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No stop sign? Robert Major still should have yielded to highway traffic, collision expert tells trial

A survivor of the deadly highway crash and two rescuers who pried Robert Major and his passengers out of the crumpled wreck of his truck testified Friday, as the first week of Major's dangerous driving trial came to an end.

Survivor who suffered brain damage and rescuers testify as 1st week of dangerous driving trial ends

A replacement stop sign was installed at the intersection just days after the deadly crash. The original, also seen here, had been damaged at last two weeks before, but went unreplaced ahead of the crash. (courtesy Court of Queen's Bench )

Robert Major should have yielded to highway traffic even if a stop sign was not in place the day his truck collided with a fully loaded car-hauler, an RCMP collisions expert testified at Major's dangerous driving trial Friday.

In the morning darkness of Feb. 22, 2016, Major was driving his pickup truck north on gravel Grid Road 3083, toward Highway 16, about eight kilometres west of Langham, Sask.  

Major had six passengers with him: four children; his girlfriend, Kimberly Oliverio; and employee Scott Eckel. None were wearing seatbelts.

After driving through the Highway 16 intersection at a recorded speed of 134 kilometres an hour — more than 50 kilometres over the speed limit — Major crashed into a semi hauling nine cars and weighing about 36,000 kilograms. Major had also been on the phone.

The collision propelled the semi over 80 metres into a ditch. The battered front of Major's truck was embedded into the semi's first trailer.

Oliverio and two of the children died in the carnage.

Major, 35, is on trial at Court of Queen's Bench in Saskatoon. He's charged with three counts of dangerous driving causing death, three counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm, three counts of criminal negligence causing death and three counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

Major's pickup hit the semi at such a high speed that the semi was propelled more than 80 metres away, into a ditch, as this diagram from an RCMP collisions expert shows. (Court exhibit)

On Friday, RCMP collision reconstructionist Cpl. Douglas Green, an expert witness for the Crown, testified that only a vehicle travelling at a "massive velocity" could account for the heavy car hauler being propelled so far by a vehicle so much smaller.

Missing stop sign key point of debate

The jury heard earlier this week that a stop sign at the intersection had been toppled two weeks before the crash.

That stop sign is figuring prominently in the trial. Defence attorney Mark Brayford had Green hold a stop sign for part of his testimony, in order to show off the sign's reflective sheen.

Brayford and his co-counsel, Brian Pfefferle, have suggested that if the stop sign had been up on the day of the crash, it would have cued Major to stop before the highway.

Otherwise, the stretch of grid road leading to the highway was "a black hole," Brayford said.

Crown attorney Michael Pilon pushed back at that notion, however.

"If the stop sign is down," Pilon asked Green on Friday, "does it make a difference as far as [Major's] failing to stop?"

"Not really," answered the collisions expert, adding that the law still requires people to yield to other traffic at highway intersections. "The stop sign is just there to tell you to stop."

A replacement sign was installed at the intersection one to two days after the crash, Green added. 

The Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure is responsible for the signs, a previous witness said. 

On Thursday, Pilon showed the jury a video shot one year after crash by Const. Gary Pepin, the first RCMP member at the crash scene.

"There's a point where you're seeing three different reflectors other than the stop sign," Pepin said of view of the intersection offered by the video.

"Paying attention while driving is important too," the constable added.

Green, the collisions expert, testified Friday that from a vantage point beginning shortly before the intersection, Major should have had a clear view of the highway and the approaching car-hauler he collided with.

A changed man

Eckel, the adult passenger who survived the wreck, was next on the witness stand.

He said it was foggy the day of the crash, which clashed with earlier witness testimony that it was relatively clear.

Eckel worked for Major as a labourer and stayed at Major's home, just outside Langham, the night before the crash.  

But Eckel remembered nothing of the crash itself. The collision left him with brain damage and a broken back, he said.

His common-law partner, Nedine Woods, testified next. She said the crash — which left the truck cab so damaged it took rescuers three hours to pry Eckel and the other passengers out — left Eckel a changed man, his previous strength gone.

Defence lawyer Mark Brayford says that if the stop sign had been up, it would have served as a cue to Major to stop. (Charles Hamilon/CBC)

"He has a sore back all the time," she said. "Every time he bends, it's hard for him to get up. He carries home some groceries and he's winded."

Friday's final two witnesses were firefighters who helped pry Major, Eckel and the five others from the crumpled remains of the truck.

"He was on top of the pile of people and debris," Brian Hyland, a captain with the Dalmeny, Sask., volunteer fire department, said of Major.

Two children who survived the crash are expected to testify Monday.

The defence will then make its opening argument.

Major himself is likely to take the stand, said Pfefferle.

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Guy Quenneville

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