There were no serious injuries when a school bus returning from school in Pemberton tumbled off the Lillooet Lake road in a snowstorm on Tuesday afternoon, but the accident highlights the need for a safer road and safer buses says In-SHUCK-ch Chief Negotiator Gerard Peters.
According to the official report, the bus was carrying about 15 students from Pemberton to the three In-SHUCK-ch reserves located along the Lillooet Lake Forest Service Road. The bus rolled over as it slid off the side of the road into a ditch, where it was partially submerged in some water.
The children were bruised and banged up in the accident, and many had wet clothes. All of the kids were checked over for injuries and exposure at the Pemberton Health Care Centre.
"One of our council members who was attending the clinic in Pemberton said they were shaken up and bruised, and of course they were hurt and terrified," said Peters.
He doesn't know the age of the children, but said they could have ranged from elementary school to high school, ranging from as young as five to as old as 17.
The Lillooet Lake Forest Service Road is currently being evaluated as a possible route between Pemberton and Harrison Hot Springs. A proper road would provide better access to the remote communities and would open the area to tourism.
In the meantime, until the fate of the route is decided, Peters said the In-SHUCK-ch communities are stuck with a road that is endangering lives.
"I'm involved in representing the In-SHUCK-ch people, members of three communities, in negotations involving a treaty," he said. "And, in the course of those negotiations, I've indicated that central to any agreement is improving the roads. If I could characterize our treaty, it's an access treaty."
An economic study is currently being conducted to find out what the economic benefits of the road might be, but Peters says it goes beyond economics.
"Of course they're doing this because they want a return on their capital investment of a new highway. But we've made it clear that other considerations need to be made, and that's about social and health issues, safety issues, issues of my people needing to get to services and the like," said Peters.
"Of course when it comes to an accident involving kids, that highlights it and underscores it. The road is in abysmal conditions at the best of times, and in the winter it's a real hazard, and that has to be addressed by the new transportation minister."
The road is narrow in spots, and doesn't have any barriers to keep vehicles from tumbling over the side in to the trees or the lake. Numerous accidents are reported on the road every year.
Until a highway project is approved the road is still the responsibility of the Ministry of Forests, although B.C. Rail and B.C. Hydro help to maintain some sections.
Rather than wait for the big highway project, Peters would like to see the different levels of government and other stakeholders get together and look at ways to improve the road now.
"It doesn't need to be done all at once in one massive project, we could take this in increments if it were necessary to do so," said Peters. "Assuming it remains a forest service road, the forest service road should be improved, it should be widened, the surface needs to get better, and it has to be made safer for winter driving."
In regards to the school bus, Peters says the driver has made it clear in the past that he needs a safer bus, and that the bus should have features like seatbelts and good winter tires for that road.