The tragic deaths of two young UBC women on Nov. 23 while en route to Whistler has raised questions about the length of the Highway 99 road closure, in effect for more than 10 hours as emergency crews and traffic investigators completed their work. Thousands were delayed or turned back, something that has a direct financial impact on Whistler.
The accident raises the question of what would happen during a busy long weekend or an event like Tough Mudder or Ironman.
Acting mayor John Grills said the issue will be discussed with the province, looking at ways to make the roadway safer or speed up the investigation process.
“The first story is about the accident victims and the families, and that’s just a tragedy beyond words. But going forward the next piece is the closure and the impact on all the families in the corridor,” he said.
There is a meeting scheduled with representatives from the RCMP, Ministry of Transportation and other Sea to Sky municipalities to look at the situation.
“Everyone in the corridor is affected, and safety for all of our residents and guests is important,” said Grills. “The difference is that when there’s a closure around the Vancouver area… they have alternatives. When our highway is closed we don’t have an alternative.”
Constable Robert McDonald of RCMP Traffic Services couldn’t comment on the specifics of this particular case, but said it wasn’t unusual for a roadway to be closed 10 hours as a result of a highway fatality.
“Each scene is different, but I’ve gone to fatalities where we’ve closed the road for in excess of 10 hours, and others where we’re there for three or four hours,” he said. “It all depends on the scene itself and the condition of the vehicles. Sometimes if it’s a commercial accident it can take even longer… because you have to make sure there’s a commercial vehicle inspector there to make sure there was nothing wrong with the vehicle before the accident.”
Emergency services follow a list of procedures when an accident occurs, and all first responders have different roles to play. For example, police will first assess the scene for risks, hazardous or flammable materials that could pose a danger to responders, and block off the road. Firefighters and paramedics will treat and evacuate anyone on the scene who is injured. If a death occurred, a coroner needs to be brought to the scene to investigate and supervise the removal of the victims.
Police also get their investigation underway early, ensuring that all of the evidence is retained at the scene — inside the vehicle and out — and that the scene is preserved as much as possible while other emergency crews work.
“As you can imagine, it’s like a homicide scene, and anytime someone tramples your scene you’re losing evidence,” said McDonald. “Any piece of car debris could be used to calculate the speed of the vehicle or the travel direction for the car, for example, so we don’t want anything disturbed.
“Even before we call the crash reconstruction team, we’re looking for cell phones, purses — anything that might have been used in the vehicle at the time of the accident. We don’t want anyone to take anything from that vehicle, so we’ll protect what needs to be protected, and then start taking photographs of the scene.”
Police draw a wide net around an accident that encompasses all of the debris, while also photographing any tire marks before they have a chance to fade.
“The oil brought to the surface by the friction of the tires on the road will cool down and disappear from the roadway and we have to get those pictures before they disappear,” explained McDonald.
The ICARS crews (Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service) will do the more in-depth investigation once emergency services have left. That can take several hours as they photograph and measure everything that can be measured — the angle of the road, the position of the vehicle or vehicles, the position of debris, the length of the tire tracks, any gouges or scratches in the asphalt, and more.
They also want to find out what happened in the moments before the crash and after the “point of perception” when the driver or drivers realized there was going to be a crash and took action braking and steering.
Taking witness statements can also be time consuming for investigators.
“All of this takes a long time to collect, and we have to photograph all of it so that at a later date we can go to court and show the judge and everybody exactly what happened and how we reached those conclusions,” said McDonald, adding that families also want to know.
After everything on site has been recorded — including aerial photographs from helicopters or fire truck cranes — the site clean-up can also take several hours. If any oil or fluids have been spilled they have to be cleaned to environmental standards. Debris also has to be removed.
After that point the investigation is still only beginning. Investigators will often return to the site several times to record things like the position of the sun and whether there was frost on the road at that time of day. The vehicles are themselves inspected to see if they were functioning properly before the accident.
They also track the movements of everyone involved for at least 24 hours before the crash to learn whether they had been drinking, whether they had enough sleep — anything that could help explain what happened.
From there, it can take several weeks, and sometimes months, to complete an investigation.
“It’s never something that is quick,” said McDonald. “Our main priority is to get all the evidence we need and collect everything, and as soon as we can reopen the road we reopen it.”