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Inside a highway closure

Police outline investigative steps involved in serious vehicle collisions

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As the head of the Whistler and Pemberton RCMP detachments, Staff Sgt. Paul Hayes gets asked a lot of questions about "why police do the things they do on certain investigations." But there's one element of the RCMP's mandate that he gets questioned about more than any other.

"When it comes to (the investigation of) road crashes, that, quite often, can be mysterious for someone looking from the outside in," he said. Hayes hoped to clear up some of the mystery at a Committee of the Whole meeting with local officials on Tuesday, May 8. Joining the Operations NCO were Sea to Sky Traffic Services' Cpl. Elizabeth Lynn, and Sgt. Paul Vermeulen, team leader with the Lower Mainland's Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service (ICARS).

First, Lynn walked councillors through the steps taken when a serious accident closes a stretch of Highway 99. Officers' first priority, she explained, is "preservation of life," ensuring those injured get the assistance they require and that the scene is safe.

Once deemed safe, officers focus on preserving evidence, "especially the evidence that can perish," Lynn said, such as tire tracks. Officers often have to cover a large stretch of roadway. "The collision, oftentimes, where it ends, is usually not where it started. It often starts way back," she noted.

A common issue for police is when well-intentioned bystanders try to clear the road of debris to make way for first responders—which can affect the investigation. "We need whatever has landed there to stay there until we've decided (whether it is useful to the investigation)," Lynn explained.

Investigators, of course, also have to locate each driver involved, and work to track down any witnesses. They also need to identify the injured and deceased and determine, if applicable, which hospital they will be sent to in order to notify family. The RCMP's Victim Services unit may also be contacted to provide support on the scene.

Members are in communication throughout with maintenance contractors responsible for overhead signage on the highway, as well as local radio stations and DriveBC to inform the public of the closure.

Local RCMP members also liaise with ICARS investigators travelling to the scene so that they are fully briefed by the time they arrive.

Following that, evidence is marked and the collision scene photographed. After ICARS investigators arrive, then it's up to local RCMP members to clear the roadway of hazards and whittle down any vehicle backlog.

ICARS' ROLE

ICARS investigators attend all serious-injury and fatal collisions, and lend expertise "that (detachments) don't have access to locally," Vermuelen said. Trained in mathematics and physics, ICARS members are also called upon to offer expert testimony in court cases involving traffic accidents, and provide recommendations on possible road improvements in problem areas to B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. "If we go to the same place with the same crash six times in a row, there's obviously something wrong," Vermuelen said. "It can't always be the driver."

To that end, Vermuelen was asked if ICARS has lobbied the province on any particular sections of Highway 99 in the Sea to Sky. Vermeulen said there are "a couple of areas on the highway here where we see clusters of crashes," like near the Big Orange Bridge south of Whistler, but that investigators don't yet have the data to support the theory that the majority of accidents there are related to road design.

"If we come up with a recommendation for that, we'll see what we can make happen," he added.

Between 2015 and 2018, ICARS received six calls for service within Whistler's boundaries, with five in the last year—however, investigators only attended once, as Vermuelen explained.

"Through consultation with local members, it was determined that we couldn't add anything to the investigation that they didn't already know. There's really no point in keeping a scene closed for us to attend," he said, adding that ICARS provided over-the-phone guidance to local officers to aid in the investigations.

The Whistler RCMP, as part of a pilot project, will fly an ICARS investigator from the Lower Mainland directly to the scene of a crash "if it means it will benefit and move and investigation forward," Hayes said.

There are now a dozen local officers—an increase from eight, previously—who have undergone specialized training in accident investigation in order to better facilitate the liaison with ICARS on the scene.

"Our goal is to have someone on every shift that has that level of training, so that when those phone calls are made at three o'clock in the morning, we can have that dialogue and make a proper determination as to whether ICARS needs to come out or not," said Hayes.

Advancements in technology have played a key role in cutting down ICARS' investigation time as well. At the turn of the century, the unit's tools on the scene consisted of "very basic stuff" like tape measures and levels, Vermuelen said. Today, ICARS utilizes sophisticated methods such as 3D laser scanners and aerial photogrammetry, now done with drones, to gain a holistic picture of an accident scene. "The reason we invested in those is that now we can survey a scene in about 10 minutes," he said.

In newer models, ICARS can also access useful information through a vehicle's crash data retrieval or infotainment system, which can track everything "from which door was opened to what seatbelt was used," Vermuelen explained.

Even with recent advancements, Vermuelen reiterated that an investigation cannot be rushed.

"There's a big risk in this to our members. If they try and hurry through (an investigation), and they incorrectly identify evidence, that's a very serious issue for us: They can be discredited in court," he said.

"We want to be quick and efficient and maintain that road ... and that's very much in our minds," Hayes added. "And on the other side, (we know) this is someone's worst day and we are attending to your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and nephews, and I would hate for you to get that message one day that we did a poor job because we were rushing, or that we didn't collect (evidence properly).

"We are continually trying to balance those two equations to the best of our ability."

Sea to Sky, by the numbers

2,244: The number of vehicle collisions on Highway 99 police attended in the Sea to Sky over the past three years.

172: The number of highway accidents that resulted in at least one lane closure in the Sea to Sky over the past three years.

65 minutes: The average length of highway closure in the Sea to Sky last year, according to data from maintenance contractor Miller Capilano.

90 minutes: The targeted closure time recommended by a road safety working group that includes representatives from the RCMP, the province, the RMOW, and the District of Squamish.

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