We still don’t know how it all started.

But we do know.

Most of us have driven through white-outs, knuckles as white as the pelting snow, intensely aware that the slightest mistake on the steering wheel could send our vehicle caroming out of control with just a few thin strips of metal between us and eternity.

In our imaginations, a massive ghost truck looms out the whiteness.

There’s nowhere to go but straight into its headlights.

RCMP still truly don’t know how it all started at about 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 21, not until every collision report is complete and every driver and passenger interviewed.

On the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, 20 kilometres south of Leduc, 50 kilometres north of Ponoka, just past a rise, in the midst of a white-out, heading north, one vehicle must have collided with another.

Vehicle after vehicle came over that rise, sliding helplessly into other vehicles – sedans, SUVs, pick-ups, bigger trucks, tractor-trailers, fuel-tankers, buses, cattle-liners.

The lucky ones, about half of the 85 to 100 total number of vehicles, ended up buried in the ditch, but avoided collisions.

Miraculously – see the end of this column – there was only one serious injury. Twenty-two others went to hospital for treatment for minor injuries.

But this is a business column.

And as a business column, I was intrigued by the actual costs of such a major smash-up, one of the biggest in Canada.

The surprising thing is, with no deaths, one serious injury and little likelihood of life-long disabling injuries, this pile-up didn’t cost that much.

It was also reassuring. Alberta’s public emergency planning, when called into action, works.

Most of the emergency and victim-support personnel on the scene were already on-duty.

Part-time firefighters in Millet and Wetaskiwin are paid by the call, but Alberta Transport provides compensation for emergency calls to a provincial highway.

Area hospitals were briefly on a “Code Orange” – initial reports suggesting 300 injuries– but it ended so quickly that no additional personnel had to be called in.

There were small costs from victim assistance – like sandwiches at recreation centres. But nothing onerous.

Which brings us to insurance.

“In a freak storm like this, with multi-vehicle collisions, major insurance companies usually agree to simply take care of their own,” says MHK Insurance claim services manager Jay O’Hara.

Unless, that is, one particular driver at the start of the chain reaction is found negligent. In that case, heaven help the guilty driver. Every insurance company will want a piece of his/her hide.

“Even if that vehicle carried $1 million to $2 million in third-party liability insurance,” says O’Hara, “it won’t come close to covering the repairs or replacement of all those vehicles and trucks.

Had there been deaths, or disabling injuries, it’d be a far more expensive story.

In actual fact, for insurers, this pile-up isn’t a huge deal. The damage pay-out from an urban hail storm would be far more costly.

“Any blizzard will usually result in 100-or-so vehicle insurance claims,” says O’Hara. “These ones happened to be altogether.”

That there was only one serious injury – to an individual who left a car – is testament to the safety features of modern vehicles. Wide ditches off the shoulders of the QEII also helped.

Still, the minimal human damage was nothing short of miraculous.

“At one point,” says Wetaskiwin fire chief Merlin Klassen, “a bus ran into a fuel-tanker, rupturing its tank. But the tank was empty.

The bus then bounced off a cattle-liner. But somehow the bus stayed upright.

“Had the fuel-tanker been full of fuel, had the bus flipped, 39 people could have been trapped with a fire raging around them and cattle spilled out onto the highway.

“Another b-train (two-tanker) truck in the pile-up was a poisonous liquid carrier. It came perilously close to being ruptured. But its tanks were not only empty but purged. Imagine a poisonous gas escaping at the scene.”

Money, who cares? It’s only money.

The most precious commodity of all, human life, was not taken from us.

Facts from the March 21, 2013 pile-up on the QEII

Number of ambulances responding: 15

Number of fire trucks (estimated): nine

Number of individuals transported to hospital: 23

Number of RCMP on the scene: At least 20, with assistance from Edmonton police.

Total vehicles “linked” in original smash-up, about 50.

Total vehicles involved, 85 to 100. (Final numbers being assembled by the RCMP)

Number of vehicles in smash-up likely uninsured: About four – The percentage of uninsured drivers in Alberta is estimated at 3.84%.

Total cost of repairs and replacement of damaged vehicles: Not yet known.

Collision and casualty statistics suggest vehicle safety is improving in Canada

1991: 3,228 fatalities, 170,693 personal injuries

2000: 2,547 fatalities, 153,859 personal injuries

2010: 2,000 fatalities, 123,141 personal injuries

(Figures courtesy of RCMP, Alberta Health Services, surrounding municipalities and the Insurance Bureau of Canada)

Graham Hicks