Friday, May 8, 2009

Day Five: Motor Vehicle Inspections Under Fire: Should have been every 6 months, Van lost in the bureacracy

Today we arrived at the Court House at about 8:50. It's the last day of the first week of the Inquest and it's hard to believe we're nearly half-way through already. It's been a very draining week, emotionally and physically. Today almost all the parents were there and we filled up the two front rows. There have been a lot of tears but we've also learned quite a few things that we didn't know before and it's been difficult but we have to do this for our sons.


We thought that Const. Yves Allain of the RCMP was going to give testimony today, and we suspected that we'd be seeing Principal Coleen Ramsay and former Vice-Principal Don McKay, but as it turned out we were completely wrong. Instead of the Principal and Vice-Principal, we saw the mechanic who passed the Motor Vehicle Inspection on the van in November 2, 2007. We don't have the witness list in advance so it's just a big guessing game and makes it very hard for us to prepare. We were surprised to see this witness on the stand this morning and had to scramble to adapt ourselves to this complete change in plans. Another reason the Coroners Act has to change.


The first witness to appear was Raymond Hachey, the mechanic from Hatheway Ford in Bathurst. He had been in the courtroom the day before with his boss, David Hatheway and Ricky Hondas, Hatheway's Service Advisor. We had the maintenance records from Hatheway Ford for a few months now so we knew what the records said. So we were looking forward to hearing what the mechanic had to say, because we hoped he could shed some light on the very complicated maintenance forms.

Unfortunately, we were disappointed because the mechanic couldn't remember ever working on the van, much less the Motor Vehicle Inspection in October / November 2007. Nor could he even remember filling out the MVI forms in which he gave it a passing grade.

There were a lot of things that he said today, fairly complicated testimony about the ins and outs of Motor Vehicle Inspections, but some of the things that stuck in our heads were the following points:

He said he doesn't check the air pressure on a vehicle because it's not required. We think air pressure should be checked on a vehicle's tires, that way the mechanic would get another chance to have a close up look because Mr. Hachey didn't seem to get a very good look at those bald, scalloped tires when he removed them from the wheel assembly, put them back on and gave them a passing grade.

He told us that he only checked the driver's seat belt instead of all the seat belts. We wonder is this a common practise when you're doing an inspection?

He said if there was a rust hole, he would reject it, but not if there is just rust. When asked if he would physically touch a rust spot on a vehicle to see if his finger would go through it, he said "No" because he might damage the client's car. We found this incredible to hear, knowing that the rust on the van would have made it fail an MVI less than two months later.

When asked if the broken adjuster cable would have an impact on the braking system, he said "No". But we found out later from Mr. Curtis Bennet, of Curt's Auto (who did a complete mechanical inspection on the vehicle at the request of the RCMP) that in fact it would cause the wheels to pull to one side.

When asked if he checked the tires, he said "Yes."

"Do you check for uneven wear, scalloping," asked the Crown Prosecutor, George Chiasson, and "Can you tell what it means?"

"It means the alignment is off," Hachey answered.

"Would you pass it?" Chiasson asked?

"Depends on how severe it is," he replied.

So it's a judgement call on a van that is known by this mechanic to be used by the Bathurst High School to transport children to sports events.

One of the reasons the MVI was rejected on October 29 was because the back door was damaged. Hachey was only able to remember the issue with the door being fixed in November because he had the maintenance records in front on him. He did know that the van was used to transport students to sporting events, but insofar as actually putting himself in the same place as that van at any time in October and November 2007, it was a lost cause. "I forget" was what he said.

Raymond Hachey's testimony - and that of his co-worker Rickey Hondas and their boss David Hatheway, showed us the big difference between dealerships and independent vehicle inspection stations. In the dealerships, there are too many people involved in the process. The mechanic never actually meets the client and there is no relationship between the client and the guy doing the job.

In the independent shops, the owner works there, it's his business and he has to face his clients if he doesn't do a good job. In the dealerships, there is a service advisor who talks to the dispatch person who gives the work order to the mechanic who does the job. Mr. Hachey is a qualified mechanic with a certification and eighteen years experience, but his job is so much like an assembly line that he didn't even remember working on the van. He also couldn't recall seeing the van in the shop even though it had been in the shop eight times between August 2 and November 19, 2007.

How is that possible that he couldn't remember seeing that white van from BHS that has the words PHANTOMS emblazoned across the front in big black letters?

The jury had a question to ask Mr. Hachey. They wanted to know if he knew that tires should be replaced, whether he would recommend that the client buy new tires and this is the response we got. "It's not my job." So far this week, we've heard that a lot from the Department of Transportation, now from the mechanic and we're expecting to hear it plenty more next week with the Department of Education.


The Coroner called for a break and testimony resumed at 11:05 am with Rickey Hondas, Service Advisor at Hatheway Ford. His job is to relay information from the customer to the dispatcher who passes it on to the mechanic. Rickey is the employees who writes out the information on the work order and he reports to his Service Manager, Tim Lizotte.

Mr. Hondas said that Don McKay brought the van in about 80% of the time. The last time the van was in the shop, it was brought in on November 16 and finished on the 19th because they had to wait for parts. He explained how the process worked and really didn't have much to offer but he did confirm a few things that we were wondering about, including some remarks that were on the records which were causing us some concern.


Since Mr. Hondas has only worked at Hatheways for five years, he was unable to comment on the December 2001 maintenance record which clearly stated that an MVI was to be done on this vehicle every six months. This was evidence that at some point in 2001, someone knew that this vehicle was supposed to have a MVI every six months. But the "Who, what, where, when, and why" questions were not answered today because Rickey Hondas didn't work at that time and his boss, David Hatheway who testified later, could only speculate as to why the maintenance record mentioned that it was supposed to have a MVI every six months.

Why the Crown Prosecutor didn't chase down this lead, we don't know why. The record shows the name of the service advisor at the time was an "Allen Noel". He was also still working at Hatheway Ford in 2005. He could shed some light on that whole situation of "MVI every six months". Then again, maybe he is going to testify next week? Who knows? If the Coroner or Crown Prosecutor would tell us who was the next witness, we could prepare ourselves.


This led to a discussion about what kind of a vehicle this was: a passenger van, a bus, a school vehicle, or a commercial vehicle. Once again, we heard the familiar refrain "It's not my job" when Hondas was asked who decides what kind of a vehicle it is.

This shows that both the mechanic and the Service Advisor don't know the rules of the Motor Vehicle Act, but to be fair, they're probably not the only ones in New Brunswick who don't know because it seems to be like a disease running rampant in the Inspection Stations across this province. Ask any mechanic at any service station and you'll get a different answer every time. Nobody seems to know what is going on and there is a good reason for it.

What is the reason? There are only 5 inspectors in the entire province. There is one inspector for the Bathurst region, which stretches a very long distance from Caraquet through to Bathurst and Miramichi. That is a lot of inspecting for one person to do, and you can bet they only come out when there is a complaint. In contrast, there are two liquor inspectors for Bathurst. Where are the priorities of this government?

After Ricky Hondas left the stand the Coroner and Crown Prosecutor called a break and we reconvened at 1:30 pm.


David Hatheway is co-owner of Hatheway Ford. He's been involved in his family business his entire life and although he's not a mechanic, he knows what he's talking about. Yet, he too did not know what kind of a vehicle the passenger van was and he looked puzzled and a bit worried about the situation he's facing now in this Inquest with all the questions about the type of inspection that was performed on this van in his shop all these years.

It makes you wonder who is in charge of Motor Vehicle Inspections in the province of New Brunswick when a dealership like this, which has been a big part of the community for many years, find itself in the middle of such a controversy over inadequate vehicle maintenance (as was previously explained very competently by Greg Sypher of the UNB Transport Group in yesterday's testimony).

It looks like there is a serious problem with the Motor Vehicle Inspection on this vehicle and David Hatheway admitted he was in a gray area. He didn't know if it should have received the same kind of inspection as a regular passenger vehicle or if it was supposed to be treated differently because it had more than ten passengers who just happened to be school children being transported to an extra-curricular activity.

David Hatheway knew a bit more about who owned the vehicle than Rickey Hondas and or the mechanic, but he was still vague on the details. He knew it had been purchased by Bathurst Van Inc. about ten years ago from another company that used the vehicle to transport clothing from Quebec to New Brunswick and back.

He said Bathurst Van Inc. paid its bills on time and he never had any problems with payment but he did say that if the occasion ever arose to speak to anyone at Bathurst Van Inc. it would probably be Don McKay, co-owner of Bathurst Van Inc. and former Vice-Principal of Bathurst High School.

One rather prophetic statement David Hatheway said was this: "My experience is that it's extremely common in older higher mileage vehicles that things will go wrong after a MVI." Too bad the Province of New Brunswick wouldn't take the wisdom in that statement and apply it to changes to the way inspections are done.

"This Vehicle Would Not Have Passed an MVI at This Time"

The next witness was Curtis Bennet of Curt's Auto Repair. Mr. Bennet performed a complete mechanical inspection of the van on January 20, 2008 at the request of the RCMP.

In his summary, he said "This vehicle must have been a handful to drive in this condition with front tires worn and scalloped like this. Also in winter driving conditions with rear all season tires worn this bad. This vehicle would not have passed an MVI at this time."

Mr. Bennet was like a breath of fresh air in that stuffy, air conditioned courtroom. He was relaxed and he spoke openly and freely about his experience with this van and inspections in general. He brought with him his own large 8 X 11 colour photographs of the brake assembly and the rust spots on the van. He explained to the jury in a simple, easy to understand way what was wrong with that van and we had the feeling that if he had done the inspection, our children would still be alive today.

He made it clear that the van should have had winter tires. "Wrong type. Should have been winter tires for this time of year," he wrote in his RCMP report.

One of the things that really struck us was when he said that he definitely would have touched the rust spots on the van and fixed it if he had done that inspection back in October and early November. He said that Hatheway Ford "didn't do the repair after it failed the MVI."

The jury had a number of questions to ask Mr. Bennet and no wonder, he was such a good communicator and you could feel that he was sincere and really cared.

Charles O'Donnel, Registrar of Motor Vehicles for the Province of New Brunswick
New Owners Neglected to Change Letter "M" Designation in License Plate

At 2:50 pm Mr. Charles O'Donnel came to the witness stand. Mr. O'Donnel confirmed that the van was registered to Bathurst Van Inc., license plate M37 286. Now the license plate number is important because the "M" at the beginning stands for "Miscellaneous". We couldn't believe what we were hearing. There is actually a designation called "Miscellaneous" when it comes to motor vehicles.

He said that although the vehicle was classified as a "bus" it was not "registered" as a bus. This makes a big difference. A "bus" should have a Motor Vehicle Inspection every six months, it should have a log book, and it should have an audit done by an Inspector - but it never happened. It makes us wonder about the other two vans that Bathurst Van Inc. owned. Were they also "M" class vans?

No wonder an auditor never took time out of his busy day to do an inspection. We did a little research and found out in about one hour that there are only five inspectors in the whole province of New Brunswick - one of them to service the entire Bathurst area stretching all the way to Caraquet and beyond. So it's unlikely that Bathurst Van Inc. is going to come on their radar until something catastrophic happens, which it did.

No audit was ever done of this vehicle. As Mr. O'Donnel explained, there are 7-8000 "carriers" in the province of New Brunswick. Each carrier (owner) is assigned a National Safety Code (NSC) number and when they are assigned a number they get a visit from an auditor. He said some carriers can have hundreds of vehicles, like a transport company for example, and others, like Bathurst Van Inc. can have three or less vehicles.

Mr. O'Donnel explained that what typically triggers a visit from an auditor is the registration process. Notification comes through to the NSC auditor who would make contact with that carrier. He said these sort of processes have to be done systematically.

He said the "M" plates (Miscellaneous) are an anamoly - an "M" plate vehicle usually doesn't carry a load (but as we know, the previous owners used the vehicle to transport clothing from Quebec to New Brunswick and back so how it got a "M" designation should be investigated).

In this case, the "M" vehicle was a "bus" and it didn't trigger an audit, which suggests to us that it was improperly registered with intent or the system of Motor Vehicle Registration was incapable of dealing with anamolies, preferring to stick
them in the "Miscelleneous" class of vehicle which gets lost in the quagmire of bureacratic bungling over at the Motor Vehicle Branch at the Department of Transportation in Fredericton.

When Mr. O'Donnel was asked by the jury "Should the registration have said it was a bus?", he answered: "It would certainly be helpful."

At least he didn't say it wasn't his job. We sincerely hope that he heard enough today to knows that it's going to be his job to hire a few more auditors and to change the Motor Vehicle Act to make sure that something like this never happens again, because there are still a lot of those "M" vans on the road right now as we speak and who knows what kind of condition they are in.

This is a public safety issue because these vans are on the road right now, they're not properly maintained. We could have another tragedy on our hands.

Mr. O'Donnel finished his testimony at 3:30 and the Coroner and Crown Prosecutor convened early for the weekend.

MONDAY, MAY 11, 2008

On Monday morning testimony resumes at 9 am. Again, we don't know who is on the witness list - how ridiculous and archaic can the New Brunswick Coroners Act be when we, the parents of the children who were killed in this tragedy, can't even get a witness list in advance. What is the point of witholding the witness list? There is no good reason in a modern, democratic society for us to not have the names of the people who are going to testify at this Inquest into the death of our sons. This process is not transparent and never will be until the Coroners Act is changed.

But our guess is that it will be Principal Coleen Ramsay, former Vice-Principal Don McKay, Vice-Principal George Willet and Norman Conde (a teacher at Bathurst High School) who together form the Board of Directors of Bathurst Van Inc.