On the evening of July 27, 2020 a vehicle carrying three children travelled off the gravel surface of Jacob Road in Chatham-Kent Ontario. The vehicle came to rest upside down in a water channel adjacent to the road. While the driver managed to retrieve two of the children, the third child, a 7-year-old female, drowned. News media described the channel as a “water-filled ditch”. That is not exactly what it was. It was a water channel. Essentially a river of still water. The Google Maps view of the area, shown below, confirms that this was not just a regular, roadside ditch that happened to be filled with excess rain water.

The problem is that many rural roads in the Chatham-Kent area and the nearby counties of Essex and Lambton contain such roadside channels of water. And many roadside ditches are deep or are narrow with steep banks. They have been the sites of many drownings in the past. The total number of these drownings is unknown as there is no public count. These isolated incidents become mere statistics that are lost in the general hum of public information overload.  Gorski Consulting has attempted an unofficial count from public news media reports. But this method is insufficient as many incidents are either not reported in news media or the effort to collect this data is not practically possible.

We know that on June 16, 2019 three occupants of a vehicle drowned in a similar “ditch” to the one shown above near Leamington, Ontario.

On August 9, 1919 a driver almost drowned at a roadside pond next to McHigh Street in Windsor, Ontario. A Jeep was sinking in the pond with the driver unconscious and still surrounded by his seat-belt. Fortunately another driver swam out and attempted to pull the man out but the doors would not open. The driver eventually awoke and crawled out through a rear hatch window that was smashed by one of the rescuers.

On April 17, 2918 police found a vehicle in the “water-filled ditch” at the intersection of Tecumseh Road and Lighthouse Road in Chatham-Kent, as shown in the OPP photo below.

There were no reports of injury and comments were made that drivers were not paying attention to the wintery road conditions. Subsequently, on November 12, 2019, a woman was found dead in her submerged car in the “water-filled ditch” at the same intersection. The vehicle was found by a passerby at 0700 hours and it was presumed the woman drowned some time during the night. The characteristics of the “ditch” were no different than the channel of water shown in the above photo.

On April 22, 2018 a vehicle became submerged in Little Bear Creek when it left Essex County Road 42 between Gracey Side Road and Highway 401. A deceased driver was found in the submerged vehicle.

On April 22, 2018 a teenager drowned in an upside down vehicle that became submerged in a water-filled ditch adjacent to Border Road in Wallaceburg, Chatham-Kent. The precise location of the incident was never revealed.

On June 30, 2018 the local OPP near Sombra, south of Sarnia, Ontario reported finding a deceased female in a car that was found submerged in the St Clair River. No information was provided as to the specific location where the drowning occurred.

It was reported that on October 15, 2018 a female driver escaped her vehicle which was sinking in the Thames River in Dover Township in Chatham-Kent. No information was provided as to the specific location of the incident.

On August 3, 2018 a truck owned by the Municipality of Lakeshore rolled over into a ditch on Golfview Drive near the village of St Joachim, near the border of Essex and Chatham-Kent Counties. Although the truck came to rest on its side it was also on a steep slope where the cab would have been further into the ditch than its wheels. There was no mention of the extent of water in the ditch. While both occupants of the truck escaped the situation could have been life-threatening in environmental conditions where water became collected in the ditch and the occupants were unable to exit the truck cab.

On March 25, 2018 a vehicle left Bear Line northwest of Chatham, Ontario and plunged into Little Bear Creek. Fortunately the driver was able to escape the submerged vehicle.

As a result of a two-vehicle collision at the intersection of Essex County Roads 15 and 18, south of Windsor, Ontario on July 22, 2018, one of the vehicles came to rest upside down in a ditch. Examination of the site showed that at least one of the ditches was filled with water. Injuries were reported, including children, but the relevance of the water-filled ditch was not discussed.

This summary covers a period of approximately 2 years. There have been numerous similar incidents throughout the years previous to 2018 in the Counties of Chatham-Kent, Essex and Lambton. But attempts to gain any accurate extent of the problem are difficult.

One can pursue the Ontario Road Safety Annual Report (ORSAR) however a complete version has not been made publicly available since 2016. Examining the 2016 Report shows a chart of “Selected Diagnoses of Motor Vehicle Collision Injuries Hospitalized in Ontario”. Out of 5196 hospital admissions the highest number of injuries involved fractures to a lower limb at 1142 incidents. Yet an item entitled “Other Diagnosis” contained 1120 incidents. Whether some of these other injuries relate to drownings is unknown.

Police reports in Ontario classify injuries according to a 4-point scale: Minimal, Minor, Major and Fatal. A person who drowns may not exhibit any external injury therefore it is unclear how persons who die from drowning, or who almost drown, can be properly classified according to this scale.

In a table entitled “Motor Vehicles Involved in Collision Based on Initial Impact”, the 2016 ORSAR indicated that there were only three incidents of vehicle submersion in Ontario and these resulted in Property Damage Only collisions, meaning that they involved no injuries or death. Given the incomplete summary described earlier in this article there is a suggestion of a discrepancy in these facts. Even though Gorski Consulting has not been involved in a through examination of all drowning incidents in Ontario, an examination of drowning incidents reported in news media in 2016, showed 22 such incidents.

In a November 15, 2016 article published by the London Free Press, the Lifesaving Society of Canada provides some statistics about drownings. That organization reported 113 drownings in Ontario in 2016 and these were sub-divided as noted below:

Swimming = 39

Boating = 26

Transportation = 19

Non-aquatic = 21

Unknown = 8

These data showing 19 transportation related fatalities do not seem to match the official Ministry of Transportation data. The ORSAR refers to incidents based on “Initial Impact” so it is possible that many drownings are not included if they occur subsequent to an initial impact with something. That is not helpful since it stands to reason that a majority of incidents where a vehicle enters a body of water are likely to involve an initial impact with either another vehicle, a roadside barrier or other objects. Clearly the ORSAR designation is not helpful in documenting such drowning incidents. There is a further lack of assistance in that a full ORSAR has stopped being publicly available since 2016.

With respect to the drowning death of the 7-year-old child on Jacob Road in Chatham-Kent the investigating police provided the following photo of the site, which is a view looking north with the water channel located at the right edge of the photo. A dark tire mark can be seen in the grass leading from the gravel road surface toward the “water-filled ditch”.

Many persons looking at the above photo would no recognize the  important features of the gravel surface and its possible significance to the collision. On rural, gravel roadways there are typically three channels produced by the tires of passing vehicles. This is the case because the driver’s side tires of vehicles, irrespective of the travel direction of the vehicle, occupy the same lateral location on the road. There channels become more pronounced as more vehicles travel on the surface. Evidence of a lack of these three channels is shown in the above photo. While there appear to be two channels, the remaining road surface appears to be undisturbed suggesting that the gravel surface was recently regraded. Previous testing on fresh gravel surfaces indicates that loss-of-control is quite likely at speeds above 60 km/h. Yet when a vehicle travels within the hard-packed channels of beaten down gravel speeds of 80 km/h are easily attained without much concern. Yet it is this difference between the qualities of the two surfaces that can be a major safety concern. A vehicle that strays slightly out of the confines of these beaten down channels can suddenly enter an area of loose gravel resulting is a sudden loss of traction that may exist on only one side of the vehicle. This difference in tire traction with respect to the centre-of-gravity of a vehicle can produce the rotational force about the vehicle’s centre-of-gravity that, along with inappropriate driver inputs, progressively leads to a vehicle’s loss of control.

Furthermore, an article written by the Chatham-Kent Daily newspaper indicated that the involved vehicle was a pick-up truck. In a 3 year study of Light Truck and Van (LTV) collisions conducted at the University of Western Ontario Multi-disciplinary Accident Research Team in London, we noted that loss-of-control of LTVs was more common, particularly on gravel roads.

In many instances there is a lack of understanding of basic safety issues such as the existence of narrow and steep-sided ditches which are more-likely to cause rollovers, while also trapping occupants of vehicles when the opening of doors can be prevented by the presence of steep sloping embankments. A vehicle that comes to rest upside down in such a narrow ditch makes it more likely that any small amount of water could be deep enough to envelope a substantial volume of a vehicle interior. There are also safety issues related to the difficulty of removing seat-belts and jamming of door mechanisms that are not being addressed.

When these facts are combined with the fact that the “water-filled ditch” at Jacob Road site was immediately adjacent to the roadway, the probability that a life-threatening incident might occur was quite high. While police reported that the driver was likely impaired, the circumstances could have resulted even if a driver was not impaired. While much media and police attention was placed on this driver impairment nothing was brought to the public’s attention about the dangerous conditions of the road surface and roadside. This remains a common issue as those official entities who are responsible for the physical condition of a roadway have a vested interest in down-playing the significance of roadway factors that cause or contribute to collisions. Privacy legislation also results in the silencing of many first responders who might otherwise recognize a safety problem but are mandated to remain silent. Such systemic problems make it difficult to identify road safety problems and to correct them.