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ROAD SAFETY

Fly-away truck wheel smashes into van carrying Boy Scouts on Hwy. 401 near Woodstock

Dale Carruthers

By Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press

Ted Currier’s van was totalled after it was struck by a flying truck tire on Highway 401 near Woodstock. Nobody was injured. (Special to Postmedia Network)

Ted Currier’s van was totalled after it was struck by a flying truck tire on Highway 401 near Woodstock. Nobody was injured. (Special to Postmedia Network)

Not a week after a fly-away truck wheel killed a driver on Highway 401, a group of Boy Scouts cheated disaster after another flying wheel destroyed their van on the same stretch of road.

Critics say the wave of rogue truck wheels — an issue Ontario tried to tackle years ago, cracking down with tougher safety laws and jacked-up fines — is out of control again, the result of too much truck traffic on 400-series highways, poor road maintenance and trucking firms left to police themselves.

Ted Currier, 55, set out from his home in Rochester, Mich., on a rainy Thursday night to drive to Niagara Falls for a Scout sight-seeing trip.

Inside the van was another Scout parent, Currier’s son and three other boys, ages 12 to 15.

They were driving east on the 401, southwest of Woodstock around 9 p.m., when something crashed into the van’s hood.

“I didn’t see a thing,” said Currier, who pulled the badly damaged van to the shoulder, still unsure of what happened.

Tire tracks on the hood suggested a wheel had struck the van, but the group couldn’t see the wheel anywhere.

Police soon arrived and confirmed their suspicions, saying two wheels flew off a westbound transport — one of them bouncing over the highway median and striking the van.

Six days earlier, just 20 km away, Kimberly Coordes, 50, of South-West Oxford, was killed when a truck wheel smashed through her windshield as she drove toward London.

The wheel — one of two that had come off a transport travelling in the opposite direction — had also bounced over the median.

“It’s eerily similar,” OPP Const. Stacey Culbert said of the cases, noting both are under investigation.

Coordes’ death prompted the Progressive Conservative transportation critic at Queen’s Park to demand the province explain why its enhanced road-safety laws aren’t stopping an increase in fly-away wheels.

The problem was dramatically thrust under a spotlight in the 1990s after a rash of road deaths, including four between 1995 and 1996.

The province responded in 1997 by introducing daily inspection requirements for drivers and beefing up road inspections by police and transportation officials. A new absolute offence for flying vehicle parts — no defence can be offered — with a maximum penalty of $50,000 was also brought in.

At first, those led to a significant decrease in flying wheels. But the problem appears to be on the rise again, according to Ministry of Transportation statistics.

Last year, there were 148 reported cases, more than three times the number in 2010 when there were 47. There have been 82 reported cases this year.

Some are blaming the government for closing several Ontario inspection stations in the past five years.

But the actual number of provincial inspections hasn’t gone down, with 110,000 conducted a year, said a ministry spokesperson.

Part of the problem, said a veteran two-decade former inspector, is Ontario’s crumbling roads, which can speed up wear and tear on trucks and tires.

Another issue is trucking companies trying to stretch resources in a tight economy, said Serge Valcourt, now an official with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents inspectors at Ontario inspection stations.

“When you need to stretch your dollar, you do a tire inspection every three months instead of every month,” Valcourt said of trucking companies.

“When you have tens of thousands of pounds of machine heading down a highway, you want to make sure you’ve inspected it correctly and thoroughly. It could be your family out on those roads,” he said.

The Ontario Trucking Association could not immediately be reached for comment over the weekend.

Currier, who works as an engineer for the U.S. military, and the Scouts didn’t let their close call end their road trip. They stayed overnight in a Woodstock motel before heading to Niagara Falls the next morning in a rental vehicle.

But their brush with disaster lingered over the weekend.

“After we saw what happened, you get a little bit more shaky,” Currier said.

With files by Kate Dubinski, The London Free Press

dale.carruthers@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/DaleatLFPress

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Flying truck wheels

On Ontario highways

2010: 47

2011: 56

2012: 97

2013: 147

2014: 148

2015: 82

Source: Ministry of Transportation