Lake Babine Nation Chief Wilf Adam and councillors discussed Highway 16 road conditions and maintenance, as well as a double fatal motor vehicle accident that took the lives of two Lake Babine Nation women last month, during their council meeting.
Both Burns Lake RCMP and members of Lakes District Maintenance (LDM), as well as Richard Lokken the Ministry of Highways and Transportation area manager attended the meeting.
Corporal Rod Hrehirchuk, from the Burns Lake RCMP detachment updated councillors on the status of the investigation into the deaths of the two women.
He said that it had been determined by an accident re-constructionist that the vehicle the women were in, was traveling too fast for the road conditions.
“This does not mean that they were speeding, it just means that they were traveling too fast for the conditions of the road at that time,” he added.
“The car was spinning in a clockwise fashion and crossed the centre line when it was struck by an oncoming pick up truck. The way the collision happened, the air bags did not deploy so the traffic re-constructionist couldn’t download information from the vehicle on the driver’s speed or if the driver applied her brakes at the time of the accident,” Cpl. Hrehirchuk said.
He went on to say that information also could not be gained from the pick up truck involved in the accident as it is a 2011 model and the software for downloading information is not yet available for that model.
“Judging by the marks on the road and the way the car was spinning in a clockwise fashion we are able to determine that the vehicle was traveling too fast for the road conditions,” he added.
“The air bags in the pickup truck also did not deploy due to the angle of the impact and the positioning of the air bag sensors. Most of the crush happened on the victim’s vehicle as there were two large hooks on the front of the pickup that hit the side of the vehicle.”
“You are supposed to drive to the conditions. Unfortunately we can’t ask them what happened and there were no witnesses behind them to tell us,” Cpl. Hrehirchuk said.
Justa Monk, Lake Babine Nation general manager disagreed that the women would have been traveling too fast for the conditions.
He questioned, “How do you determine that she was going to fast without witnesses or information.”
“I travel these roads and it is always icy from Priestly Hill right through to Houston,” he said.
“I did not say she was speeding, I said that it was determined that she was traveling too fast for the road conditions at the time. You can be traveling at 60 kilometres an hour and that can still be to fast for the road conditions,” Cpl. Hrehirchuk explained.
Chief Adam addressed his statements to LDM.
He said, “I travel a lot and coming back from Prince George I notice the roads are good until you get to Priestly Hill and I want to know why this is?”
“Why is the road beyond Priestly Hill different from the road conditions heading to Prince George?”
Carey Derksen, regional operation manager at LDM said, “We have strict standards that we abide by. We have supplies of sand and salt and enough manpower. I have been working at LDM for seven and a half years and I have heard these comments before. I have spent a great deal of time analyzing the road. I have been a Burns Lake resident for 45 years and I don’t notice a line there, generally conditions are equal,” he said.
Derksen went on to say that salt played a big factor in road conditions and that the temperature had to be minus six degrees Celsius or warmer for the application of salt.
“The sun also influences the effectiveness of salt. You can see in town the roads that get the sun clear off quickly. Priestly Hill is shaded. There is no sun exposure like there is in town and there are sharp corners with narrower lanes. We exceed our maintenance standards,” he said.
Wendy Benyk, chief executive officer at LDM said they also have to prove to the Ministry of Highways and Transportation via regular reporting, that they are fulfilling their contract.
“We have recently added to staff members to work the graveyard shift to catch the people going to work at Babine Forest Products,” she said.
“We often have trucks working in tandem,” she added.
“Accidents like this are unfortunate and when something like this happens the crew are heavily affected, we all take it personally,” Derksen said.
“We do our job to make sure the highway is safe,” he added.
“I travel that road every week and I have to differ with you. I know that conditions at Bednesti are similar to the road conditions on Priestly Hill. I am not just talking about Priestly Hill. I’m talking about the section of road from Priestly Hill to Houston. It still begs the question of why this section of road is different,” Chief Adam asked.
“I am asking you if there are any changes that you can make to make it safer. Even in the windy area between Vanderhoof and Prince George the roads are dry, I don’t know why, but I am not really satisfied with your answer,” he added.
“There have been three more accidents since this one, all in areas maintained by LDM,” said Monk.
“They were due to people following too close. That accident [as reported in Lakes District News edition of Jan. 19, 2011] was due to blowing snow and following too closely. It was the situation of the day. We do our best within the standards requested and above the standards,” Derksen said.
“We have sufficient sand and we use it, our records show that,” he added.
LDM said they have two priorities on the roads, the first is to plow snow, the second is to restore traction. They went on to say that they have 22 hour coverage on the roads.
“Even when conditions are benign we have units on the roads,” he said.
Lake Babine Coun. Melvin Joseph said, “I beg to differ about your records.”
“I work at Babine Forest Products and I see LDM trucks just parked at the KOA, your records show that they may be working, but they drive out there and stop. There is always compact snow from Priestly Hill right through to Houston and the roads are always slippery and you guys know that, are you cutting down on sand, salt or crew members,” he said.
“You can’t say categorically our roads are not as good as others. Believe me the crew don’t just park, they do have a lunch break just like anyone else,” Benyk responded.
“Not only Lake Babine Nation members perish on these roads, the whole of the Village of Burns Lake is saying the same thing, this needs to be fixed or we need new contractors. I have worked graveyards at Babine for 17 years and the road conditions haven’t changed,” Coun. Joseph said.
“How many more people have to die between here and the mill,” questioned Coun. John Bertacco.
“The roads are not maintained right, I worked for Canada Post and drove from Tintagel to Houston and the roads were always bad, sometimes with three to four inches of compact snow, the roads are not maintained right,” Coun. John West said.
Richard Lokken, Ministry of Highways and Transportation area manager said,” I don’t think a comparison to other road sections is of any benefit. The contractors [like LDM] determine their own operating procedures. There is no base procedure, no mold to fit for every area on how to maintain roads,” he said.
“The ministry has been monitoring and can easily prove that this contractor meets and exceeds in some cases expectations,” he added.
Contradictory to his previous statement, Derksen said, “In my seven and a half years working at LDM I have not heard dissatisfaction from any one, so as far as we know we are doing a good job. One incident happens and we look like the bad guys,” Derksen said.
“I take exception to your comment, it is not because of this accident that we are making this point. If you have a public meeting here in town people will say the same thing. It is not because of the accident. I challenge you to hold a public meeting and guarantee you people will say the same thing as we have today,” Chief Adam said.
Benyk said that LDM holds stakeholder meetings twice a year and the public are welcome to attend to express any concerns. She went on to say that the next meeting will be held sometime in September and invited Lake Babine Nation members and members of the public to attend.