CHATHAM, Ont. — Kathleen Reed should be planning her wedding.
Instead, today, she is mourning the loss of her fiancé Gary Lent.
Alysson Storey (above) founded the Build the Barrier advocacy group.
Lent, who drove trucks professionally for 30 years, is one of the handful of people who have been killed in a crossover accident this year on a 136-kilometer stretch of highway in southern Ontario, between Tilbury and London, known as Carnage Alley. It’s the same stretch of Hwy. 401 where an infamous 87-car pile-up occurred in 1999, killing eight people and injuring more than 45.
Reed is one of the more than 4,000 people who’ve signed a petition that is urging the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) to put up a concrete barrier on this dangerous portion of highway to prevent more deadly crossover accidents.
The petition began earlier this year in September by Alysson Storey of Chatham, Ont., after her family friend, Sarah Payne, 42, and Sarah’s daughter, Freya, five, were killed on a sunny afternoon in August when an impaired driver crossed the median and hit Payne’s vehicle head-on in the heart of the Carnage Alley stretch.
“That was an absolutely life-altering day for many of us,” Storey said. “And it made me wonder, as I started to look into it, that was the fifth fatality in our stretch of road in six months. There’s no barriers, very narrow medians and we didn’t even get paved shoulders until recently. So that’s when it sort of dawned on me. I started putting it out on social media, raising awareness about this huge, glaring dangerous stretch of road. From there a few local papers started interviewing me, then radio stations and then TV stations.”
Storey created the advocacy group called Build The Barrier to help propel her cause on social media and get more people to share their story in an effort to help get the attention of the province’s Ministry of Transportation.
“That began to grow, and I had people come out of the woodwork from all over Ontario telling me their horrible Carnage Alley stories. And it was just traumatizing to be honest. It’s ruined lives. People call me or e-mail me all the time telling me similar stories about how their loved one was killed in a crossover accident,” she said.
Storey enlisted the help of MPP for Chatham-Kent-Essex, Rick Nicholls for her cause, and eventually, after the petition gained traction, Nicholls presented the case to Premier Kathleen Wynne in October, who promised a barrier would be installed.
Today, the MTO said it is still reviewing the options for what kind of barrier it plans to install, despite an announcement earlier this year that said it planned to put up a high-tension cable median barrier “on a 50-km stretch in Chatham-Kent” according to MTO’s senior media liaison officer, Bob Nichols.
But a cable barrier wouldn’t solve the problem, Storey said.
“Cable barriers are the cheaper option, but they don’t do what concrete barriers would,” she said. “A cable barrier would catch the vehicle and stretch over into oncoming traffic. So not only would these vehicles be trapped in a web, they’d be crossing over into oncoming traffic anyway. We are grieving people we never should have lost. The MTO knows the solution and it’s too expensive. But what was the cost of Sarah’s life? What was the cost of Freya’s life?”
Storey added that concrete barriers are the best option for the area because of the high volume of commercial traffic coming from just an hour away at the U.S. border.
“While doing research I found that concrete barriers are the only barriers that protect truck drivers and the drivers around them,” Storey said. “We need protection for truck drivers and with truck drivers. Cable barriers do nothing for transport trucks. Why would they ever put up a barrier that doesn’t protect the majority of those on the roadway? This is their workplace. This is their office. Every other workplace has workplace safety standards to follow while they are at work, why are the truckers not protected? It’s just mind-boggling to me.”
Truck News recently reached out to the MTO on this issue and media liason Nichols said:
“Recently, Minister (Steve) Del Duca has asked ministry staff to take a second look to make sure that we are choosing the best barrier option for this corridor. We need to make sure that our next course of action improves road safety and makes the most sense given the nature of this stretch of highway. The Minister has also asked staff to look at ways to accelerate the construction of safety improvements for this section of Hwy. 401. Staff are working to update the Minister on their review in the near future, and we are committed to keeping all interested parties informed.”
Construction is planned to begin in 2018 and be completed in 2020, he added.
To help speed up the process and change the minister’s mind to choose a concrete barrier over a cable barrier, Storey and MPP Nicholls hosted a Build the Barrier Town Hall meeting in Chatham on Nov. 30.
The house was packed to capacity, with roughly 120 people attending. Local fire chiefs, OPP officers, EMS, and the chief coroner all stated their preference for a concrete barrier on the record.
Four representatives from the MTO attended the event, including Neil Zohorsky, who confirmed to the crowd the concrete barriers were still a potential outcome as “all options are on the table.”