Monday, January 19, 2009

Sussex Crash Recommendation Met with "Buck Passing and Denial"

We started investigating previous Coroners Inquests to see how the participants felt about the process because we had heard that family members who have testified before at Inquests were not satsified with the Coroners Act because of a number of reasons, including the fact that they had no standing at the Inquest.

There are three cases in particular that strike as important because in all three cases the survivors publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the process and the recommendations that came out of the inquiry. In this blog we'll reproduce some articles from the media that speak to the issues facing the tragic Sussex bus crash of April 27, 2001 which took the lives of four American children who were on their way from Boston to Halifax to attend a music competition.

Sussex bus crash recommendations met with buck-passing or denial

New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal
Tuesday, February 4, 2003
Section: News
Byline: MAC TRUEMAN Telegraph-Journal

It's been more than 20 months since four young American students died in the pre-dawn crash of a chartered bus near Sussex.

And whether a similar accident can be prevented in New Brunswick "is solely a function as to how seriously government officials and manufacturers take the recommendations of the coroner's jury," warns Tom O'Neil, a Saint John lawyer who represented the estates of the four dead students at the inquest held in Sussex last October.

But many of the recommendations have been met with buck-passing or denial. Others are ideas some agencies were already working on before the inquest was held.

For example, Public Safety Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney has argued that it's federal Transport Canada's job to make sure buses are equipped with seatbelts.

Francois Asselin, Transport Canada's spokesman for road safety, agrees that Ottawa can legislate seatbelts for new buses built or bought in Canada.

But he says only the provinces and territories can make passengers use them. Furthermore, only the provinces and territories have jurisdiction to make the bus companies retrofit seatbelts on vehicles they already own.

In the early morning hours of April 27, 2001, the bus was carrying 42 members of a student band from Oak Hill Middle School, in Newton, Mass., plus a few teachers and parents, to perform at a concert in Halifax. At the intersection where Route 1 joined what was then the Trans-Canada Highway at Sussex, the bus missed the Moncton turnoff (which would have taken it to Nova Scotia) and instead went off the hairpin Fredericton ramp and skidded on its side.

Gregory Chan, Steven Glidden, Melissa Leung and Kayla Rosenberg, ages 12 and 13, were thrown out an unlatched window and crushed beneath the vehicle.

Several witnesses suggested that the American driver Hin Chi Kan, who rode as a passenger from Newton and took the wheel at the St. Stephen border crossing, may have been too dozy with fatigue to notice the Moncton turnoff or the ramp that he took instead. Others argued that the Nova Scotia turnoff wasn't marked and the loop was hidden behind the overpass.

But Mr. Kan, who faces being jailed on a Motor Vehicle Act charge if he comes back across the Canadian border, was not at the hearing.

This robbed the community of the closure they could have felt, Sussex Mayor Ralph Carr says.

"There's still a lot of unanswered questions right there that people have, parents in particular."

Even so, the inquest played an important role for lawyers like Mr. O'Neil, who are involved in the victims' families' lawsuit against the two involved bus companies and the Province of New Brunswick. The action is registered in Massachusetts.

Because they had charges pending against the driver, the RCMP refused to reveal their evidence to lawyers in the civil suit. "It was only through the forum of the inquest that the estates of the four children that were killed were able to obtain the details about the police investigation," Mr. O'Neil said.

The jury called for rumble strips and flashing lights to warn unwary drivers of intersections like this - even though the Transportation Department had already taken these measures in Sussex after months of media hounding. By the time of the inquest, the province was ripping up the fatal ramp and replacing it with a four-lane interchange.

Tracey Burkhardt, communications director, said her department has adopted the policy of considering these signals for every intersection that may be dangerous. It's just that they haven't found one dangerous enough.

"The engineers have a concern that just installing rumble strips as a rule in every case could lead to people not paying enough attention to them."

Chief Coroner Dianne Kelly made sure the jury's recommendations for compulsory seatbelts and alarms that signal when a door or window is unlatched were sent to the Canadian Bus Association, Transport Canada and both of Canada's motorcoach manufacturers.

Sylvain Langis, bus association president, said his members would comply with a seatbelt law, but he's not sure the law would be a good idea. Studies have shown that lap belts themselves cause injuries, and that unbelted passengers are safer in buses than in cars, he said. As for enforcing a seatbelt law, "there's not much we can do during the trip when the driver's attention is on the road."