The Killer Median of Highway 99

highway
By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: May 24, 2016
DRIVING on a highway, we have a heightened sense of keeping safe — more so with Highway 99, surrounded as it is with the ocean and the hills. We try to stay extra alert, keep a safe distance with other vehicles, not change lanes suddenly, and remain mindful of curves. We look in the mirror more often. The buzz of a bike alarms us and we check its blind spots as it changes lanes. 
And yet there are things that would be out of the control of even the most alert driver. There is a seemingly innocuous element on Highway 99 that can cause serious injury and even death — the lack of concrete barriers that divide the Highway 99.  Several areas on the Highway have only a decorative divider.
At one particular location along the Highway, the lack of a concrete barrier has proved especially deadly. A stretch along Lions Bay, near Brunswick Mountain, has been the site of many accidents. It claimed its latest victim on May 4 morning. At 7:40 am, Squamish RCMP attended a motor vehicle collision near the Brunswick Beach Road in Lions Bay. A black Mercedes sedan, which was travelling northbound on Highway 99, crossed the center lane and collided with a southbound Blue Hyundai Sante Fe. Three people were injured, one of whom was airlifted to a local hospital in critical condition and later died.  Many of us read about such deaths in cold statistical snippets provided by the police and the media and often move on. Tyson Lehmann can’t. As an advanced care paramedic with BC Ambulance, Tyson is often the first to attend to these tragedies. He has worked for the BC Ambulance for four years and has seen numerous accidents in the Lions Bay area — five of which proved deadly. 99-highwsy
“As a paramedic and a member of the Lions Bay Search and Rescue team and as a commuter, I have seen numerous accidents in the Lions Bay area near Brunswick mountain. It seems like there are 10-20 serious accidents that occur here ever year and I have attended to at least five fatal accidents in the last four years,” Tyson says. He also attended to the May 4 accident that claimed the life of a young man. Tyson said when the ambulance reached the spot, some people were doing CPR on the young driver. 
The paramedics were able to resuscitate the young man who had lost control of his vehicle, spun across two lanes, through the ‘decorative’ divider and was hit by a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. Despite the fact that they were able to resuscitate the young man, he had suffered many injuries that cost him his life later in the hospital.
That incident, like many other before that one, would have been easily prevented by a concrete median, he says. The presence of ‘decorative dividers’ and the absence of concrete barriers will ensure that accidents keep happening at this location. He says he recently spoke to MLA Jordan Sturdy and made him aware of the high accident rate on this stretch of the Highway and he promised to address the issue. If there was a concrete barrier, an individual would damage their vehicle and hit it against the barrier and still survive. Where there is no concrete, there are more chances of serious injury, he says. “It has irreversibly impacted the lives of two other community members as well as another young person losing their life. Just one example of why this continuing issue requires immediate attention,” he says. 
Tyson says there are at least three stretches on the Highway near Lions Bay that have proved deadly. “There are few hundred metres stretches, just north of Lions Bay, near Brusnswick Mountain, where I have attended five accidents that led to fatalities. The Lions Bay fire department has also reported many accidents on those stretches,” he says. “I suspect a combination of unique road surface, weather conditions, excess speed and the lack of concrete dividers makes a lethal mix on these stretches of highway,” he says. From a personal perspective as an advanced life support paramedic, who lives and works on the north shore, Tyson says it can be exceptionally challenging to attend the horrific motor vehicle accidents that might have been easily mitigated by the simple inclusion of concrete dividers. He says it’s disappointing that lives of his family, friends and colleagues, who are regular commuters in the Sea to Sky corridor, are placed in jeopardy daily for the aesthetic of a decorative divider.
Tyson is one among the 3,099 people who have signed an online petition (www.change.org/p/concrete-barrier-along-lions-bay-section-of-highway-99) to highlight the need to install concrete barriers on Highway 99. West Vancouver resident David Tompkins started a petition four years ago to highlight the need for a concrete barrier on the highway. “The provincial government in their infinite wisdom have decided that it would be safer to place trees and shrubs in some sections of the highway instead of having concrete medians placed through the entire stretch of the Sea to Sky Highway through Lions Bay. It seems that someone put aesthetics ahead of safety,” he says. Tompkins says it made no sense to place shrubs and trees through some sections and not to have a concrete median between the oncoming lanes of traffic. Speaking to Pique at that time, he had said barriers erected along certain sections of the road were ineffective in preventing collisions for oncoming traffic. “At 60km/h, having the medians they have are perfectly safe,” he said, referring to the posted speed limit throughout much of Lions Bay. “Those should stop you. The problem is the province is avoiding reality, which is that nobody goes 60km/h through there,” he said. 
Since Tompkins launched the petition, there have been many more accidents on this stretch of the highway and he details the depressing list of accidents that have resulted in death and injury at Lions Bay. There was a serious collision in December 2014 when a car passed through the shrub barrier and struck an oncoming car which resulted in serious injuries. In November 2015, an accident at Lions Bay resulted in the death of a 32-year old Marie-Pier Champagne. Media reports from the time suggest she was reportedly riding in the passenger seat of the car which lost control after passing a black pick-up truck, which then flipped over the median and collided head-on with another vehicles. She was taken to the hospital with life-threatening injury, where she passed away after three days. On Facebook, her friend Joe Facciolo remembers her as a wonderful person and urged his friends to sign the petition. “Today, the Whistler community and the Whistler Tasting Tours family lost a wonderful person and friend. Marie-Pier Champagne will be missed beyond words. She was truly a beautiful soul who touched friends, colleagues and visitors with her soft, pleasant and charming way,” he says.
Tanguy Lebrogne lost his 19-year-old daughter to an accident on Highway 99, just five kilometres north of the Lions Bay. There were four people in the car, all UBC students on their way to Whistler for the weekend.  The crash happened on November 25 at about 7:30 a.m. on Saturday when the car driven by Valentine’s friend crossed the median and struck an oncoming pickup truck. Valentine and her friend Olivia Robertson died on the scene, while their other friends were taken to hospital in serious condition. Tanguy urged his friends to sign the petition and also wrote about his daughter. “Twenty years ago today, Virginie and I learned we were expecting our very first child. We instantly agreed on her name, Valentine. From that moment on, we experienced parenthood years of pure love and happiness, culminating with Rosalie coming into our lives a few years later. Although Valentine is now gone to another place, her spirit is alive more than ever and inspires us every single day.” Lebrogne, who lives in Los Altos, says he believes having a concrete barrier would help save lives. “Let’s not wait any longer.”
Talking to the UBC student paper, The Ubyssey, Francis Navin, a UBC professor emeritus who specializes in highway design and traffic safety, had said a concrete barrier would have saved the lives of Valentine and Robertson. “If there’d been a median barrier, if the car carrying the students northbound wandered and hit the barrier, the odds are that it would have just been sent off up the road,” Navin told the students newspaper. The Vancouver Sun reported that in 2007, a study by the ICBC found the highway crash rate from Whistler and Pemberton continued to rise and fall over the years with 790 crashes in 2007 and 710 in 2008. Next year, the report continues, a study commissioned by the BC Ministry of Transportation found the fatality rate on the highway was twice the provincial average with the big culprits being sharp curves and risky passing manoeuvers. The $600 million project that the province launched before the Olympics has improved the highway as it created 36 km of new medians and several stretches that had two lanes were expanded to three-and four-lane sections, according to the Sun. By 2025, 22,000 vehicles are forecast to use the highway daily between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish and between Squamish and Whistler, traffic is expected to increase by 56 per cent with 12,000 cars on the road daily, according to the report.
If she had left the home a few minutes early on May 4, Anne Bright thinks she could have been in the accident that claimed the life of a young man. She commutes to North Vancouver for work and says she was only a few cars away from the accident. She could see debris and some uprooted trees from her car as the rush-hour traffic lined up behind her. Since the first accident was reported on this location in 2011, she says she instinctively knows what to do when she approaches the accident-prone area. “I bring down the speed and move to the slower lane where I think if a car comes over then at least I can see and I may have better chance of surviving an accident,” she says. “There are several factors that contribute to making it an accident-prone area. There is an S-curve and the trees and shrubs in the middle block the view for both sides of the traffic. Things go from bad to worse when it’s raining and the quiet pavement makes the road more slippery.”
The pavement on some sections on the road has been dug out and the ruts on the road make the drive more difficult. Anne says most commuters are aware of the section but for someone new to the region, it can prove deadly, especially during bad weather. BC should act quickly and remove the tress for better sightlines and install a concrete barrier without delay, she says. “They used to call it a killer highway and now they pride themselves on this highway. I don’t understand why don’t they install barriers and make it safe. What is stopping them? In my view, they are going backwards and making it a killer highway again,” she says. With the increasing number of people coming to Squamish and Whistler now for tourism, Anne says she fears there would be more accident if the ministry didn’t act on the problem now. 
Graeme Leathem commutes from Squamish to Vancouver and says the Lions Bay section needs to be re-engineered to conform with the rest of the highway. He says accidents like the one that happened on May 4 are a reminder of the very real risks faced by those who commute every time they get on Highway 99, which is twice a day for five times a week.  “Make it wider, soften the curves, add dividers and change the road surface. It’s a highway after all, not a neighborhood street. Don’t make it pretty, just make it functional,” he says. 
Another commuter Marnie Hay recounted a terrifying encounter. “As a daily commuter, I see the concrete barrier as a must. On one of my commutes to work, I saw a vehicle fly over the planted median in Lions Bay and on to the oncoming lanes. That vehicle missed mine by just a few seconds. You can tell by the missing trees in that area that many other cars have done the very same thing. Not installing a barrier would be just waiting for these horrible accidents to happen,” she said.
Squamish resident Tim Cyr says he doesn’t travel often to the city but he’s certainly more alert when he approaches the accident-prone area around Lions Bay. “With the planters and the shrubbery, it’s really crazy and if you hit the side of the road, I think it would launch you right into the oncoming traffic. I mean just the fact that there are so many accidents happening there, they should do something about it,” he says. 
Long-time resident of Lions Bay Ruth Simons says a detailed analysis can only be provided by the police, but it’s her observation that speeding is a major factor in the accidents. An increase in traffic over the years, she notes, has also aggravated the situation. “This is my personal observation that there are a lot of people who don’t slow down. I travel on the highway quite a bit and I can tell you that 99 per cent of the cars are going beyond the posted speed. If everyone slowed down and didn’t get angry, I think we would have a very safe highway, but we have the problem of speeding, road rage and distracted driving,” she says.
Jim Hughes is a councilor with the Village of Lions Bay and was also on the provincial Highway committee. He says the village is talking to the ministry of transportation to investigate the problem and come up with solutions. “It’s their highway design and at the time it was done there were a lot of questions asked about it and they said it was all proven technology and everything was fine. So now we are pushing it back and asking them well you are the experts what is that we need to do here,” he said. Jim says he was surprised at the high collision rate because the province put a lot of work and study into the highway. “They have a lot of engineers who study this and we are asking them to investigate. We take pride in this highway and we have our friends and family travelling on it. We are eager for them to bring forward solutions,” he says. 
Kate Mukasa, public affairs officer for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, says the ministry is aware of the request from the local residents to build a median barrier along the Lions Bay section of the Sea to Sky. She said the current planted median area with curbing was designed for the safety of the travelling public at the posted speeds. However, the ministry is currently working closely with the Village of Lions Bay to discuss further options to improve this section of Highway 99 through the Village, she says.
“The staff are currently exploring a few options to improve this section of Highway 99 through the village, and we are in talks with the Village of Lions Bay mayor and council to determine feasibility and what will work best for the community. Once the feasibility assessment on this section of the highway is finished, we’ll be able to provide more details on any potential changes,” she says. “While the serious collision rates for this segment are generally low, we are cognisant of the effects of collisions, delays to travellers of this route and the impact to accessibility for Lions Bay Village residents. We will continue to consult with municipality and other stakeholders on the options to enhance safety and mobility through this section.”

Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Clearly, speed is the problem. I see it every day. Ruth Simons in this article hit the nail on the head. One would not lose control of their vehicle if they traveled at the posted rate of speed. The current median is adequate at the posted limits. Full stop. It really is that simple. I can’t imagine a different outcome if you are driving 100 km/hr (and for some that is still too slow) in a 60 km/hr zone, in the rain, to boot! The speed limit is not a suggestion.

  2. Dave Colwell says:

    People should drive properly….ask any native German what they think and they will tell you its not the present speed limit, not the median, but the skills and sense of the drivers. or lack of! Look at the accident stats on the Autobahns…and they do not travel like snails!
    90K/Hr on the open Sea to Sky Highway is reasonable. Lions Bay has 60K/Hr.
    Travel at the posted speed limit, is all. But please don’t change it for the sake of a few idiots.

  3. Judi says:

    Hear, Hear! When I travel through Lions Bay at the posted speed limit I have been honked at, fingered, and shouted at saying “get off the road old lady!” I have driven the Sea To Sky highway for 40 years and have arrived safely about 5 minutes behind the yahoo speed demons at the first set of traffic lights. Speed kills so please drive at the posted speed and take responsibility for your driving behaviour instead of saying concreate barriers are the only answer to saving lives.

  4. Jim says:

    The speed limit is there for a reason, a no brainer. The lack of barriers is there at the request of the populace of Lions Bay, questionable. Solution, install barriers and disguise them with the shrubs and trees, and have the RCMP out there all the time. The ticket yield would more than cover the cost of policing.

    • Jonny says:

      "Jim Hughes is a councilor with the Village of Lions Bay and was also on the provincial Highway committee. He says the village is talking to the ministry of transportation to investigate the problem and come up with solutions. “It’s their highway design and at the time it was done there were a lot of questions asked about it and they said it was all proven technology and everything was fine. So now we are pushing it back and asking them well you are the experts what is that we need to do here,” "

      I looked at this a while ago and Lions Bay council agendas from pre-completion showed a number of times where the "landscaping design" relating to the highway improvements was to be discussed.
      Perhaps council should have "pushed back" then rather than now wanting to pass the blame onto the province.

  5. reckoning day says:

    Nope, you are ALL wrong !

  6. Patricia Marini says:

    Dah!! What part of slowing down on corners do you people not get, don’t blame the highway, lack of dividers or anything else SLOW DOWN!!

  7. Lisa Michelle says:

    While any car accident and death is greatly devistating to many, there are a lot of factors to consider with this conversation and the cause and effect of what seems a logical fix, really is not. The vast problem is not the planted median its the contour of the road. The reason its 60 is because of many reasons. A conversion to no posts will dramatically change the speeds even higher, the on ramps are not highway speed length and the trouble you have now getting on the highway will only be more extreme. Plus a few dozen other reasons in the dozens of minute binders in some office from all those highway design meetings. Someone needs to research all the fatalities on that same section in the late 80’s the consciences was to close the 4 lanes over harvey creek. There were something like 8 in 5 months and those first few corners by alberta creek bridge were never addressed, nor the on ramp length heading north. I think because its a RESIDENTIAL AREA a better solution can be found than the no post most emergency personnel i know want emergency turnarounds at distances that are within accessibility in the golden window. But alas they already designed the highway as a sitting duck speed way trap. Where a residential highway is the average turn arounds are max 3 km the sections between ocean point to sunset marina are past the golden window. If you are unfourtunate enough to have an accident at Turpin Creek they likly wont get to you and forget the new section pasco to Caulfield and pray you don’t have an accident on that section, which is also higher than most for accidents where cars pinball around still taking out other cars. After attending all these meetings and having a realization of why it is the way it is the biggest thing to remember is this is a residential highway and traffic calming was to ensure safety on many levels as well as Lions Bay residents accessing the highway from below highway recomended length on ramps among dozens of other reasons. So a new traffic calming measure needs to be thought of not removed. Perhaps make the curb higher and wider in that section an apparent simple fix of just putting in no posts without fixing the contour of the corner will instead make the cars who speed around it take out those people in front or behind them. Its not that simple and that could actually make the accident rate and access to the crash by responders worse in my opinion. As I say this same section was high in the late 80’s early 90’s and reveted back to sigle lanes because of the contours in the road and the way people drive it.

    • Karobea says:

      Lisa Michelle makes a really good point. There were many accidents and also fatalities at the same spot in the 80’sand 90’s until they switched it back to one lane each direction. And as far as I remember, there WERE concrete barriers between north and southbound lanes then.

      This is clearly not simple.

      I wonder whether speed bumps through the section in lions bay would be another good way of enforcing the 60km/hrs. I think it’s clear that if people drove the posted speed, it would help.

  8. Michael says:

    Clearly the absurd speed limit is part of the problem. A law obeyed by perhaps 2 or 3 percent of the population merely creates disrespect for all laws. But here it appears much worse if it is deluding officials and hindering safe barriers from being installed.

  9. Michael Lonergan says:

    Speed + inexperience is the main reason what that particular section of the Sea To Sky remains one of the most dangerous sections of the route. I am not a regular commuter to the City, but, every single time I drive that section, (60KM/H zone), there are always motorists speeding through with no regard for the posted limits. The posted speed limit of 60KM/H is not absurd or unreasonable for that section, as it is a residential area. The fact that many people ignore that limit clearly indicates that more resources need to be used to educate drivers, and enforce that limit.
    I agree that this section poses some unique driving challenges, as I have noticed that there is one NB corner, where several fatal accidents have occurred, that the angle of the bank of the road does not feel right at higher speeds. The corner goes left, but the way it is banked tends to want to draw you to the right. An inexperienced driver hitting that curve, or anyone driving at high speed, will want to over correct.
    Concrete medians are only part of the solution, but would be completely unnecessary if drivers used common sense, and slowed down!

  10. Lilah says:

    Yes speed is a major factor. Many of us who commute have had the unpleasant experience, both northbound and southbound, of the jerk on your tail who then blasts around well over the posted speed. Learn to leave earlier, folks. Then you won’t have to act like you are racing the Indy 500.

    But until the RCMP posts a permanent speed trap in the area, the only fix is a concrete barrier so the speeding jerks only unjust themselves and not oncoming traffic. Let the idiots harm themselves, not others.

  11. Michael Lonergan says:

    A concrete median will only give the impression that the road is safer, and may actually increase the number of speeders. Interesting that we have ornamental medians here in Squamish, yet nowhere near the number of fatalities?