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The evacuation of common sense

by: Gary Bannerman

(3 December, 2003) - Why is it that serious traffic accidents in the past that used to tie up roads and highways for brief intervals of time, today seem to require hours, and a veritable army of police, firemen and medical assistants, along with their equipment? An accident scene today can resemble the evacuation of Dunkirk, or is it the evacuation of common sense? 

In Vancouver recently there was a serious traffic accident on a major freeway. Three vehicles were involved, but only one seriously damaged. That car flipped and exploded. Its driver and sole occupant was incinerated and a Samaritan who rushed to the rescue was seriously burned.

For public officials, this was Armageddon. A cavalcade of police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and hazardous materials rescue vans charged to the scene, parking willy nilly all over the multiple lanes of the freeway, in a fashion certain to provide maximum opportunities for swagger and macho expression.

About three miles of freeway was closed for seven hours!

Not many years ago, this tragic event would unlikely have closed the whole highway (6 lanes) for more than a few moments. Then, a lane would have opened each way. A couple of hours later and two lanes each way would have been operating, if not the whole highway.

Perhaps we had more intelligent accident investigators then? Emergency fire and health first; expert study of the accident scene; multiple photographs and then get the highway open. Tow away the debris.

Instead, this day, thousands of cars, trucks and vans were rerouted, ultimately creating a paralytic gridlock. Tens of thousands of people were delayed one, two or more hours. Medical appointments were cancelled. People missed airline flights. No shows dominated statistics everywhere. Cargo failed to reach its destination. Doubtless, some of it missed deadlines for the Port of Vancouver and trains. All buses on either side of the harbour were diverted and many hundreds of passengers were forced to cross by ferry.

Is it possible to estimate the cost of rescheduled appointments, missed meetings, cargo delays, burned fuel, and environmental pollution? Is it possible that death could have resulted for someone who failed to get to hospital, or others whose health was damaged or needlessly put at risk? What was the cost of poorer retail sales or people who failed to show up at restaurants and events?

What was the cost of all of the public salaries and public equipment assigned to this incident?


Why seven hours? Don't these people have anything else to do? Did we have more crime because police were wastefully occupied, most of them merely managing the traffic delays their circus had created? As many as 30 access and egress points of the freeway required police cars and policemen to divert traffic. How many hundreds of people suffering burglaries, car thefts, assaults and other indignities - catastrophic experiences for most of us - were denied even the basic courtesy of a response from police?

Is this unusual?

A week later on an approach to Vancouver's icon Lions Gate Bridge, the preceding story was repeated. Hours of unspeakable traffic delays to investigate the obvious.

* * *

Public safety (police, fire, emergency, health) officials have been embarrassed so frequently by the courts as lawyers convert tragedy into dollars, they are terrified to miss anything at an accident scene. Mind-numbing questions in months of court actions, either seeking criminal or civil compensation.

Could the fire have been caused by an exploding can of hairspray, a pothole in the highway, melting asphalt, improperly cleaned streets, faulty workmanship or disrepair of the vehicles et-cetera, etcetera? Endless questions.

If personal injury or loss of life are involved, the investigation of the most routine of events resembles Hollywood's best: an episode of the acclaimed TV drama, CSI.

And everybody else be damned. So what if 30 access and egress ramps of freeways have to be blocked by police cruisers, bringing virtually all other enforcement to a crashing halt, and extraordinary opportunities for criminals? Who cares about costs, waste, environmental damage or possibly even health traumas caused by gridlock?

All the public employees at the scene are getting paid, and many of them at overtime rates, with serious consequences to year-round budgets. And they get paid for months or years thereafter as the court processes begin, with their usual arrogance and insensitivity toward public cost and the lives of witnesses and even public officials.

* * *

I had a conversation with a senior police officer recently, who said that red tape (court created) has changed the work to the point that an impaired driving charge (DUI), which used to take 90 minutes to process, now takes six hours. It used to take 10 minutes to obtain a warrant - now it takes 3-4 hours.

There are no "three strikes your out" or "habitual criminal" statutes in Canada. Police regularly apprehend thieves, vandals, street drug peddlers and thugs who have as many as 100 or more convictions on their rap sheet. When arrested again, they often wink at and taunt the officer, certain to be released on "their own recognizance" or on minimal bail as soon as they get to court.

The frustration is overwhelming for both the victimized community and police. In Vancouver, as this is being written, a cause celebre is the story of six police constables who behaved like thugs. They took drug dealers to a park and gave them a thorough beating. The officers have been convicted of assault (awaiting sentencing) and they currently face the likelihood that their careers will be terminated.

They probably deserve whatever punishment they receive, but who holds the courts, the lawmakers and society's leaders to account for creating a climate certain to provoke the worst kind of behaviour out of everyone: citizens who take the law into their own hands; crooks who know the consequences are irrelevant; and young kids in police uniforms who can't stand the taunting from sleaze balls for one moment longer.

Society today seems awash in political correctness and timid mediocrity. Perhaps the source of the criminal negligence is in much loftier offices.


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