Saturday, March 6, 2010

Toronto Star's Persistent Mothers Get Results

Women take up the cause of school vehicle safety – and win

Mar 06, 2010, Toronto Star,

When you need a law changed, who do you call? In New Brunswick, call some moms.

Late last month, Isabelle Hains, Ana Acevedo and Marcella Kelly achieved victory in their campaign to mandate winter tires on school-type minibuses in New Brunswick.

From left, Isabelle Hains, Ana Acevedo and Marcella Kelly, whose sons were killed in a crash in 2008, watch the tire tests they arranged last month at Continental Tire’s Michigan testing grounds.

But this was a victory born of tragedy – and frustration.

The women lost their sons in a crash between a school van and a transport truck in January 2008. The teens were returning from a basketball game and were five minutes from their destination when their vehicle fishtailed on a slippery highway outside Bathurst, N.B., and slammed into a truck. Seven high school students were killed, along with the wife of their coach.

The mourning mothers took up the cause of school vehicle safety to honour the memory of the victims.

Last October, they requested that the province change to an all-winter tire configuration on school minibuses, known as multi-function activity vehicles (MFAVs). But the government ignored them.

Expert opinions from Continental, Bridgestone, Michelin, Toyo, Transport Canada and several driving instructors only seemed to stiffen the government's determination to resist buying winter tires for the front wheels of the 14 incorrectly equipped minibuses in its fleet.

The province relied on a single report from a government consultant to support its decision to run all-seasons in front and winter tires on the back, despite the fact that Transport Canada had already sent several letters and emails pointing out that winter tires all around was safest.

The mothers continued their campaign for change. Then Joerg Burfien, head of research and design at Continental Tire, offered a solution: it would conduct a scientific, instrumented test of tire fitments at their Brimley Proving Ground near Sault Ste Marie, Mich. – for free.

No one had ever tested an MFAV or school minibus. This would be a first in North America.

Girardin Minibus Inc. of Drummondville, Que., stepped up and offered a brand new MicroBird model minibus for the test.

The only obstacle left was transporting the MFAV to Michigan by flatbed. The mothers contacted the Loblaw grocery chain – and with one email they got the help they needed. "Thanks so much for your note. We would indeed love to help with the project you suggest," was the reply from Allan Leighton, president and deputy chairman of Loblaw.

The mothers invited Transport Canada to the Continental test, but the department did not reply. The Michigan test was set for Feb. 24.

In the meantime, Transport Canada conducted last-minute tests. Looking at the web-posted video of them, it's obvious to anyone with even minimal tire-testing experience that they have zero scientific validity. (Go to the Transport Canada website and watch the white minibus bouncing through the fields.)

Yet on the day before the Michigan tests, New Brunswick announced it would now mandate winter tires all-round on minibuses, based on a Transport Canada test.

New Brunswick's Minister of Transport, Denis Landry, was not informed by Transport Canada that it was about to undertake testing, said transportation department spokesperson Andrew Holland. Landry learned that the test had been done only when the Transport Canada results were released, Holland said.

Meanwhile, the mothers had already flown to Michigan at their own expense. New Brunswick Minister of Education Roland Hache did not even inform them of the regulatory change as he had said he would. In fact, he insisted he did not know that tests were being done on his department's vehicles.

So the mothers flew home in the knowledge that they honoured their sons Daniel Hains, 17, Javier Acevedo, 17, and Nicholas Kelly, 15. They can be proud that now other schoolchildren will be safer as they head off to games and outings in the winter.

That victory should have been theirs in October with the first letter to the government.