Horrific Ontario highway crash prompts calls for more safety measures

While Ontario's roads consistently see fewer fatalities than most other North American jurisdictions, a fiery and fatal highway crash on Tuesday is prompting calls for more to be done to improve safety, especially when it comes to distracted driving.

Fatal collision involving cars, fuel trucks prompts calls for coroner's inquest

A fireman attends the scene of Tuesday's deadly crash on Highway 400, near Toronto. The cause of the crash is under investigation, but police say distracted driving appears to have been at least part of the problem. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

A horrific and deadly accident on an Ontario highway on Tuesday night is prompting calls for a coroner's inquest and for more action against distracted driving.

The crash north of Toronto on Highway 400 — which involved multiple cars and two fully loaded fuel trucks — claimed three lives and left a scene of fire and twisted metal that one police officer described as "armageddon."

The Ontario Safety League (OSL) is calling for the provincial coroner to take an in-depth look, with "fresh eyes," at what's happening on Ontario's roadways.

"All of the parties that are involved in road safety in this province want to see things get better," said Brian Patterson, the league's president and CEO. "There is no finger pointing, there's just an opportunity to bring good parties together and come up with best practices for this province."

Police believe the accident began when a suspected impaired driver caused a three-car collision. That caused a backup of traffic and, witnesses say, an oncoming truck then crashed into those vehicles.

The cause of the crash is under investigation, but police say distracted driving appears to have been at least part of the problem.

Trucks are like 'missiles'

Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Vince Hawkes says drivers need to be alert behind the wheel, especially when in a truck carrying dangerous substances.

"These trucks are, in essence, missiles," said Hawkes on Wednesday.

No one should lose their life because of distracted driving, he said, adding that police will continue working to reduce the growing risk.

"The trend seems to be getting worse," said Hawkes.

The force's statistics for 2016 show more people were killed because of distracted driving, 65, than in speed- or alcohol-related crashes.

The crash involved two fuel trucks and several other vehicles that caught fire when they collided. (Kerry Schmidt/Twitter)

It's already illegal in Ontario for drivers to talk, text, email or otherwise use a cell phone or electronic device behind the wheel. The government recently proposed legislation to strengthen the penalties for distracted driving because it remains such a big problem.

Elliott Silverstein, government relations manager for the Canadian Automobile Association says it's a "chronic issue."

"The message has not hit home to everybody. There are still many individuals who think they can multitask," he said.

Silverstein said Tuesday's crash a reminder to motorists that driving is a "privilege and a responsibility."

"Your hands need to be on the wheel, your eyes on the road and focused on that, not stopping to rubberneck and look at incidents on the road, but making sure that you are keeping the right amount of distance, following the rules of the road," he said.

Safe road network

Despite the crash, however, Silverstein and Patterson pointed out that Ontario has relatively safe roads. 

"These incidents are troubling and significant, but when you look at a province as broad and as diverse as Ontario, we do have a strong and safe road network altogether," said Silverstein.

The number of fatal collisions on Ontario roads have decreased in the last few years. Preliminary statistics from the ministry of transportation show in 2016, there were 439 fatal collisions, the year before there were 454 and in 2014 there were 517.

Safety advocates say the crash is a reminder for drivers to pay close attention when behind the wheel. (David Horemans/CBC)

Annual government reports say Ontario has consistently ranked first or second in the lowest number of road fatalities for jurisdictions in North America.

The government has also invested in road repairs and maintenance and has been making other efforts to reduce accidents, Silverstein said.

But the advocates agree, more needs to be done by all parties, and the OPP commissioner says that includes the trucking industry.

Trucking industry 'can do better'

Collisions involving large trucks accounted for 20 per cent of total fatalities last year, according to government statistics.

Stephen Laskowski, president of the Ontario Trucking Association, told CBC News that the industry has done a lot to improve safety, but there is room to do more. 

"We are at a level of excellence with regards to mechanical fitness and driver behaviour. But we know we can do better and we know that through technology, enforcement and education we are going to get there," said Laskowski.

Distracted driving is an increasing cause of fatal collisions on Ontario roads, police say. (Getty Images)

Trucks have government-mandated technology, for example, that limits their speed to 105 kilometres per hour. Some have electronic stability control to prevent jack-knifing. And some companies electronically monitor driver behaviour, he said, to catch aggressive drivers.

Laskowski said when crashes involving trucks happen, the public perception is often that it was the truck driver's fault, when in fact his statistics indicate the opposite.

"That doesn't mean we don't need to get better, but in terms of what I'm asking for, is to really take a step back and understand that truck drivers don't just talk about professionalism they carry it out," he said.