October 19, 2007 Features & Images » Feature Story

Preventing preventable deaths 

Twelve fatalities in nine months on Pemberton roads has first responders speaking out

click to enlarge The Message about driving responsibly seems to have been lost on some people.
  • The Message about driving responsibly seems to have been lost on some people.

When Corporal Paul Vadik talks about this year’s high incidence of fatal motor vehicle accidents in the Pemberton Valley, one specific word resonates: “preventable.” Of this year’s nine single vehicle fatal accidents, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, only two were attributed to driver error.

“There are many things we can’t prevent,” says the RCMP officer. “Traffic safety, in all its many dynamics, is the one thing where, but for the human condition, prevention is not only available to us, it is absolutely in our control.”

After the most recent spate of accidents in September, the corporal joined other “first responders” to form the Pemberton/Mount Currie Alcohol/Speed Stewardship Working Group. Representatives from Emergency Services, B.C. Ambulance Service, the Pemberton fire department, administrators from the Village of Pemberton (VOP) and Mount Currie Band joined RCMP to discuss the issue and come up with possible solutions.

From that initial meeting an approach has emerged which combines enforcement, education and engagement.

Cpl. Vadik sees the essential first step to implementing this strategy as increasing awareness and shifting perceptions about the issue of speed and alcohol-related traffic incidents.

The officer sees the term “traffic accident” as a bit of misnomer.

“In actual fact, over 80 per cent of all vehicle crashes are a caused occurrence, not an accident at all. Expert collision reconstruction analysis invariably discloses such causal factors as driver error and other human induced conditions: speeding; disobeying posted highway signs and signals; distractions; not adjusting to traffic and weather conditions; racing; and, of course, the all too frequent alcohol and drug induced impairment,” he says.

Upon visiting his office, it becomes immediately apparent how seriously the corporal takes the issue of traffic safety. Within a few minutes of our interview, he reaches into his desk and produces a hole-punched document, the unmistakable thick and thin print of typewriter type covering the warn piece of paper. It’s an editorial from The Rosetown Eagle , a rural Saskatchewan weekly. Titled “An Editor and An Accident”, the piece details then editor John Pinckney’s experience of coming upon the aftermath of a single vehicle accident that resulted in four fatalities, effectively wiping out the surviving driver’s family.

“We did see a man kneel bleeding over his wife, unable to understand that she could not speak to him — unable to grasp that she would never speak again.

“We left him to his numbed misery to look at a little bundle flung further into the wheat — a pretty baby boy. He too was dead…

“…We got the crowbars to get the teenage boy out of the wreck where he lay jammed against the bodies of his sister and her baby. This was almost more than we could stand — the sickening bubbling sounds and the pity of it all.”

Although written in the careful language of 1960s small town journalism, the horror in the piece is resounding. Pinckney takes an occurrence most of us are unlikely to witness and creates a vivid snapshot. Effectively, he personalizes it. It’s a document Cpl. Vadik’s father, a career RCMP officer, handed down to his son to reinforce the human cost of traffic fatalities.

“These recent MVAs have affected all of us at the detachment. At the end of the day we’re only human. I put my shoes on the same way you do. It’s sad. It’s frustrating. It’s no fun pulling a dead body out of a car. It’s no fun attempting CPR on a victim you know is probably going to die and seeing blood squeaking out of their head when you’re doing CPR,” says Vadik.

“It’s difficult to go deliver the message to a family, to say, ‘Your mom, your dad, your husband is dead — they’ve been in a car accident.’ Hearing the sounds of agony from loved ones that their… it’s the most difficult part of my job. You drive up the driveway and you know when you knock on the door you’re going to change somebody’s life forever.

“That night try to sleep and you hear the screams of mothers, daughters, husbands that can’t believe their loved one is dead.”

Cpl. Vadik explains that he had to call in a psychologist to help debrief himself and the rest of the officers and support workers at the detachment.

“It opens the floodgates. You start rethinking about all the deaths you’ve attended, particularly the traumatic ones. I’ve teared up a few times this year,” he admits.

But under the grief is another emotion shared by all of the first responders interviewed for this piece: frustration.

“I get upset. I’m mad. And I think, Why did this have to happen? Where was the breakdown? Did the message, ‘Don’t drink and drive’ get lost somewhere along the way?”

Reinforcing that message will be part of the strategy the Alcohol/Speed Stewardship Working Group will implement. Posters in high foot traffic areas will be placed throughout town. ICBC has been approached to install additional signage along the highway. A pamphlet detailing information about local accidents will be prepared to give out at road checks and presentations will be given at both the community and school levels.

Additionally, Inspector Norm MacPhail is planning to deploy fulltime highway patrol resources in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton. While Cpl. Vadik is proud of his detachment’s record, he is the first to admit that with only four officers, they are under resourced and this move will be a huge benefit to the area.

“We’re such a small detachment we’re limited as to what we can do. We do the best we can with the resources we have. Geographically, we serve one of the largest areas of any detachment in the province.

“We go from halfway up Highline Road, halfway up the Hurley, halfway up the Meager, 70 km up the In-SCHUCK-ch Forest Road and all the way to Green River. If you went border to border to border to border it would take you all day to patrol.”

One of the most dramatic aspects of this strategy is the plan to hold a reconstruction of a live accident scenario later this year, to be coordinated by Pemberton Fire Chief Russell Mack.

Chief Mack describes essentially what is educational theatre.

“You would stage an accident. You’d get some wrecked cars. You’d get some patients, put them in the cars, dress them up, make them look pretty bad and then you’d respond to that call. Say the RCMP is first on the scene, they’d give an update, ambulance comes in, fire department gets there… the coroner… we show what happens.”

As the incident is being attended, Chief Mack or Deputy Chief Christian Staehli would explain what is going on.

Mack thinks the exercise is very effective because it engages all of the senses.

“I think the visual part of it is really important. It really drives it home.”

While events like mock accidents have a powerful impact, the fire chief thinks there are simple things that can be implemented immediately.

“What the police have to do, and I know they have, is step up their program for speeding tickets. It gets people’s attention. And the fines nowadays are substantial.”

Chief Mack thinks that speeding may be easier to address than drinking and driving because of what he calls the “it will never happen to me syndrome.”

“The attitude is, ‘I can go out and a have a few cocktails, get behind the wheel and get home in 20 minutes,’” says Chief Mack.

“With a lot of these younger adults, they’ve lost friends to this… there’s a whole group of them. I had one of my cousin’s sons die in a crash and another son impaired from a crash.”

He also thinks people underestimate just how much attention it takes to drive the Sea to Sky highway.

“You don’t have to overdrive this road very much. You lose it on a corner and it’s over.

“(A couple of the recent accidents), those people were traveling at ungodly speeds — you could tell from the impact. Those people weren’t going 100 or 110 km/h, they were going over 120 km/h.”

The fire chief notes that part of what makes 120 km/h so fast is the actual construction of Highway 99.

“Some of the curves on the 99 are banked the wrong way, which compounds the problem dramatically. If they’re banked wrong even a couple of degrees you’re whole centre of gravity is off.”

Chief Mack says that while he has spoken to the Ministry of Highways about the road, he realizes changes to the stretch of Highway 99 between Pemberton and Whistler in his lifetime will be unlikely. In the meantime, education is the best defense against a road which can be very unpredictable.

“We have to get the message out to the whole community. It’s not just young drivers. It’s everyone.

“You know as well as I do that we have people in their 50s going to the Legion or the hotel for a few cocktails, getting behind the wheel and driving home. What can you say about those guys? They’ve been lucky.”

Chief Mack, who has worked in the community for well over a decade, explains the integral role the fire department plays in attending MVAs.

“Our job is to make sure the scene is secure, if the car is on its roof or whatever. We assess the risk of fire and help direct traffic. We help extricate the patients. We turn them over to the ambulance if they’re living and if they’re not, we wait until Jan has done all of her stuff before extricating them and bagging them.”

The “Jan” Chief Mack is referring to is Coroner Jan MacFayden. A Pemberton resident, MacFayden has been investigating sudden, unexpected deaths in the Sea to Sky corridor for the past 16 years.

“When the RCMP have confirmed there’s a fatal, they call me out right away. I’m always at the scene,” she says.

The coroner sees her job as two-fold: as investigator and lay counselor.

“You’re dealing with the feelings of the next of kin as well as the other first responders.

“When you go to these very tragic accidents, first of all you have all the first responders who are all involved in these small communities. Everyone knows everyone else. You go into situations where you’re not only dealing with the families of these people, you may know the victim yourself, which has happened to me many times.”

The fact that so many of the recent MVAs have been speed and or alcohol-related deeply concerns MacFayden.

“It’s very frustrating to come up against this time and time again. And to see so many young people die. The average age of these people is 29.

“I am a mother of 13 children,” she says. “Together my husband and I have 13 children and 19 grandchildren. And we know as parents what it must be like for these families to lose children who have such potential, who haven’t realized their lives’ purpose yet. It’s so sad that these things are happening.”

MacFayden sees the Speed/Alcohol Stewardship Working Group as a positive step towards reducing these tragedies.

“We need to get the message out that not only has so-and-so died, but it’s due to speed and alcohol, it’s about making wrong choices. I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg with the fatalities. Paul Vadik and his group of people, and the Tribal Police, they deal with these types of potential fatalities all the time. They save tons of lives here that I don’t know anything about until after the fact.”

MacFayden feels that with fresh incidents in mind, it’s easy to consider the potential perils of excessive speed and driving. In her mind, what’s needed is a sustained effort.

“We need to continue the focus on awareness,” she says. “This issue impacts not only our community, but communities around the province, people have relatives and friends everywhere. These tragedies have a far-reaching, ripple effect.”

MacFayden is confident that the working group will be able to sustain attention on the issues.

“We have come up with a variety of ideas that can be implemented throughout the year. As more and more people become involved it will gain momentum and takes on a life of its own. What we’re trying to do is build that momentum.”

The coroner makes a comparison between reckless driving and smoking. She notes that after nearly 40 years of anti-smoking education most people would agree it is an unhealthy thing to do.

“Maybe that’s where we’ll eventually get to.”

While she can’t remember a year where MVA fatalities have been as prevalent in the Pemberton Valley, she doesn’t think it is indicative of any particular factors, but rather a reflection of a cycle.

“Though 2007 is the worst cycle I have seen for these kinds of deaths, I don’t think it has any specific meaning. Everything goes in cycles. Sometimes you get a flurry of logging accidents, then it will be people who die in bed, then it will be suicides. But this amount of death in this community area where we live, I’ve never seen anything like it in the time I’ve been a coroner.”

Rick King, who heads up the Pemberton branch of the B.C. Ambulance Service, echoes the coroner’s observation about the cyclical nature of accidents in the valley. Having worked as a paramedic for the past 26 years, he has seen his share of deaths. And like MacFayden’s experience, many have been friends and acquaintances of the man who grew up in the Pemberton Valley.

“We see this every once in a while, you’ll see a wave of MVAs,” King says. “It’s uncanny, it’s some phenomenon that I can’t explain. We might go the rest of the year without an MVA or a death, it’s unlikely, but it could happen.”

Although extremely stressful, King long ago resolved that his work would mean constantly dealing with death and dismemberment. What he finds more difficult to reconcile is the fact that people put themselves into situations where he, or his fellow first responders, will be pulling their bodies from vehicles.

“When it comes to drinking and driving, as far as public education I don’t know what more can be done. There’s TV commercials, posters up everywhere and public education in schools.

“Drinking and driving: they’ve been fighting that since there’s been alcohol and steering wheels. Some people just won’t get it.”

But he does believe that increased transit could help to reduce the number of impaired drivers.

“After you’ve had a few drinks you look at your options for getting home. It’s an issue.

“There’s no real bus service. And they haven’t made other plans. They’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get home, what are the chances (of getting caught)?’It’s probably the same situation anywhere towns and amenities are spread out and there’s not a public transit system people can rely on.

“Speeding, aggressive driving, drinking and driving — everyone knows the danger. I don’t know what to do about the public education to make it sink in,” says King.

He believes that with both drinking and driving the emphasis has to be on prevention. When it comes to speeding, he sees complacency as a major issue.

“I think part of the problem is people have so far to go to get where they’re going. They could be driving in regularly from D’Arcy to Whistler. They’ve driven it twice a day for 10 years and there’s the monotony, they just want to get where they’re going.

“As far as speed is concerned, I suggest putting photo radar between here and Whistler and put a big sign that says there is photo radar, because it’s more important to keep them from speeding than catching them after.

“And we can take a lesson from Kiewet. You know their signs that say ‘Slow down, my mommy (or daddy) works here.’ Maybe we use pictures of actual vehicles that have been in accidents — there is some value in shock value. We need some kind of in-your-face signage that reminds people that these are winding roads and they are subject to weather changes. If it saves one life it’s worth it.”

King agrees with Cpl. Vadik that the majority of accidents are preventable.

“I think you could say 90 per cent of MVAs on the road today are preventable if people were paying attention, not drinking, not speeding, not talking on the phone, not yelling at the kids in the back, not pouring their coffee — a lot of accidents could be avoided.”

While the first responders will continue to meet quarterly to assess and refine their efforts at enforcement, education and engagement, they will not be alone.

Established in 2004, the Winds of Change, a healthy communities joint-initiative formed in response to the alcohol-related beating death of 15-year-old Ross Leo, will also be active in helping to get the message out. Councillor Jennie Helmer, a member of the Winds of Change steering committee, sees the group as being a bridge between both Pemberton and Mount Currie.

“Winds of Change is working with the joint councils to also help get this message out. We can't make individual choices for our community members but we can do our best to educate, enforce and persist in our belief that an essential part of a healthy community is responsible driving,” says Helmer.

The VOP councillor acknowledges that there will be definite challenges getting the message out.

“It appears that driving at high speeds and driving under the influence is transcending genders and age groups. This makes a targeted message more challenging, because it needs to get through to every single driver. The message is simple ‘Speed and alcohol kills’. We have all heard this at some point in our driving careers and it is time to take some ownership for our actions. Every time we get behind the wheel, we should pledge to acknowledge these words and then drive accordingly.

Councillor Helmer is disheartened by the rash of deaths this year.

“Pemberton is way too small a town to be hit with this number of speed/alcohol related deaths in such a short time,” she says. “Pretty much everyone has been affected to some degree by the recent tragedies and the burning question now is, ‘What are we going to do about it’?”

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