Sunday, April 12, 2009

Basketball Coach who Put Children's Safety First Given $172 Fine: Failed to keep log of his trip

Belledune Village busBrice Noel, a part time basketball coach from Jacquet River, New Brunswick, whose quick thinking saved the lives of 14 young players in February when the wheel flew off the passenger van he was driving, has been fined $172 by the Department of Public Safety for failing to keep a log of his pre-trip inspection.

Mr. Noel said in an interview today that he was called to a meeting with two representatives of the Department of Public Safety in Bathurst on Friday, March 20. DPS employee, Stephen McIsaac, Supervisor, Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, told him that he was being charged for not recording the pre-trip inspection in a log book.

According to the Motor Vehicle Act, any person operating a 10-passenger van or multi-functional vehicle must keep a log that includes mileage, time and date of travel and confirmation of a pre-trip inspection.

"I was shocked," says Mr. Noel, of the move by DPS officials to charge him with a MVA infraction. "Some people told me I should get an award. Instead, I got a fine."

Noel says McIsaac told him that he didn't want to give him the fine but he had no choice. "There are going to be lots of changes coming," he told Mr. Noel who recalls that Mr. McIsaac also said "the government wants to charge somebody and since I had a Class 1 license I should have known better and they had to make an example of me."

Mr. Noel has a Class 1 license, which allows him to drive transport trucks. He is fully aware that logbooks are required for transport trucks, but he was unaware that there was a logbook for the Village of Belledune bus, which seats 24 persons.

He says he has been driving the Belledune bus for three years without incident and has never filled out a logbook. "I can confirm that there was not any logbook in the bus," insists Mr. Noel. "And no other driver whom I have spoken to has ever filled out a logbook because nobody was ever told about this requirement. We just take the bus and drive."

Mr. Noel feels that he is being made a scapegoat by the DPS because he told the truth about what happened to the media in the days following the incident. He asked if all the other people who drove the vehicle and never filled out a logbook are also going to get fined by the DPS?

"I'm one of only two people I know who actually did a pre-trip inspection of the bus and I'm the one who gets fined. There is no justice."

Mr. Noel's ill-fated trip with a busload of young students to a weekend basketball tournament in Hartland, NB attracted national attention when the wheel of the passenger van he was driving flew off and rolled ahead of him on a rural stretch of highway between Hartland and Woodstock.

It was Sunday, the day after Valentine's Day, and the team was returning home to Jacquet River from Hartland when the bus would not start.

"I got a boost because the alternator wasn't charging," explained Mr. Noel. After the boost, the team started out for Jacquet River but he noticed that the alternator still wasn't working properly.

"At this point, I had a choice to keep driving to Jacquet River in an unsafe vehicle with a busload of children or to turn around and go back to Woodstock, which was the closest town, and get the vehicle checked by a mechanic."

Mr. Noel drove the van slowly along the rural road to Woodstock. It was during that short trip that the vehicle started shaking and all of sudden, to their complete horror, the back wheel flew off the van, rolling ahead of them and into a ditch as they proceeded down the road. Mr. Noel immediately stopped the vehicle.

"Everyone was scared, the children were terrified. We were all thinking of the Boys In Red," says Mr. Noel, referring to the Bathurst High School Phantoms basketball team tragedy of January 12, 2008 in which seven players and the coach’s wife were killed.

Luckily, others who had been at the tournament in Hartland were driving by and recognized the bus along the side of the road. It's hard not to notice the vehicle, with the words "Belledune" emblazoned along the front. Mr. Noel explains that the people stopped, picked the team members up and brought them into Woodstock where he contacted the authorities.

By the next day, the story was all over the media in New Brunswick and soon hit the national news, evoking memories of the Bathurst tragedy which had just marked it first anniversary the month before.

Ironically, in the week preceding the journey to Hartland, Mr. Noel insisted that the van be inspected because he wanted to be certain that the bus was in tip-top shape before he drove the team to the basketball tournament. He brought the bus into the garage in Belledune on Thursday, February 12.

"They checked the air pressure on the tires, the belts, the engine and it was low on oil so they had to put a quart of oil in it. I was satisfied that it had been inspected properly and so on Friday we left with the team for Hartland, but not before I did a visual pre-trip inspection which was witnessed by some of the parents," he said. Apparently, that visual inspection was not good enough for the DPS. “It had to be recorded in a logbook,” says Mr. Noel.

After the wheel flew off, the Department of Transportation did a thorough inspection of the vehicle. Mr. Noel says he doesn't know what conclusions they have come to but he heard that the van will be brought to the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton to be reviewed by the team led by Frank Wilson. This is the same group that did the Federal Department of Transport accident reconstruction report on the Bathurst Phantoms passenger van last year.

Mr. Noel and the parents who were with him on the journey were so surprised by the charge that they paid it immediately through the basketball funds, rather than challenging the DPS.

"I was personally torn between paying the fine and challenging the DPS," says Mr. Noel. But in retrospect, he feels that it was better to pay the fine and publicly take responsibility for violating the MVA if it means that it raises awareness of this very important transportation safety rule - keeping a log of the pre-trip inspection.

He also wants to support the Bathurst mothers who are advocating for changes to the Department of Education's school transportation policies. "If it helps Isabelle Hains and Ana Acevedo to achieve their goals of improving safety by enforcing the laws, then I have no problem paying the fine and speaking about it to anyone who asks," says Mr. Noel.

However, he says that he would also like to see the people who are responsible for enforcing the laws be held to task for failing to do their jobs all these years. "It's been more than a year since the Boys In Red were killed and they're only enforcing these laws now? Something is seriously wrong when more than a year later nothing has been done from the province all the way down to the municipal governments who own these vehicles."

Interestingly, in February 2007, Mr. Noel took the same Belledune Village bus to Moncton with another parent and coach and the youth basketball team to see the Harlem Globetrotters play. On the way back, the weather started to turn bad. As they reached the Miramichi he felt that they should take a motel rather than proceed in dangerous driving conditions to Jacquet River.

Mr. Noel contacted the RCMP to confirm his opinion that the roads were too poor to travel on and he was told that the roads were slippery and unsafe for driving. He was advised to stay where they were. Based on that information, the children and adults stayed in a motel in Miramichi and proceeded to Jacquet River the next morning when the weather had cleared. They had to pay for the hotel themselves.