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COMMENTARY · 5th February 2011
Merv Ritchie
Rather than being an unusual and unforeseen tragedy, this accident last night on Highway 16 where a Greyhound Bus with passengers collided with a large piece of falling ice, was entirely expected. Ice had been falling throughout the day and the build up of ice was observed by drivers going to and from Prince Rupert.

See pictures and story on the Greyhound Bus accident HERE.

It is also a situation which has for many years presented itself as a danger to all drivers.

Near an area called “Carwash Rock” by the local population due to the fact during all times of the year water falls off the cliffs onto passing vehicles, this corner, in the spectacular drive between Terrace and Prince Rupert, is a feature attraction. It is by no means an unusual or unknown hazard during the winter.

As the previous article, Open Letter to Kevin Falcon, demonstrates, the highway maintenance in the Northwest corner of BC is deplorable. The highways in this region experience dramatic weather changes not found anywhere in British Columbia. Extremes both high and low can be found on any given day. The drive between Terrace and either Kitimat or Prince Rupert moves between Coastal temperate rain forest to an coastal interior climate where the temperature, moisture and visibility offers the highways maintenance contractor a full range of experiential opportunities.

The experience in the lower mainland and the Interior regions of British Columbia in regards the maintenance of the highways during the winter months has proven to be managed fairly well by periodic patrols determined by weather reports issued by the Province and Environment Canada. This practice, employed by the Maintenance Contractors here in the northwest, and sanctioned by the Ministry of Highways, has cost the province millions of dollars in damages and clean ups from serious and deadly accidents, and more importantly, has cost the region many treasured lives.

Rather than a periodic drive with a pick up truck to patrol highway 16 and 37, these highways require a regular patrol by a truck fully equipped with men and signage to manage any hazard they might encounter. This was the method of highways maintenance before the government of Bill Vanderzalm, which privatized the enter highways maintenance operation.

If this had been the standard operations model today crews would have been out, likely stationed at the site ensuring the travelling publics safety. Today this is considered an unnecessary expense.

Today, all highways maintenance contractors are “For Profit” operations. This means they must, as a condition of being a private corporation, maximize the returns for the shareholders. To accomplish this they must not perform any more extra duties than those which are specifically required by the contractual obligations set by the Provincial Government when they signed the agreement. This means it is up to the Government, not the contractor, to set the rules and the obligations.

The provincial government and the successive highways ministers have failed this region and they have failed with the full knowledge of the hazards. Numerous letters and presentations have been made and numerous people have died. It is a tragedy to be sure but it is a completely foreseeable one.

Today those who have been outraged for years are hoping this, being a Greyhound Bus accident, will bring more media attention and change the game, ensuring the highways receive the proper attention they deserve, not the mediocre, haphazard, lackadaisical, profiteering manner they have been.

We are lucky no one died as a result of this completely foreseeable incident. Had cars or trucks been travelling from the other direction, had there been more than just the two, had there been a fuel truck, the tragedy could have made international news. Why the various highways ministers make stops for a media photo opportunity and then disappear again is something all citizens should be asking themselves.

Below is a copy of some of the the text of a letter sent, regarding this highly predictable hazard, to then Highways Minister Kevin Falcon. The entire letter, sent March 30, 2007, is attached below. No one can claim they didn't know.

4. “Car Wash Rock” Early 2007
Unfortunately I do not have the exact date of this incident but in this case I phoned
the Highway’s office in Terrace shortly after and made complaint of the matter to Mr. Larry Proto of the Highways department. Mr. Proto will likely have recorded the date of my telephone call to him.

There is a restriction with an overhanging rock face on the highway between Prince Rupert and Terrace that is commonly referred to as “car wash rock” due to the water that commonly falls from the rock face onto vehicles driving west to Prince Rupert. This winter I was driving towards Prince Rupert following a days skiing at Shames Mountain when a chunk of ice measuring approximately 30 cm by 30 cm by 15 cm fell from this rock face and came within a few centimeters of hitting my vehicle and of possibly smashing into my windshield directly in front of where I was sitting. The incident happened so quickly there was no time at all to react to it and I can only count my blessings that I did not enter the restriction about one quarter of a second sooner than I had.

When I phoned and made complaint to the Highways department, I was told that about 10 days earlier a chunk of ice had fallen from the same rock face and had hit a transport truck, destroying the vehicle’s engine in the collision. I also recall when a person was killed when a chunk of ice fell from this rock face through the windshield of his vehicle. Perhaps such incidents are considered to be within the scope of the hazards to be expected when driving highway 16, but combined with the other matters to which I am referring, it seems driving this highway has now become like playing “Russian Roulette”.