It was another busy day at Grey County Provincial Offences Court, which also acts as the court for such offences for Bruce County. Most of the dozens of people waiting for their turn in court that day in early December were charged with Highway Traffic Act offenses and had decided to plead “not guilty.” A brief consultation with the Prosecutor before court might lead to a resolution; otherwise they were heading for a trial, time permitting, or adjournment to a later date if not.
Several people in the crowded waiting area were charged with excessive speeding, also referred to as “stunt driving,” on Provincial Highway 6. Those charges involved a long stretch of that highway on the Bruce Peninsula leading to Tobermory that has suddenly become especially infamous after five people died in collisions last year.
Only in recent years has traffic on that section of highway become such an urgent problem. It coincides with a tremendous increase in tourist traffic heading to the two national parks in the Tobermory area.
Full disclosure here: I was not in court as a journalist, but on a Highway Traffic Act matter of my own, involving a collision in Owen Sound that resulted in minor injuries to the driver of another vehicle. I opted to take my charge to trial.
But others were ahead of me, including a young man who had also chosen to go to trial and represent himself. He was one of those charged with excessive speeding on that peninsula stretch of Highway 6. A video-link interpreter was required. Questions had to be asked in English, interpreted and read back to him in his language. His response also had to be interpreted and read back to court. The process was similar for other witnesses, including the police officer who laid the charge. It was a time-consuming process, but had to be done in all fairness.
At one point in his testimony on his own behalf the young man, a university student, brought the proceedings to a sudden halt when he suggested he may have been the victim of racial discrimination in the laying of the charge. Other people were similarly speeding, but they hadn’t been stopped, he said. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer had a short time earlier testified there was no one else speeding at that location when he stopped the car.
The young man appeared stunned by the seriousness with which the court was taking his allegation, especially when it began to appear his case might have to be adjourned to give the officer a chance to take the stand again to respond, and perhaps hear from other witnesses. Meanwhile, time was marching on. It was already mid-afternoon and several other trials were pending.
The young man said through the interpreter he hadn’t meant to make such a fuss. He really didn’t want to drive the long distance to Owen Sound again from the other city where he lived and attended university. But it was too late to take back what he had said. It was a “serious allegation,” the judge said, and “on the record.”
His case was adjourned to a date in March.
I mention these events in court that day only because of what the young man said under oath about his own observations that day last summer when he was charged – that he had himself seen other people super-speeding on Highway 6 that day.
That case came to mind again this past Wednesday as I drove home from Owen Sound after pleading guilty to a slightly lesser charge following a pre-trial session. As an elderly driver I will have to face the potentially life-changing consequences of my bad driving.
But it’s time to count my blessings again: on the bright side, I didn’t kill anyone, didn’t cause a young couple to be engulfed in flames in the wreckage of their vehicle after a high-speed collision on Highway 6. That’s what happened to Traves Atchison, 22, of Lambton Shores and his girlfriend Jana Watson, 23, of Strathroy on the highway near Miller Lake on Aug. 26, 2017.
Also killed in the crash was the driver of the other vehicle, Jim Thomas Johny of Mississauga, while a passenger of his, Ravinder Kalsi of Brampton, died later in hospital. Three other passengers in the vehicle were injured.
On Oct. 3, 38-year-old Chad Honneyman was killed when his motorcycle and a car collided just south of Ferndale.
No wonder many people have become involved in an urgent, concerted effort to take action to turn this dangerous, Highway 6 situation around as soon as possible.
Coincidentally, on the way home from court I picked up a copy of The Owen Sound Sun Times to find an article about that in Wednesday’s newspaper.
Terry Bell, chair of Safe Communities Bruce Peninsula, which compiled a report, said the OPP “has already indicated it intends to work with the Ministry of Transportation to have the proper markings put on the highway so that it can be aircraft patrolled for speeders.”
The suggestions in the report are broken down into a number of main themes to make the highway safer, including researching passing lanes, turning lanes and better signs, a bolstered police presence, the use of social media to get the concerns out to tourists and visitors.
I know Highway 6 from north of Wiarton to Tobermory very well, from having travelled it numerous times to cover various news events and human-interest stories on the upper peninsula. No time was busier than during the several years in the early 1980s when the Bruce Peninsula National Park proposal was a hot topic of local discussion.
The local, upper peninsula community was divided. Opponents were skeptical the federal government could be trusted to keep all the promises and commitments Parks Canada was making regarding such things as employment for local people. Supporters thought a national park would do wonders for the local tourism-based economy.
Lindsay Township, one of the two, former local municipalities included in the park proposal territory, decided after an election to opt out. But St. Edmunds Township, including Tobermory, at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, was in favour.
As a result the Bruce Peninsula National Park, which became a reality in 1985, is a good deal smaller than originally proposed, and does not include some of the upper peninsula’s most interesting landform features.
But the creation of Fathom Five National Marine Park, Canada’s first such park, made up for that to some extent. It also made Tobermory, in effect, the destination point for two national parks. Fathom Five includes the several islands and Georgian Bay waters in the vicinity of Tobermory which were already a popular attraction for boaters and scuba divers.
It has taken longer that expected, for various reasons I’ll just summarize here as the usual government static; but in the past few years, the two national parks at the tip of the peninsula have indeed brought a flood of new visitors to the Tobermory; so much so, that the amalgamated Municipality of the Northern Bruce Peninsula and Parks Canada have been hard-pressed to cope with the influx.
But it’s fair to say no one back in the days of the park-proposal controversy imagined that stretch of Highway 6 — the only paved, two-lane road all the way up the peninsula to Tobermory — would become a dangerous, stunt-driving speedway as the two national parks became big tourist destinations.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in January, 2018