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FATALITY

Transportation critic wants more done to make highways safer from flying truck wheels

By Jennifer O'Brien, The London Free Press

An opposition critic is demanding the province explain how its beefed-up road-safety laws failed to stop a truck wheel from flying off and killing a London-area woman driving on Highway 401 last week.

“It’s incumbent on the government and (Transportation) Minister (Steven) Del Duca to dig deeper and address the increase in accidents. While there are regulations and inspection requirements in place, there’s a disturbing trend in increased accidents sometimes leading to fatalities,” Kitchener-area MPP Michael Harris, the Progressive Conservative transportation critic at Queen’s Park, said.

“Ontario motorists have enough to deal with on our highways — they shouldn’t have to worry about evading flying objects,” he said.

His comments came after the death of Kimberly Coordes, 50, of South-West Oxford Township, who was killed Friday when a wheel came off a transport truck and bounced over the highway median before striking the windshield of her compact car.

Big and heavy, fly-away truck wheels can be dangerous on any road, but especially on super-highways with heavy traffic travelling at high speeds, with little chance for drivers to react to such random debris.

While flying wheels decreased dramatically in Ontario after 1997, when there were 215 crashes related to that problem, so-called “reported wheel separations” have skyrocketed over the past five years, according to Ministry of Transportation statistics.

Last year, there were 148 reports, more than three times the amount in 2010 when there were 47. So far this year, there have been 82 reported wheel separations, provincial figures show.

Truck safety on Ontario’s busy 400-series highways was thrust under the spotlight in the 1990s.

 

During that decade, were was a rash of road deaths caused by flying transport wheels, including four in a single year.

The government responded in 1997 by cracking down on flying truck tires, introducing daily inspection requirements for drivers and bulking up road inspections by police and transportation officials.

The law also was changed to create a new offence for flying vehicle parts — it’s an absolute liability, meaning no defence can be offered — with a maximum fine of $50,000.

Since then, the ministry says, flying wheels have been blamed for nine deaths — two of them, including the death of Coordes, this year.

Former OPP officer Cam Woolley, often the face of Highway 401 safety during the height of the problem in the 1990s, said he suspects “complacency” is to blame for the increase in fly-away wheels in recent years.

“The overall thing is complacency with operators and maintenance,” he said. “The industry did a great job of cleaning up, but . . . people get complacent and there is sloppy maintenance going on.

“There are a lot of ways for things to go wrong. Is the wheel installed properly, (or) has it been totally neglected?”

Wheel fasteners, rims, tires and hubs are all supposed to be inspected at ministry stations along the 401, but wheels getting loose can be tough to detect until they’re about to separate, said Woolley.

Last Friday’s crash occurred just outside London near the Putnam station. A ministry spokesperson said the station was open at the time and staff were on site, but not conducting inspections due to heavy rain.

With files by Dale Carruthers, Free Press reporter