The Ontario Provincial Police demonstrate a lack of understanding with respect to their role as the only entity that documents the critical evidence relating to serious and fatal motor or vehicle collisions. When deaths occur their role cannot be isolated to preservation of evidence that is never revealed to the public. In fact, it is the public that ultimately must decide how deaths need to be dealt with through the elected officials who should represent the public’s interests. If the public is ill-informed it cannot direct its elected representatives to change course, if the public believes that a change in course is required.
An example of the problem lies in an unusual collision that was reported on the OPP Twitter account involving a passenger car that was eastbound on Highway 401. Yesterday, September 3, 2019, the OPP reported that a collision had occurred when the driver of the eastbound car lost control of the vehicle and struck the median barrier near Highway 59, near Woodstock, Ontario. In an OPP video of the incident, Constable Ed Sanchuk reported that the car climbed the barrier and travelled on it for about 30 metres before sliding off into the south ditch. The 66-year-old driver reportedly sustained critical injuries and was “fighting for his life”. After introducing the general circumstances of the crash Constable Sanchuk’s focus changed to a reminder that drivers should not be taking photos of the site and stop their general “rubber-necking” as this endangers the lives of emergency personnel on the site. While this point is important it is also complicated.
As shown in the above frame taken from the OPP video, the only useful information provided by the OPP was the video showing the final rest position of the car. A similar quality of display could be obtained from the OPP video showing the location on the median barrier where the car made contact, shown below.
Both of these views were shot in a hurry and from a distance such that very little meaningful information could be derived. As this was supposed to be an Ontario High Wall barrier a car is not supposed to ride onto the top of it. But it did and this is an important point that the public needs to be made aware of. Yet it has been demonstrated in almost all previous occasions, that the OPP will not provide the public with the essential information that is needed to develop an informed understanding of why this unusual event occurred.
For the most part median barriers are designed and tested so that their presence reduces the severity of collisions. With respect to concrete median barriers, their height is such that they should prevent striking vehicles from passing through them into the opposing lanes of an expressway. Their design is such that they cause a striking vehicle to slide along its length and thus allowing a dissipation of kinetic energy in a controlled manner. And these barriers are designed with the belief that they will be struck at an acute (narrow) angle. This is a reasonable belief. On expressways where vehicles will generally be travelling above 100 km/h (above 28 metres every second) it is difficult for a vehicle to change it lateral position in any given distance and there vehicles exit the travel surface at relatively shallow angles.
As vehicles travel in a lane that is further away from the median, such as in the the third (slowest) lane of an expressway, there is a greater chance that a loss of control may direct a vehicle into a steeper angle of impact. Potentially this could increase the severity of the impact but it might also change the dynamics such that a vehicle could be propelled into an unexpected trajectory. Generally speaking controlled testing of these barriers is done up to a maximum of 25 degrees, but even so, there is only a limited number of such tests that can be done and there is less certainty of what may happen if a test is repeated hundreds of times under slight variations. The point is that the documentation of the results of real-life collisions is highly important because controlled testing cannot take into account all the possibilities of real life. And so this comes back to the importance of the police investigation.
When police do not provide the information to the public that is essential to their understanding of a critical event, the public will naturally attempt to gain that information. Thus this becomes the impetus for “scene photos” and “rubber-necking”. Human attention, vigilance and distraction are complicated matters. While such actions by drivers are dangerous they can be reduced if the OPP provide greater photographic details from their investigations. These photographic details have nothing to do with the conclusions that police or others may eventually draw from them. Such police action would likely reduce the demand for the unofficial photos that provide further information that police have failed to provide.
Some improvement in the transparency of the OPP at collision scenes has been observed in recent years. The on-site reports of OPP Sergeant Kerry Schmid have been uploaded on social media and this is helpful in the provision of video and photos along with explanations of substantially greater details. This is the type of openness that can educate and inform the public. Unfortunately there is a long road toward this type of openness with the rest of the OPP community.