Ban school travel in bad weather: N.B. inquest

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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BATHURST, N.B. - Dale Branch lost his son 16 months ago in a horrifying highway crash in New Brunswick, but now he hopes lessons will be learned after a coroner's jury called Thursday for a strict new policy on school travel.
Outside the courthouse where the inquest's 24 recommendations were released, Branch fought back tears as he expressed his gratitude for the jury's work on behalf of his son and the seven others who died on Jan. 12, 2008, just outside Bathurst.
"What I really feel is that Codey did not just die, and nothing will be done about it," said Branch. "Hopefully through this, this does not happen to another family again. That's what I hope."
The five-member jury heard eight days of testimony into the collision on a slush-covered highway that claimed the lives of seven members of the Bathurst High School boys basketball team and the wife of their coach.
The coroner's jury is calling for external audits to ensure schools follow provincial transportation regulations, and it wants a policy developed that would ban school travel to and from off-site extracurricular events in bad weather.
Coroner Greg Forestell also wants the shoulder of the highway where the accident happened to be repaired, and he wants owners of 15-passenger vans in New Brunswick to be notified that they need motor vehicle inspections done every six months.
The coroner's jury also recommended that winter tires be mandatory on vehicles used for student travel, and they say only Class 2 bus drivers should allowed to drive school vehicles, and not coaches or parents.
"The Class 2 driver is very important, and we don't want students transported in mini-vans," said Ana Acevedo, whose son Javier was killed in the crash.
"For us, it's a big success that they say bus drivers."
Acevedo and Isabelle Hains - who lost her son Daniel - led the fight for the inquest and improved school transportation policy.
"It's these children that are making the changes," Hains said as she motioned to pictures of the seven boys who were lost. "It's their lives that were taken that's going to make the changes for all the children."
The recommendations from the inquest are not binding on the provincial government, but Education Minister Kelly Lamrock said the vast majority of them can be implemented quickly.
"We obviously want to strike a very important balance here," he said in Fredericton.
"We want school travel to be as safe as possible. I'm a parent. I have kids in the system. I love them as much as anybody. And we want to also make sure that we do so in a way that does not kill the joy of school sports by over-regimenting it."
Lamrock said about one-third of the recommendations have already been implemented, including spot inspections.
"Every parent, including myself, knows that safety that's done at the expense of removing every opportunity of your child to travel is not a victory, either," he said.
Since the accident, the province has stopped using 15-passenger vans for school travel like the one used by the Bathurst school, and it has adopted a number of previous guidelines on student travel as policy.
As well, a new driver training course for coaches and parents will be offered. Officials expect a pilot project to begin in the next few weeks.
Some parents of the boys who died in the crash wept in the courtroom as the recommendations were read aloud.
Outside, they said they were pleased by the outcome of the inquest because the changes the jury called for mirrored their own recommendations.
Just after midnight on Jan. 12, 2008, the Bathurst High Phantoms were returning from an away game in Moncton when their 15-passenger school van slid into the path of an oncoming transport truck.
Five of the boys who died - Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Codey Branch, Daniel Hains and Javier Acevedo - were 17 years old. The other two students were Nick Quinn, 16, and Nicholas Kelly, 15.
The eighth victim was Beth Lord, 51, who was a respected teacher at another school.
Her husband, Wayne Lord, and daughter, Katie, along with two players survived the accident.
During the inquest, the jury heard from Lord and the driver of the transport truck, Austin Ward.
Both described how the van veered to the right to give the truck a wide berth as they approached each other.
Lord said the van's passenger-side wheels caught the edge of the pavement and his resulting steering correction sent the van into a slide into the path of the truck.
Other testimony concentrated on the shoulder of the road and the fact a similar accident occurred at the same spot in December 2008.
Greg Sypher, an investigator for Transport Canada, was critical of the condition of the van, saying it would not have passed a motor vehicle inspection at the time of the accident. He was also critical of the fact the van sported all-season instead of winter tires.
The jury was told that while the van was classified as a passenger vehicle, it was also considered a bus because it carried more than 10 passengers. As a bus it would require a motor vehicle inspection every six months, and drivers were required to keep proper logs. Neither was done.
McLaughlin produced a new travel policy for the district in the months following the accident.
The coroner applauded the district for the work, and recommended that the policy be shared throughout the province.
Leaving the court, Forestell said he'll ensure the 24 recommendations make their way to the provincial government.
"I will take the recommendations over the coming week and compile those into a letter format to the various government departments and agencies who can respond to them," he said. "We'll look forward to their replies."

Organizations: Bathurst High School, Dale Branch, Bathurst High Phantoms Codey Branch Transport Canada

Geographic location: BATHURST, New Brunswick, Fredericton Moncton

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