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No criminal charges in 2013 fatal crash involving speeding car

Police will not pursue criminal charges in the horrific May 8, 2013 crash which killed one woman and injured many others. - Sukhwant Dhillon file photo
Police will not pursue criminal charges in the horrific May 8, 2013 crash which killed one woman and injured many others.
— image credit: Sukhwant Dhillon file photo

Witnesses used the words “gruesome” and “war zone” to describe the aftermath of the fatal May 8, 2013 crash at Knight Street and Westminster Highway involving a speeding exotic car that inexplicably slammed into the back of seven other vehicles stopped at a red light.

The mid-afternoon crash on a sunny spring day claimed the life of a 44-year-old Richmond woman, who was pronounced dead at the scene, and seriously injured many others, at least one of whom had to be rushed to hospital by an air ambulance helicopter.

For the past 10 months, many have wondered what came of the police investigation, many e-mailing or calling The Richmond Review seeking answers.

Now there are a few answers, which are prompting many more questions.

The Richmond Review has learned that the Richmond RCMP investigation has been concluded, and no criminal charges will be laid against the female driver in the $200,000 Aston Martin DB9, a rare convertible made famous in the most recent iteration of the James Bond superspy movies, with fewer than 10 made available in Canada annually.

“The Richmond RCMP are not pursuing criminal charges,” Richmond RCMP Cpl. Stephanie Ashton said Thursday. “The matter has been referred to ICBC.”

Ashton said she could not release further details.

According to one witness, the Aston Martin was travelling at an estimated 200 km/h when it ran through a red light at No. 6 Road and Westminster Highway before heading west and striking seven other vehicles stopped at the Knight Street intersection.

The witness, Elizabeth Willis, a flagger for Imperial Paving which had a repaving crew working along Westminster Highway at the time, said she “saw a car, I heard a car going extremely fast, 200 kilometres per hour, right through a red light, almost T-boned another vehicle, went straight through...and hit the cars sitting at the red light.”

She said she heard the black car’s “roaring engine” and then moments later witnessed “cars flying up in the air, and there was smoke, and I shut down the road immediately.”

Michelle Titleborn was at the scene shortly after it happened, and what she saw was hard to forget.

“When I drove by, the crash had just happened,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“Around 3:20....I happened to see the woman in the white SUV whom (sic) was killed on impact hanging out of her vehicle completely crushed, I saw no faces but her hair was black. There were people laying (sic) everywhere who had escaped their cars all over the street, in the grass. It all happened so fast. Very gruesome scene to witness.”

Photojournalist Sukhwant Dhillon witnessed passersby turn into Good Samaritans and pull the injured from the wreckage. He described the scene as like a war zone.

The impact sent a minivan hurtling across the intersection, landing in a ditch some 50 metres away, left virtually unrecognizable.

The white Mercedes whose driver was killed, had its entire trunk caved into the rear seats.

The two women in the Aston Martin suffered life-threatening injuries after it wound up beneath the Mercedes. The 30-year-old driver of another vehicle suffered critical injuries.

Unanswered questions

If the incident wasn’t criminal, what could have prompted two women in their mid 40s to excessively speed along a busy roadway in the middle of a weekday afternoon?

Was it a suicide attempt? Did the driver suffer from a medical problem, such as a heart attack or seizure?

Police apparently believe it was a mechanical failure in the Aston Martin, The Review has learned.

According to a database made publicly available by Transport Canada—who did not return an interview request before deadline Thursday—there have been two recalls on the make and model and year of vehicle involved in the May 2013 crash, a DB9 built between 2008 and 2011.

One involved an accelerator pedal arm, which was found to be susceptible to breaking because of a manufacturing error. The other involved a suspension issue which posed a risk of causing steering problems.

“If the accelerator pedal arm breaks, the engine will return to idle and the driver will be unable to maintain or increase engine speed, increasing the risk of a crash,” according to the manufacturer, Aston Martin Lagonda of North America, which is aware of the Richmond police investigation.

Matthew Clarke, spokesperson for Aston Martin The Americas, said no recalls are pending for the Aston Martin DB9 and there’s “no reason to suspect there will be.” He declined to comment further.

So what else could it have been?

United Kingdom veteran automotive journalist Greg Fountain says he experienced a phenomenon known as “sudden acceleration” in a 2013 version of the Aston Martin DB9 he test drove, which was on loan for about nine months to CAR Magazine, where Fountain is currently the managing editor.

The term sudden acceleration first became prominent in the 1980s, when Audi 5000 sedans were recalled for “sudden unintended acceleration”, linked to hundreds of accidents and half a dozen deaths.

In the 1990s, there were hundreds of complaints about sudden acceleration involving Jeep Cherokees, which was linked to current leakage that actuated the cruise control servo. The incidents involving the Audis and Jeeps occurred before changes were made to those car designs that required drivers to depress the brake before changing gears, such as from park to drive.

Just last week, Toyota reached a $1.2 billion settlement with the U.S. regarding unexpected acceleration that led to a recall of 10 million vehicles in 2009 and 2010, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Although the vehicle involved in the Richmond crash was at least a couple of years older than the one he test drove, Fountain confirmed that the major components of the DB9 remain very much the same from year to year.

He wrote of his experience earlier this month (carmagazine.co.uk) under the title “A case of unintended acceleration in our DB9”:

“I was rolling gently into a vacant space, foot on the brake pedal, ready to perform a halt. And then the engine started revving. I pressed the brake harder, but the car wouldn’t stop moving forward. It was low-speed stuff, but I couldn’t stop the DB9. It was revving louder, moving forward.

“When you’re piloting a £150k car and the controls suddenly stop doing what they always do, of course you panic. Luckily, when you park an Aston you do so away from other cars, so there was nobody to hit. But there was a wall. I collected myself, stood on the brake, hit Neutral and recovered control. Nobody else has reported a problem and it hasn’t recurred. So, what happened?”

Reached Thursday morning, Fountain said someone was with him in the car who witnessed the incident.

In an e-mail to The Review, Fountain wrote: “The incident happened exactly as I described it, in a supermarket car park. I took my foot off the gas and pressed the brake. The engine revved strongly and continued to move the car forward. My foot was not touching the accelerator pedal—if it had been, the car would have shot forward, not merely moved forward. I only managed to stop by selecting neutral via the shift paddles.”

Fountain said he’s been a professional journalist for 30 years, and a motoring journalist since 1994.

“Aston Martin examined the car and declared that they could find no fault...As far as we know, there have been no similar incidents relating to the DB9 reported in the UK,” Fountain continued.

Despite his experience, Fountain questioned whether something akin to his experience could have led to the Richmond crash last year.

“...I’ve never experienced an incident like this before. It’s important to point out that I have enormous respect for Aston Martin...And despite my experience with the DB9 I drove it for thousands of miles without incident. I would have to see irrefutable proof of a technical problem before I would ever be party to the suggestion that mechanical failure could have contributed to the accident in Richmond.”

Police sought expertise

When analyzing a crash scene, police often outsource for expertise.

RCMP Cpl. Rob McDonald said engineering firms are brought in to help in the search for a cause to an accident or the specific circumstances.

Among the areas closely scrutinized is the data from the vehicle’s crash recorder, otherwise known as its black box.

These have been employed in four-wheeled vehicles for about the past two decades to give automakers feedback on such things as when air bags deploy, which helps improve these devices and make vehicles safer.

Ironically, they were also brought in to deal with sudden acceleration, according to Tom Kowalick, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

“Automakers also use (the data) to fend off product liability claims such as airbag malfunctions and sudden unintended acceleration,” Kowalick is quoted as saying on msn.com.

If there’s a mechanical failure due to a vehicle defect, that information is shared with Transport Canada, McDonald said.

But police will not contact the vehicle manufacturer, leaving that job to Transport Canada.

While Transport Canada did not return a request for an interview, the Insurance Corporation of B.C., which also has been made aware of the investigation’s conclusion, declined to shed much light on the deadly crash last year.

Said ICBC spokesperson Adam Grossman: “We’re investigating the crash as we would with any serious crash that involves a fatality. That’s all we’re going to be able to say about it.”

The only other way the public might find out what really happened is from the outcome of any civil suits that may be filed. The Review is unaware of any such actions.

After learning that the criminal investigation into the Knight Street crash was concluded, The Review made a request under the Access to Information Act earlier this month.

“Please be advised the information you are requesting consists of personal information belonging to other individuals,” RCMP Supt. Michael Jeffrey, departmental co-ordinator for the RCMP’s Access to Information and Privacy Branch in Ottawa, wrote in a letter dated March 20. “All of this information qualifies for exemption under...the Access to Information Act.”

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