An increase in collisions in one deadly construction zone in southwestern Ontario has the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) sounding the alarm on distracted driving and the top executive of the Ontario Road Builders’ Association (ORBA) wondering if the provincial government should find a way to help reduce the wreckage.
Statistics compiled by the Chatham-Kent detachment of the OPP for the period of April through July for a notorious stretch of Highway 401 where there is a prolonged construction zone on and off for 40 kilometres indicates there have been 61 collisions already, 28 involving commercial trucks. That is compared with a total of 88 crashes for a seven-month period last year, for the period of April to the end of October. Twenty-nine involved commercial trucks.
Local media relations officer Constable Jay Denorer was onsite in the immediate aftermath of a particularly distressing collision scene that unfolded Sunday, July 30 after 4:40 p.m. Westbound vehicles that had slowed to observe the outcome of two collisions that had occurred in the eastbound lanes in the construction zone near Dillon Road were ploughed into by a tractor trailer, resulting in a six-car pileup and the death of two occupants of a pickup truck, a 42-year-old mother and her 14-year-old son.
Denorer said he was horrified to see one truck driver walking around with a camera attached to his chest.
"I am yelling at him, 'what are you doing? Get back in your vehicle, stop taking pictures,' and he said, 'I'm not, I'm doing Facebook Live,' " said Denorer.
"So we haven't even got the parties out of the vehicle, one is being flown off to London, he probably hasn't even made it yet, the son is going off to Chatham, and he's doing Facebook Live. How would you like to learn your loved one has been killed in a collision on Facebook Live?"
The episode highlights how construction crews and first responders are impacted by collisions even when they are protected behind barriers.
Both Denorer and Geoff Wilkinson, ORBA executive director, said the modern scourge of distracted driving is a major culprit in the types of accidents that occur in highway construction zones. Denorer explained Highway 401 is two lanes through much of Chatham-Kent and so in the major construction zone between County Road 42 and Mull Road, vehicles have to merge from two lanes into one. Anyone checking a phone or reaching for a snack in the back seat may not be able to react to vehicles ahead that have slowed or stopped abruptly.
Two days after the deadly Dillon Road collision, Denorer issued a public statement dealing with the hazards of driving through a construction zone and noting the province has passed legislation doubling speeding fines where workers are present.
Asked if distracted driving was the definitive cause of the deaths that day, Denorer said the investigation was continuing.
"My own thought, the people on the westbound lane, they are gawkers, they are slowing down, they are taking their pictures, they are looking at the collisions," he said. "As soon as you start to slow down a bit on the 401, cars start to pile up behind you. That is one of the worst situations to be in, especially on Canada's busiest highway."
In June ORBA unveiled part two of its Site Unseen awareness campaign encouraging public awareness of the hazards of roadway construction zones. A poll undertaken by Leger found that nine out of 10 Ontarians have witnessed dangerous driving behaviours in construction zones.
Based on the results of the survey, said ORBA, it is adding emphasis to the dangers of distracted driving in its campaign, given that 60 per cent of Ontarians said they have seen drivers text and drive and 30 per cent admit to seeing people applying makeup while driving.
Despite efforts by roadbuilders to adhere to the rules found in Book 7, the Ontario manual prescribing traffic control in work zones, and by ORBA to preach to the public about hazards through Site Unseen and other campaigns, the numbers showing continuing casualties are "frustrating," said Wilkinson.
"I'm not sure we can do more, other than to let the government know we need to do more," he said. "And maybe they need to do more in terms of protecting drivers."
Denorer and Wilkinson both spoke about the repercussions of collisions on their members. Wilkinson noted construction workers often play the role of first responders when a collision occurs. They engage in area maintenance, set up blocker trucks and are there to support the accident scene.
Denorer said the OPP works closely with the Ministry of Transportation and paving companies to devise safe chutes, but "then you get people who get impatient, and I've seen it when they come racing by me as I'm entering the chute, at the last second they cut over, and it's where you cause a collision.
"Our members show up, and just having to deal with the people in the vehicle, even though we put up that tough exterior, it affects you and that affects you for years to come."