Published in 2006, Kingston Whig-Standard. Reprinted, without permission, for all those who say “you really wrote off two cars in one year?” and also “You won an NNA cause you crashed a car?”
Joe Blanchard’s forearm is thicker than most people’s thighs, and that leaves a lot of room for ink. He has used the space to mock Death with a special tattoo.
The image is of a square-jawed gargoyle sinking its claws into a tombstone inscribed with two dates under the obligatory “RIP.” The first number is his date of birth, 05 09 66. The second, 05 13 06, is the day Death came calling and was rebuffed.
“Not yet,” he says, reading the block letters beneath the $550 tattoo. “Not yet. My mother loves that, that I got it in a tattoo.”
It’s a strange tempting of fate from someone who is lucky to be alive.
Blanchard was injured in a Highway 401 crash in May. The crash almost killed him and five others, including me.
Thankfully, we – the crash participants – are all alive and mostly well.
Except for Blanchard, the participants were all driving east, and had just passed Napanee. I was coming home to Kingston from a 15-kilometre trail race in Dundas. Becky Katz, in her own car, was going to see the Oliver Jones Trio play in Brockville. Maureen Dillon, in a third car, wanted to get to her mother’s Kingston home early for a pre-Mother’s Day dinner.
It was a spring weekend, but Blanchard didn’t share our leisurely pursuits. He was throttling up the engine of a Volvo transport truck, as he pushed past another transport truck at a police-estimated 130 km/h.
He doesn’t remember much, except he came too close to another truck and then headed for the cement barrier. I remember more: I saw him coming upside down and sideways over the barrier.
My car hit the ditch. The truck’s bumper hit Dillon’s windshield. Katz’s car was hit with debris. Blanchard hit the highway – with his face.
To the public, the emergency workers and the media outlets that received a news alert on the accident, it was a routine affair, just one of the 231,548 collisions that take place on Ontario roads every year.
The immediate costs were obvious within seconds; two cars and a transport truck were complete losses. Before we opened our doors to inspect the damage, we had taken a $160,000 bite out of the economy. Less obvious were the other expenses associated with this statistically average collision along the nation’s busiest stretch of highway.
The Whig decided to try to find out the true, total costs of the crash, one single mishap on the highway on one single day.
There were obvious costs: a $70,000 truck was destroyed. But some weren’t quite so predictable: $2,500 to close a lane for repaving, for instance; $108 to pay the paramedics; even $550 for a commemorative tattoo.
I was told by Ministry of Transportation officials that the only way to know the tally for the misadventure was to figure it out for myself, because there were no recent statistical averages to reference.
Eventually, The Whig costed our accident at more than $170,000. There were 12,570 collisions on Highway 401 in 2004, the last year for which statistics were compiled. If each averaged the same as our seemingly minor affair, the cost to the economy would be nearly $2.2 billion.
Drive down any Ontario highway long enough and you’ll find a car in the ditch or propped against a guard rail, even though Ontario is one of the safest jurisdictions in North America in which to be a motorist.
In its most recent Road Safety Report, published in 2004, the Ministry of Transportation boasted that the number of people killed on its highways has decreased by 50 per cent since 1980. In 2004, the driver fatality rate stood at 0.92 per 10,000 drivers – the lowest number since the province began keeping records in 1931.
In our crash, nobody was killed. Instead, several of us joined the ranks of the wounded. That’s a club that had 33,483 new members in 2004, the last time data were compiled.
It costs Ontario taxpayers dearly to take care of those injured on the highways – the last time the province ventured an estimate it put the cost at $9 billion a year in 1999. The cost is shared between the insurance industry that represents drivers and the provincial government, which underwrites repairs and deals with medical costs.
In both instances, it’s coming out of your pocket.
It was evident Blanchard was the most badly injured the moment Jennifer Pritchett and I stepped out of my car and onto the highway.
We were on our way home from a trail race and cruising along quietly when she asked what was happening on the other side of the road.
A transport truck, minus the trailer, wobbled wildly in the westbound lane. Something bad was going to happen, but it was unlikely we’d see it because we were driving east.
We changed lanes, and the debris shower started. Blanchard’s truck smashed through the barrier, and large chunks of cement hurtled through the air.
Time slowed as we watched the cars ahead of us take the first wave of damage. Maureen Dillon, in the lead car, could only watch as the truck twisted and turned on its way over the divider.
“The bumper flew off the truck and hit my windshield,” she said later. “I thought I was dead as it was all coming at me.”
Her husband had just finished reading a book in the tilted-back passenger seat.
“It shot through and took the rear-view mirror with it while busting the electronics console,” she said. “It soared over his head to the back seat. It was lucky he was reclined or it would have blasted him in the face.”
Becky Katz’s car was also pummelled, though she was able to manoeuvre to the side of the road without being injured. Her car took less than $457 damage, but the dings were bad enough to warrant a trip to the body shop when she made it back to her Dundas home.
My Toyota Matrix didn’t have anti-lock brakes, and we went into a slide a millisecond after watching everything unfold in front of us.
My memory tells me we did a full spin before slamming into the ditch, but tire marks and Pritchett’s memory prove me wrong. Considering our 110 km/h and a skid of approximately 20 metres, we probably hit the ditch at 80 km/h.
A combination of luck and technology prevented serious injuries. Both airbags exploded as the car hit a cement culvert hidden in the reeds– it hit square between the front tires and likely prevented the car from rolling.
Airbags aren’t the soft pillows you may expect from seeing them deploy on television. They explode at approximately 320 km/h, and the sensation is something akin to being whacked with a wet bag of sand.
While Pritchett was uninjured, my wrist was badly burned as it rubbed across the airbag – think of a 320-km/h rugburn – and my arm was literally smoking as we sat in the car.
My shoulder was checked by a doctor at the Princess Street Greater Kingston After Hours Medical Clinic a month later because of a sharp pain that still lingers, but the doctor told me it was fine.
Remarkably, there is no way to know how much that wasted visit cost the health-care system.
“There is no formula to figure out the cost of a visit to a family doctor because the physicians bill under so many different schedules,” said John Letherby of the Ministry of Health.
My out-of-pocket health-care costs were minimal: $5.99 for some gauze and another $9.99 for some anti-bacterial ointment.
Looking down the highway, it was clear $15.98 wouldn’t be enough to patch up Blanchard.
As we stood on the shoulder of the highway immediately after the crash, it seemed there was no way anyone could survive in the crumpled heap of metal that used to be the front-end of a transport truck.
We were wrong; Blanchard was alive.
There was no traffic to worry about, since cars were already slowing behind the crash near mile marker 581, just east of Napanee. The line of traffic stretched at least a kilometre, past the Palace Road exchange. Exact science fails us when we try to calculate the indirect costs to those stuck in traffic. But the United States Department of Transportation can provide some guidance.
An average car is four metres long. We can leave a space between each car of a metre, which means you can pack 200 cars in that jammed one kilometre lane. There were two lanes.
The department estimates each person’s time is worth $16.33 an hour. That would mean those 400 people stuck in traffic, assuming they had no passengers, cost the economy $6,542.
You can take it further. The average vehicle burns 3.5 litres of fuel per hour. Assuming a gas price of 85 cents, those idling cars cut through $1,800 in gas money.
None of that was immediately interesting as we walked down the middle of the road toward the truck. Two people were crawling into the cab, one of them apparently a doctor. She was halfway into the truck’s cab, as her brother stood nearby anxious to help.
The truck was on its side. Blanchard was conscious and responsive, but the puddle of blood under his head and the nonsensical answers he provided to the most basic of questions were not good signs.
“I don’t remember anything,” he said three months later from his Brampton kitchen. “Maybe I remember somebody saying ‘Oh s–t, he’s alive.’ But that’s it.”
He likely heard the chatter of paramedics, who were called to the crash by OPP Const. Del Wannamaker. Wannamaker was one of the six officers who put in about five hours of work on the highway that day.
They were all-first class constables, which means a salary of $73,000 each. If you break it down by the hour, it cost Ontario taxpayers $187.15 per officer to investigate. Collectively, that’s $1,122.
One ambulance was dispatched from Napanee, said Chris Berry of the region’s ambulance service. Two paramedics spent an hour each tending to Blanchard, each earning about $27 an hour – good for another $108 from the taxpayers.
There were 13 firefighters, but Napanee Fire Chief George Hanmore refused to talk about his department’s response. That could have been because one of his firefighters accidentally slammed the firetruck into the mangled wreckage on the highway.
Contacted a month after the crash, Hanmore said the truck sustained some cosmetic damage that was already repaired. He wouldn’t say how much damage, so I submitted a $5 freedom of information request to the Town of Greater Napanee.
The records that came back confirm there was some cosmetic damage done that day: the truck needed $11,047 worth of body work.
Oddly, Blanchard was never told about the fire truck until a reporter knocked on his door. The additional collision doesn’t appear on the police report. You might call it a hidden cost.
Blanchard was taken to the Lennox and Addington Hospital, a facility that sees its share of Highway 401-related trauma; about 40 kilometres of the highway’s 817.9 kilometres runs through the hospital’s coverage area.
“We do not keep statistics, but we certainly do get our share of road accidents,” said CEO Arthur Ronald. “Some of them are serious, and they would be stabilized and sent to Kingston.”
Because Blanchard’s head injuries were substantial, he was sent to Kingston General Hospital, which is provincially designated as a level-one trauma centre.
Dr. Dan Howes, the director of the regional trauma program at the hospital, said when advance warning comes from paramedics, the hospital calls in as many as 15 experts. That includes doctors with different surgical specialties, nurses, respiratory specialists and X-ray technicians. They carry pagers and are usually waiting by the time the patient arrives in the emergency room.
“The idea is to activate everyone,” he said. “Those not needed can go home. The team is only activated when the injuries are quite severe.”
The team is funded by the province, spokeswoman Karen Smith said. The trauma team’s coverage area stretches as far west as Cobourg, to Cornwall in the east and Bancroft in the north.
The hospital receives $280,000 per year for the doctors in the program from the Southeastern Academic Medical Organization, and another $700,000 from the province for severe trauma cases.
There are about 151 of these cases per year, Smith said, which averages approximately $4,635 per case.
It was at Kingston General Hospital that Blanchard next opened his eyes. His head hurt, his vision was blurred. Fifteen stitches were needed to close the gash above his eye, and he was told he suffered a serious concussion.
“I’m now in pretty good condition,” he said three months later, still slurring his speech because of the concussion. “I still fall down, but not as much. Still headaches, but not as much.”
The human brain isn’t packed as tightly into the skull as you may think, and it’s because it floats around a little that concussions are possible.
They occur when the brain slams against the inside of the skull, and cause symptoms such as disorientation, poor co-ordination and vision problems.
Most concussion problems resolve themselves within seven days. But Blanchard now deals with post-concussion syndrome, which has severe side-effects.
Complaints include fatigue, irritability and difficulty thinking.
John Dumas, the information co-ordinator for the Ontario Brain Injury Association, said with most concussions the most valuable healing agent is rest.
“There’s no medicine that’s going to fix a concussion,” Dumas said. “The damage that occurred could be at a cellular level and usually is.”
Results of any brain injury rehabilitation are based largely on perception, and the goal is to return the victim back to the pre-concussion state.
“In some cases that’s not possible,” he said. “But you try to bring them back to as close as possible to how they were before.”
Blanchard continues to be tested by doctors, and has yet to return to work. He hoped he’d be able to get back by Christmas.
The cost of his rehabilitation is being covered by the Ontario government, and he is getting workers compensation while he’s home. But it only covers so much.
At 85 per cent of his usual take-home salary, Blanchard has to make do with 15 per cent less at the end of each month.
While Blanchard didn’t talk about his salary, a job posting for Canadian American Tank Lines, Blanchard’s employer, states it pays $18 an hour for new drivers, or $35,100 a year.
That means a new driver on disability stands to lose about $5,000 a year.
Regardless of the severity of a crash, most survivors must get back behind the wheel.
For Maureen Dillon, it was a necessity. She lives in Brighton, and commutes 220-km a day to her job in Kingston.
Becky Katz was on her way to Brockville from Dundas, and while her car was damaged, she had to climb back in and finish her trip the same afternoon.
Little research had been done into the mindset of those involved in serious collisions, until two researchers released a book in 1997 looking at the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in crash victims.
Published by the American Psychological Association, the work by Edward Blanchard and Edward Hickling became the pre-eminent reference book for those treating crash victims.
“We do know that ideally, some motor vehicle accident victims require immediate attention for services shortly after their accident,” the report concludes. “They need to return to a life free from anxiety and depression, including while they drive and travel. Although many improve spontaneously, many will not.”
The study closes by concluding that more research is needed, because estimates for the number of people who develop severe anxiety problems or post-traumatic stress disorder vary widely.
I waited almost three months before venturing back onto Highway 401, and the only thing that coaxed me back was a trip to Brantford to visit Blanchard, who had almost killed me in May.
I shuddered as I drove past the recently repaired cement barriers near Mile Marker 581 outside of Napanee, and everyone who knew me pointed out how ironic it would be if I were to be killed on my way to visit Blanchard.
I’ve avoided the 401 since. It’s a strange kind of fear: my chest tightens, and my breath gets short. My palms get greasy, and I watch the other side of the highway with suspicion. I keep expecting my air bag to punch me in the face.
It’s not a big deal. My frequent trips to Ottawa now incorporate Highway 15. If I need to get to Toronto, the train is more comfortable anyway.
As we sat in Blanchard’s kitchen, I told him the story of an accident I was in just months before the 401 crash that destroyed my Hyundai Elantra. A Dodge Dakota slid on an icy patch and crossed into my lane. It hit me head-on, there wasn’t even time to brake. The car was written off.
Ten minutes after telling the story, I asked him if he planned to drive again if his rehabilitation is successful. He took the question as an insult.
“What else am I supposed to do, it’s my job,” he said. “You’re driving again, and you’ve been in more accidents than me. Of course I’m going to drive again.”
Hundreds of kilometres of cement barriers help keep eastbound and westbound traffic away from each other along Highway 401. The non-descript slabs are four metres long, and just more than a metre high.
The design was conceived in the 1950s in New Jersey, and the model used in Ontario is a refined version of those early slabs. They are more sophisticated than they appear, and hitting one isn’t the same as bouncing off a cement wall.
“For the more common hits, the shape is intended to minimize sheet metal damage,” states documents obtained from the United States Department of Transportation. “For higher impact angles, the shape is actually a multistage barrier.”
The shape – something like an upside-down Y – is meant to lift the tires off the highway so the vehicle is pushed back into its own lane.
“It is only necessary to lift the vehicle enough to reduce the friction between the tires and the paved surface,” the documents state.
“This aids in banking and redirecting the vehicle. If the vehicle is lifted too high into the air, it may yaw, pitch, or roll, over when the wheels come into contact with the ground again.”
The barriers also explode, as we found out after Blanchard’s truck destroyed 20 metres of barrier.
My car was ditched almost 250 metres from where the truck went through the wall, and Pritchett and I both went home with mementos – pieces of the barrier that somehow ended up in the ditch with us, but
didn’t kill us.
My small piece of cement is inexplicably sitting on an end table, Pritchett’s is the size of a fist and is used to prop open a door in her apartment.
When an accident causes damage to a provincial highway, contractors clean the mess and repair any damage. Bill McLatchie is the contracts manager for Cruikshank Construction Limited, the company under contract to maintain the strip of highway that runs through Greater Napanee.
He estimated as many as 20 people were involved in the work, which included repairing the barriers, directing traffic and cleaning diesel fuel that had leaked from the truck as it lay sideways on the highway.
“I had four people out there,” he said. “For repairs I had six guys out for traffic control as well as a crew from a contractor to fix the barrier. He would have had in order of seven people, for the better part of a full day. My guys were there for the better part of a full day, some for 10 to 12 hours.”
When it was done, he submitted a bill to the province.
Again, a freedom of information was required to find out how much the work cost.
Because the amount charged per hour for specific services, such as repaving or shovelv ling garbage off the road, is considered proprietary information the province refused to include hourly breakdowns.
However, the total cost billed to the province was $19,011.13 to repave the chunk of road and repair the barriers. The province tacks on another 15 per cent to cover “general ministry overhead,” bringing the total to $21,862.80.
Included in the costs were:
• $10,256.46 to fix six lengths of cement barrier.
• $2,500 to close the lane while work was underway.
• $2,016 for repaving equipment.
• $1,650 for “hot mix” material.
• $901 to pay three supervisors, three operators and eight laborers while the road was repaved.
Who ends up paying for the damage has yet to be determined.
If Blanchard is found to be at fault – he was issued a careless driving ticket but has vowed to fight it in court – his company will be expected to cut a cheque. If not, taxpayers are on the hook.
Blanchard’s Cadillac is backed neatly into his small driveway, its personalized Toronto Argonauts licence plates foreshadowing what you’ll find when you walk through his front door and into his kitchen.
Hats and pennants are tacked to the walls; there is a photo from back when he was a tough-nosed lineman himself. He loves the sport, but doesn’t get to any games at the Rogers Centre because the seats are too small for his six-foot-six, 350-pound frame.
His size also accounts for the Cadillac. At his height, a compact car isn’t an option. He offered to sell me the car three times in my two-hour visit – $17,000 and it was mine.
He could use the money to top up his workers compensation, but he’s also been told not to drive until his rehab is complete.
My new 2006 Toyota Matrix is parked in front of his house, and he walks over to admire it. He wants to know how it handles, and is genuinely embarrassed when I joke that it holds up well in a crash.
Besides the total destruction of his $70,000 Volvo truck, two other cars were written off. I had been driving another 2006 Toyota Matrix; I’d only owned it about three months before it was destroyed. It was due for its first oil change.
Maureen Dillon was driving a 2000 Chrysler. She made her last payment two months before it was destroyed.
“I went one month without payment,” she ruefully recalled. “At least I’m here.”
When your insurance company receives word that you were in a crash, it checks the car and decides whether it’s more economical to cut you a cheque or fix it.
It takes a few days to make a decision – and you spend the entire time praying they’ll consider it irreparable.
The resale value of a car that has undergone extensive structural work is suspect, to say the least.
Since Dillon’s car was more than a year old, there is a sliding scale of value. There is a base price in an industry handbook for each model year and car type, and the more kilometres that are on a car the lower the value.
They cut her a cheque for about $12,000, and she put it toward a Nissan Mirano. The $54,000 vehicle brought new, bigger payments, but she didn’t keep track of other out-of-pocket expenses.
“You can never add up the time and the pain in the ass,” she said.
“There’s the rental company, companies harassing you to buy a car. And the actual time that it takes to do this, you have to take a couple days off work.”
My personal costs were easier to quantify. A clause in my insurance contract ensured that if my new vehicle were destroyed within a year, I’d get full replacement value. I was given $900 to blow on a rental car in the interim.
Within two weeks, Toyota Credit cut me a cheque for $25,530 minus the $500 insurance deductible. The deductible came back to me through my insurance company in a separate, unexpected cheque.
My only direct cost associated with having the car declared scrap metal came when I bought a new car from Kingston Toyota.
The first Matrix didn’t have anti-lock brakes. This option came in an upgrade package, and by the time the car is paid off will have cost me about $2,000 extra.
Sadly, they don’t have a frequent buyer program. But then again, after helping take more than $170,000 out of the economy in a microsecond, it’s probably fitting that I put a little back in.