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Ottawa Citizen: Humboldt crash shows (again) why we need a federal road-safety agency

April 16, 2018 — 

The following is an op-ed from Ahmed Shalaby, U of M Professor of Transportation Engineering and Municipal Infrastructure Research Chair, originally published in the Ottawa Citizen:

The crash of the Humboldt Broncos bus at a nondescript intersection in rural Saskatchewan highlights gaps in the federal government response to an event that has deeply touched the soul of the nation.

Beyond the unprecedented outpouring of support to the victims and their families, it has become clear that no agency of the government of Canada has a mandate to conduct an in-depth safety investigation of this crash, or of any other road crash, no matter how tragic its outcomes are.

A technical safety investigation differs from the investigations conducted by the police or the RCMP in that it would not focus on the assignment of blame or criminal charges. Rather, it would gather factual information both from the crash scene and from a history of crashes in other jurisdictions, and conduct an in-depth analysis by a multidisciplinary expert team, with the overall objective of finding causes and contributing factors.

It is no longer acceptable that the federal government should absolve itself from the responsibility to identify road safety deficiencies, determine what should be done differently to avoid future disasters, and apply the appropriate recommendations across the country.

As the chilling accounts of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash emerge, they will prove that the crash between a bus carrying a Saskatchewan junior hockey team, and an Alberta-licensed truck is not just another accident, but is a matter of high national and even international interest. It is worthy of a coordinated national response in the form of an independent safety investigation led by a federal watchdog.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), an independent federal agency, advances air, rail, marine and pipeline safety. The TSB investigates incidents in these four modes. Despite the TSB’s all-encompassing name, road transportation is deliberately absent from its mandate because road construction and upgrades are considered a provincial responsibility.

By leaving out road transportation, the federal government is shirking its responsibility to lead the safety investigations of crashes that are responsible for 95 per cent of all transportation fatalities in Canada, a staggering 1,900 fatalities each year. It is time the federal government empowered the TSB to advance road safety across Canada as it does in the other four transportation modes.

Since its inception in 1990, the TSB investigations have had profound impacts on how transportation infrastructure is built, managed and operated. Through the investigations of the 2013 Lac Mégantic rail disaster, and the 2005 Air France 358 crash at Pearson Airport, and many others, critical safety improvements were adopted, including upgrades to the Class 111 rail tank cars, and upgrades to runway end safety areas.

Ten years ago, a 15-passenger van carrying the Bathurst high school basketball team and a transport truck collided head-on near Bathurst, N.B. Seven players and their coach’s wife died in the crash. The absence of an independent watchdog with an unrestricted mandate to conduct investigations and implement change on a national scale can be felt in the aftermath of that tragedy.

As Richard Foot commented in the Citizen April 10, the status quo on road safety must be challenged. His startling evidence from the Bathurst crash is an agonizing cry for action. Foot writes, “In the wake of the crash, the province banned 15-passenger vans, like the Bathurst High vehicle, from transporting students. Beyond that single measure, neither the school district nor any government authority took action to fundamentally tighten safety procedures or significantly alter the way children are transported to school events.

“It fell to three of the grieving mothers of the players to demand change. They forced various governments to hold an inquest, toughen up winter tire practices, and issue national standards for extracurricular transportation.”

Is it not time that the Canadian government relieve the grieving victims of Humboldt and Bathurst and the many others from being the only voices to press for change? Is it not time that the government extend the same duty of care it currently offers only air, marine and rail travellers to road users?

In the wake of the Humboldt Broncos crash, the need for an independent government agency empowered to lead the safety investigations of certain road crashes has never been more obvious.

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