Fatal Highway 400 crash triggers call for coroner's inquest into safety of Ontario highways

An Ontario traffic safety organization is calling on the province’s chief coroner to investigate safety issues on 400-series highways after a deadly collision Tuesday night on Highway 400, about an hour north of Toronto.

Ontario Safety League says inquest into 400-series highways needed

An aerial view of the crash site on Highway 400 on Wednesday. Witnesses describe seeing multiple explosions, while a police officer described what had happened as 'absolute devastation.' (Supplied)

An Ontario traffic safety organization is calling on the province's chief coroner to investigate safety issues on 400-series highways after a deadly collision Tuesday night on Highway 400, about an hour north of Toronto.

Tuesday's 14-vehicle crash involved two fully loaded tanker trucks, three other commercial vehicles and multiple cars, killing at least three people.

Brian Patterson, president and CEO of the Ontario Safety League, said the fiery collision was a "tipping point" that triggered him to make the request for an investigation by Ontario Chief Coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer.

The hope, said Patterson, is that Huyer could put "fresh eyes" on the issue and advise the government on how to reduce accidents and deaths across the province.

Truck driver inattention in the spotlight

Ontario provincial police said Wednesday that the crash — likened by one officer to "Armageddon" — might have been caused by an inattentive transport truck driver who smashed into traffic that was queued up due to an earlier accident.  

"There's really no excuse for that truck to continue down the highway at the speed," said OPP commissioner J.V.N. (Vince) Hawkes on Wednesday.

Hawkes said a coroner's inquest "could help," and would focus attention on the danger of driver inattention.

Sgt. Kerry Schmidt of the Ontario Provincial Police's highway safety division described tanker trucks carrying fuel like the one involved in the crash as 'bombs on wheels.' (Kerry Schmidt/Twitter)

That issue was brought into the spotlight last week with an OPP announcement that charges were being laid against four truck drivers involved in four transport truck collisions over the summer, which Hawkes described as "driver inattention at its worst."

"We talked about the impacts of fatalities on the highway where transport trucks drive down the highway and impact a queue of cars or other vehicles as a result of something that's happened," Hawkes said on Wednesday. "That's the exact same scenario that we've just seen last night."

'We're clearly missing something'

Patterson, for his part, said the inquest would not be about "fingerpointing," but about identifying the "best practices" for road users of all kinds.

Despite the efforts of the ministry and police to keep roads safe, "we're clearly missing something," he said.

"[The chief coroner] can look at everything from training and retraining of drivers. Is it a question of technology that's entered the driving space?" he asked. 

Massive fiery crash on Ontario highway

4 years ago
Duration 1:02
More than a dozen vehicles involved, several people dead or injured 1:02

"Some people have pointed out, vehicles with tinted rear windows tend to make it more difficult to see far enough ahead to spot danger," Patterson explained.

When asked about the possibility of an inquest, Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca told reporters that if the coroner "decides to go in the direction of an inquest, then the Ministry of Transportation would be happy to provide whatever is required and cooperate fully."

'Mushroom cloud explosions of fire'

Luba Zariczny, 25, was driving to Mississauga from Barrie when she came across the pileup.

"I didn't realize how massive this thing actually was until I got up close and personal with the actual flames," she told CBC's As It Happens"The heat was immense."

Zariczny said she stopped to see if people were okay, but also wanted to shoot some video of the scene to inform drivers what was happening on the highway.

"It looked like it was just a bunch of mushroom cloud explosions of fire going up into the sky," she said. 

"When I was recording the video I even cut parts of it off because near the end I was saying there was definitely people who have passed."

New training for truckers 

On Wednesday, Ontario Trucking Association president Stephen Laskowski offered condolences to the families of people who died in the crash and defended his industry. 

"No one puts a more critical eye than our industry itself," said Laskowski. "Statistically, time and time again it shows that trucks and truck drivers are the safest vehicles on the road." 

Ontario Trucking Association president Stephen Laskowski says a new working group - a collaboration between his organization, the OPP, and the Ministry of Transporation - will hold its first meeting this month. (CBC )

In 2016, 93 large trucks were involved in fatal collisions, while passenger cars were involved in 433 fatal collisions. 

Laskowski said his organization was partnering with the OPP and the Ministry of Transportation to address distracted and aggressive driving through a working group. 

The amount of training truck drivers receive in Ontario increased on July 1, with the introduction of a mandatory entry-level course before would-be truckers can try for a Class A licence. 

Truck driving instructor Michael John Davidson was happy to see new mandatory training introduced in July, but said the course could be even longer. (CBC)

Michael John Davidson, a truck driving instructor in the Greater Toronto Area, said that education was the biggest failing in the Ontario trucking industry until the July 1 change. 

"Now they're getting educated on how the truck moves, how the equipment works," he said, adding that the five-week course could be even longer to improve outcomes and could include some education on driver safety, including education about fatigue and personal health.  

With files from As It Happens