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Highway accidents prompt communications re-think

As Torino unfolds, Highway 99 crash closures pose questions about 2010



Lengthy highway closures on the Sea to Sky in the past two weeks will not be repeated during the 2010 Winter Olympics, say local Games and tourism representatives.

"There is a plan to address accidents or occurrences on the highway immediately," said Maureen Douglas, Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee spokesperson. "There will be safety stations throughout the highway… that will allow the highway to open probably faster than the conditions allow for now."

Douglas said safety stations, first responder units, and security personnel posted along the highway will respond quickly to any contentious situation. "It will mean a very effective response time to any situation from a broken down bus with a flat tire to any accident that might occur."

Three recent multi-vehicle accidents prompted one to seven hour highway closures and sparked motorist complaints.

On Saturday, Feb. 11 one motorcyclist was killed when he failed to negotiate a turn three kilometers north of Lion’s Bay, resulting in a seven-hour highway closure. On Friday, Feb. 17 late-morning and mid-afternoon accidents disrupted traffic and led to a one-hour closure. Delays prompted frustrated responses from locals about lack of official communication.

Travellers complained that overhead electronic highway alerts did not post closure news, although highways officials say alerts – one on the Upper Levels highway by Eagleridge Drive and a second in Squamish, one kilometer south of Cleveland Avenue on Highway 99–- had highway closure news posted less than one hour after the accident. "But if they were already past the sign when news was posted they got caught in the closure," said ministry spokesperson Mike Lovecchio. Squamish radio, Mountain FM, broadcast closure alerts, "but Vancouver media did not." Lovecchio said.

Tourism Whistler spokesperson Breton Murphy said communications glitches like that will be addressed by a Highway 99 transportation committee in April. Murphy said he asked highway closures be on the committee’s agenda that includes representatives from RCMP, ministry of transportation, district of Squamish and Whistler municipality.

"We have systems in place that do a very good job of communicating about scheduled delays about the highway project," Murphy said, "but when something happens like a rock slide or an unplanned incident there are a number of players that need to be involved. We need to ask collectively ‘What can we do about an even better job?’"

Identifying responsibilities between jurisdictions and first responders will lead to improved communication, Murphy said. For 2010 there may still be unexpected situations that require unique planning.

An extensive education plan for travellers hoping to get to the Games in Whistler is in the works, according to VANOC’s Douglas. A combination of daily, perhaps even hourly, media reports and toll-free information lines will provide transportation updates.

Lack of Whistler parking may require local residents to carry checkpoint passes on the Sea to Sky. In addition, a fleet of 650-700 buses will shuttle visitors from Vancouver to Whistler.

"If you live in Vancouver or if you’re from Germany and decide ‘I’m going to rent a car and drive to Whistler,’ you will have no place to park that car," she said.

"What you’re going to see on the Sea to Sky is probably the most efficient run of that highway we’ve ever had because there will be a very specific management plan in place to keep it that way," Douglas said.