IT WAS disconcerting, to say the least, to learn this week that a 75-year-old man needlessly suffered a broken neck last spring after he pulled out from Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.
As outlined in an investigation by the province’s Special Investigations Unit, the man had been behind the wheel of a SUV while executing a normal left turn onto Golf Links Road. It was a perfectly ordinary morning in early June. The road was dry and visibility was clear.
The SIU said the man had every reason to expect to complete the turn unscathed, except for one thing: zooming along Golf Links Road was an unmarked OPP cruiser sedan which, just a few seconds before it crashed into the SUV, had reached a speed of 122 km/h. That’s more than twice the speed limit on Golf Links.
A NASCAR veteran steering a superbly-equipped Audi Quattro may have been able to avoid the collision. But the OPP officer could not. It was a miracle nobody in the spectacular crash was killed, as both vehicles were heavily damaged. As police often point out, rightly, excessive speed continues to be a major factor in crashes that cause fatalities or serious injuries. There was the proof.
At the time, the officer had been participating in a surveillance training exercise. Surely this type of endeavour, if it requires high-speed driving, should be carried out at some sort of training facility free of civilian vehicles and pedestrians.
It was equally disquieting last spring, when a 63-year-old man suffered a severe leg injury when a marked OPP cruiser crashed into him while he was riding a snowmobile on the outskirts of Wawa.
Prior to the crash, the officer involved had reached speeds of more than 150 km/h on Highway 101. Incredibly, the officer had not been responding to an urgent call for service; rather, it was just a run-of-the mill property crime. As the SIU investigation noted, the cruiser’s emergency lights were not flashing.
By the time the cruiser reached the edge of town, its speed had been reduced somewhat, but not enough to avoid a collision. Perhaps an experienced Hollywood stunt driver behind the wheel of a nimble Chevy Camaro could have missed the sled. The snowmobiler, who according to the SIU had done “nothing wrong” when he crossed the highway, was knocked off his machine and sent tumbling along the pavement.
In both cases, the SIU said, the officers’ actions amounted to a “danger” on the roadway. That’s an understatement. But the agency stopped short of recommending criminal charges against them because their decision to speed excessively, while arguably reckless, occurred while they were on duty.
Under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act, police officers needn’t obey speed limits while they are working. The courts are unlikely to convict an officer of what could be perceived as a momentary lapse in judgment, SIU director Joseph Martino noted this week.
That may be so. But surely citizens need to be protected. Nobody wants to suffer a broken neck at any age, but especially not at 75. The 63-year-old man whose leg was broken in several places will undoubtedly limp for the rest of his life. Both accidents were entirely avoidable.
At the very least, police should be required to activate their emergency lights when they exceed the speed limit, whether a call for their service is urgent or not. It’s highly likely that both the SUV driver and the snowmobiler in the aforementioned cases would have held off pulling out, if they had observed lights flashing in the immediate distance.