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Death in the HOV Lane

On a recent late-November Saturday morning, a Toyota minivan stopped in the eastbound High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane on Highway 1 near United Boulevard in Coquitlam. A passersby later reported seeing smoke inside the passenger compartment. On this typically busy stretch of highway, the shoulder (left of the HOV lane) is wide enough for a vehicle to at least pull over out of the lane altogether. But reportedly that is not what happened.

It is not clear how much time elapsed between when the minivan stopped and when it was rear ended by a BMW SUV driven by a 26-year-old driver with no passengers. His vehicle spun out 90° and was immediately hit by the car behind driven by a 35-year-old woman with no passengers.

All the minivan occupants were family members. The mother was the driver and the other seven passengers included her four sons aged 1, 6, 8 and 9, their grandmother aged 74, and their great aunt aged 76. The baby was buckled in a car seat. The other three brothers were sitting in the rear bench seat. All three brothers were hospitalized with life-threatening injuries to which two of them succumbed the following day.

As of the time of writing, the third brother remains in serious condition with a spinal injury. The two older female passengers were also seriously injured. The parents and the baby were released from hospital the same day. The BMW driver was uninjured and the driver of the third vehicle was treated for minor injuries.

This tragedy has highlighted one of the well-known problems with HOV lanes and sparked an outpouring of anger and frustration about the frequency with which the law is ignored by lone drivers who treat the HOV lane as a high speed extra passing lane. Some have gone so far as to call them a hazard that should be eliminated, also citing research on HOV lanes in the San Francisco Bay area concluding that HOV lanes “do not significantly increase the throughput of people; and…do not encourage carpooling.

While Canadian statistics on the effectiveness of HOV lanes in reducing traffic congestion, reducing travel time, and increasing transit ridership appear to be in short supply, a year-old Transport Canada report highlights the critical importance of law enforcement to their effectiveness and safety.
A police spokesman addressing the minivan crash did point out that “police routinely enforce the HOV regulations on Highway 1 and issue about 400 tickets every three months.” He also said that the drivers of the two rear-ending vehicles—both driving alone and thus in breach of the law requiring occupancy of at least two persons—will be charged under the BC Motor Vehicle Act which carries a fine of $121 and 2 demerit points.
HOV lane issues, however, were not the only contributor to this tragedy. Stopped vehicles in any lane in flowing traffic are extremely vulnerable. Stopped emergency vehicles with all flashers going even seem to attract other vehicles with similarly horrific results in what is called the “moth effect.”

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