conflict- and personality-driven, and by its nature must simplify complex issues, but this is negligent reporting by any standards.

* More disclosure: I like Ellen Page. In 2003, when we were just getting our little film series off the ground, she was generous enough to travel to Sydney to attend our Canadian premiere screening of Marion Bridge, in which she had a breakout role. I have tried to write this post in a way she might find persuasive, although I suppose she won’t. Should she want to respond, Contrarian’s space is hers.

Administrivia: missing videos in Contrarian emails

Where possible, I like to embed videos in Contrarian, to save readers the trouble of clicking through to them,  while including the links for those who prefer to view them at source.

Lately, however, most of the embedded videos are disappearing from the emails a few hundred of you use to read Contrarian [see link (1) at right.] At first I assumed this was an artifact of Steve Jobs’s hatred of Adobe Flash, causing the embedded videos to disappear chiefly on iPads and iPhones. But, no, of late they have failed to show up in my regular email program.

Is this true for all readers? Is it caused by some new upgrade to WordPress? To Thunderbird? To Google’s email posting system? To some change in the way websites compose their embed codes? I don’t know, and honestly, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to track down the answer. If some knowledgeable person out there knows the answer, and a fix, please let me know.

In the meantime, at some sacrifice of graphical purity for those reading posts on the website, I will try to flag the existence of embedded videos, and alternative links if they don’t display in email.