There is nothing wrong with an entertaining television show that highlights the dangers and hard work that police, rescue and towing personnel deal with on a daily basis. It is a question of exclusion of other journalists who are there not just to entertain an audience.

On December 11, 2018 an eastbound tractor-trailer entered the median of Highway 401 just west of the Merlin Road overpass, just west of Chatham, Ontario. This is where a controversial cable barrier had been recently installed instead of a typical, concrete Jersey barrier. There was no cable barrier to prevent the truck from entering the median since the barrier only existed on the far side of the median. As the truck reached the barrier it was launched upward and rode over top of the barrier – a result that should not have occurred. The truck then crashed into two westbound trucks. The cab of one of the westbound trucks was crushed so severely that it was miraculous that a fatality did not occur.

The results of the destruction as the eastbound truck struck two westbound trucks on Hwy 401 near Merlin Road.

This was an important event that needed documentation. The failure of the cable barrier needed to be explained to the public. Yet Highway 401 was closed by the police for several kilometres east and west of the collision site and therefore no one was allowed into the area.

It is standard procedure for police to close roadways around a collision site. It is understandable that some degree of control is required to enable investigators to document the collision evidence before it is destroyed. But the extent of the road closures is often beyond reason. In many instances the closures existing for several kilometres around a site prevent journalists from conducting their work.

Journalists, like police, also have an important role in a democratic society through their independence. They provide the balance that keeps the public informed about matters that special interest groups may want to withhold. The danger in allowing a single entity to tell the public what they should know should not be difficult to understand. Yet in many instances journalists are unable to perform that independent function because they are completely blocked from any view of a collision site. In  many instances journalists use high-powered  lens to photograph a site that may be several kilometres away, but that only provides general features while distorting the view due to the effect of the high-powered lens. Some journalists have come too close to a collision site and have been charged with a criminal act. Even when such charges are dismissed in court it lays a foundation that discourages others from their inquiries.

While Highway 401 was closed for several kilometres around the Merlin Road site it was fortunate that the collision occurred near the overpass. Thus journalists, and others, could stand on the overpass and obtain a better perspective. But looking from the overpass one could detect something different. Unlike previous instances, an actual film crew could be seen positioned at the accident site as shown below.

Unidentified film crew working at the site of the collision on December 11, 2018.

There was no identification on the clothing of these persons to indicate who they were. Their reflective clothing made them appear no different that the towing personnel that were working at the site. Were these persons part of the police investigation? One would expect so since no other persons should have been allowed onto the closed site.

The extent of the free reign these persons had can be seen in the two photos below. They could actually come close to the damaged vehicles and obtain very detailed views of the evidence, if they so desired.

View of film crew walking around the collision site without supervision.

View of the unidentified film crew taking an unsupervised examination of the collision evidence.

If these persons were in danger of obstructing the operations of towing personnel it did not seem like it. Communications could easily be made when potential obstructions might occur: ” Can you just step back for a moment as we have to hook up to this truck?”. That’s all that was necessary and the film crew would likely cooperate. Similar conversations could easily be had between police and journalists at any accident site. Knowing the important role that journalists perform it could be possible for police to work around them just as they work around the police.

So what was so special about this particular instance where the film crew was allowed free reign while everyone else had to stay many kilometres away? The difference was that this film crew was part of the TV series “Heavy Rescue 401”. This TV series documents the actions of towing operators as well as emergency personnel as they perform their official duties. It is obvious that the show has caught the attention of many viewers. Various police and towing operators have become “hollywood movie stars” as the show has become good entertainment. The OPP even advertise the show on their Twitter accounts.

It is no wonder that the Heavy Rescue film crew was given free reign at the Merlin Road accident site. But is that all that was needed? Was it just a case of providing celebrity status to the officials at accident sites? Were regular journalists previously prevented from documenting these accident sites because they did not provide that celebrity advertising?

Although the producers of the Heavy Rescue series focus their audience on dramatic instances where large trucks are pulled out of various “dangerous” predicaments it demonstrates the potential of what other issues could be addressed. It could be possible to use a similar template to discuss more important issues related to collision causes and injuries.

As an example, there are times when the TV crew documents how vehicles pass by an accident site at high speeds and close to where the towing, police and rescue personnel are located. Comments are made about the recklessness of drivers who endanger those around the accident site. Why these incidents occur is a complicated matter. It is not as simple as the commentators in the series make it to be. Obviously those comments are coming from those who are directly affected and endangered and the opinions are understandably one-sided. What is not reported is how the situation is viewed from the common driver approaching such a site and why such dangerous situations are created. What is perceived is relative to the observer. Why drivers drive a certain way, what they perceive and how they react is far more complicated than demonstrated by various irritated judgments being made by those endangered by those actions. There is a need to examine such issues in a more scientific manner. Unfortunately the commercial nature of the entertainment business conflicts with this need for public education. This conflict can be injurious in providing a platform for uninformed fake facts to be distributed.

Similar educational opportunities are lost in possible discussions about how collisions were caused  or how persons sustained their injuries. These discussions remain taboo for the obvious reasons that they could become part of the evidence in any criminal proceedings or civil lawsuits. This is perhaps one of the greatest liabilities in how our society functions. That information that could educate the public about important matters related to their survival, cannot be discussed because of these criminal and civil proceedings.

Professional journalists have some degree of immunity when they approach these delicate matters. They must be the whistle-blowers as there is no one else who has a legal access to the whistle. However professional journalists need a base of quality evidence to be gathered so they can study a situation and develop an informed plan of action. There is often little sympathy for journalists who get it wrong.  Yet it is difficult to write or broadcast a news story when the base of it is made up of speculation and conjecture. Boots need to be put on the ground. The journalist needs to be out in the field, where the event has taken place, and document the evidence. When journalists are excluded from that activity it can be argued that this affects the freedom of the press.

The example of the Heavy Rescue 401 crews at accident sites demonstrates the truth that journalists can work next to official investigators and workers at accident sites. Exclusion of journalists from documenting collision events is an artificial excuse for controlling what information is available to the public for their independent consumption. The true reason why journalists are kept away from accident sites becomes questionable when entertainment crews such as Heavy Rescue 401 are given free access while others are not.