The road ahead to a safer Highway 6 on the Bruce Peninsula

Article content

It will be four years this summer that Steve and Joanne Atchison’s only son Traves was killed in a head-on collision on Highway 6 just south of Tobermory.

Described as a friend to everyone, 22-year-old Traves and his girlfriend and passenger Jana Watson died Aug. 26, 2017, when a southbound Dodge Charger that was being driven erratically collided with their northbound SUV, which became engulfed in flames.

The Atchisons say they have tried their best to move forward since the horrific collision, which also killed the driver and a passenger in the Charger, but say Traves’ death has left a big hole in their lives.

“Our life has completely changed. I absolutely know for sure that we’re down a different road because of Traves’ death. People think you’ll get back to normal or you’ll slowly heal, but there’s a piece of you that never heals; you are a changed person,” said Steve Atchison.

“Something like this changes you. It changes your path in life, changes the direction you want to go or don’t want to go,” added Joanne.


Story continues below

Article content

And one of the unexpected paths the Atchisons have taken is becoming advocates for improving the safety of Highway 6 on the Bruce Peninsula.

The couple said locally, everyone from the OPP to the Bruce Peninsula Safe Communities committee has been trying their best to make the highway safer.

But they say not enough has been done provincially and nationally since Traves’ death to curb the problem of erratic and stunt driving.

“Nothing will be done until the public unifies and goes to the government – the higher levels – and insists that changes are made. And until that’s done, it’s not going to happen,” Steve said.

They’d like to see stunt driving become a Criminal Code of Canada offence – like dangerous and impaired driving – as well as harsher penalties and higher fines for stunt driving.

The collision that killed the Atchisons’ son sparked a community conversation about the need to improve the safety of Highway 6 between Wiarton and Tobermory, which has seen a spike in stunt driving charges since the crash and become busier with more and more tourists discovering the area.

Residents, cottagers, local politicians, Bruce Peninsula Safe Communities and others have raised suggestions of how to make the highway safer.

Everything from creating passing lanes to permitting photo radar on the highway and increasing fines for stunt driving has been mentioned.

The Ministry of Transportation says some changes are coming for the stretch of highway this year. The Grey Bruce OPP and other stakeholders say conversations are ongoing with the MTO on ways to combat stunt driving on the peninsula.


Story continues below

Article content

On a provincial level, the MTO introduced in late April the Moving Ontarians More Safely Act, which, if passed, will increase roadside driver’s licence suspensions for people charged with stunt driving – in excess of 50 kilometres an hour over the posted speed limit – from seven to 30 days and the vehicle impoundment period from seven to 14 days.

It also includes escalating licence suspensions for drivers convicted of stunt driving, including lifetime suspensions for third and subsequent convictions. A lower threshold – from 50 to 40 km/h over the speed limit – for stunt driving charges on roads with speed limits under 80 km/h is also proposed.

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker, local mayors and others have applauded the proposed legislation, with Walker saying he hopes “implementing more severe consequences” for stunt driving “will act as a deterrent.”

As far as local changes, MTO senior issues advisor Lee Alderson said the ministry is planning to paint “transverse pavement markings” on Highway 6 approaching Ferndale and heading into Tobermory by the end of June.

The markings “will give the driver the perception that they are speeding up, making them more aware of their speed and encouraging them to slow down,” he said.

The ministry will also be collecting speed and volume data for the highway this spring and summer, he said, while Bruce County will be gathering similar data for local roads.

“This data collection will be a co-ordinated effort to help determine where motorists are coming from/going to on both the local roads and Highway 6 in order to assist the OPP in determining where enforcement resources will be more effectively deployed,” he said.


Story continues below

Article content

Grey Bruce OPP Acting Insp. Debra Anderson said she plans to discuss with the MTO the idea of extending the 60 km/h zone in Ferndale and installing digital signs that urge drivers not to speed.

“But I think it’s more with respect to the mindset of the drivers than it is an infrastructure problem,” she said.

Consistent messaging about the consequences of stunt driving and enforcement, along with continuing to work with the MTO on ways to change driver behaviour, are key to making the stretch of Highway 6 safer, she said.

South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson said she’s asked Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney to allow the use of photo radar, as a pilot project, on Highway 6. The technology is currently allowed only on municipally-owned roads, but not provincial highways.

Jackson said she’d also like to see heavier fines for stunt driving, something that isn’t proposed in the Moving Ontarians More Safely Act.

“I really appreciate the fact that the ministry has increased the impoundment time period and the suspension of driver’s licences, but I firmly believe that we need to quadruple the fines. Hitting people right in the pocketbook puts a completely different spin on things,” she said.

Jackson has also asked the MTO, on behalf of the OPP detachment in Wiarton, to install a traffic light in Ferndale and consider creating passing lanes on Highway 6.

Some Bruce Peninsula residents, like Sue Goetz of Miller Lake, have said perhaps adding roundabouts on the peninsula would help to slow traffic down. Others have suggested passing lanes might help to reduce aggressive driving.


Story continues below

Article content

However, concerns have been raised about the potential environmental impact of expanding the size of the roadway on the Bruce Peninsula, which is part of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

The Bruce Peninsula Safe Communities committee also has suggestions on how to improve the highway’s safety. They include having dedicated OPP officers for traffic enforcement on the peninsula, piloting photo radar at Ferndale and creating a fund from fine proceeds to help finance awareness campaigns.

Steve Atchison said one thing he’s learned since his son’s death is that improving the safety of Highway 6 on the Bruce Peninsula is a complex issue, with multiple variables at play, including jurisdictional and environmental factors.

“I think it has to be done at the government level,” he said.

Added Joanne, “I think it has to be harsher penalties. I think it has to be the same as drinking and driving.”

Joanne said although she knows it’s not possible, she’d love to be able to provide a statement about the impacts of erratic driving and her son’s story each time someone faces a stunt driving charge in court.

She said she’s seen stunt drivers pulled over by police on the peninsula when she’s headed up to the roadside memorial for her son and she’s always tempted to pull over.

“I’d like to stop and have my picture of Traves and his girlfriend Jana and go to that driver and say look what happened to our children because of somebody like you. I’d like to be there for a day and be able to do that with every car that gets stopped,” she said.

Traves Atchison and Jana Watson. Both were both killed in a crash on Highway 6 on the Bruce Peninsula in August 2017. (Supplied photo)
Traves Atchison and Jana Watson. Both were both killed in a crash on Highway 6 on the Bruce Peninsula in August 2017. (Supplied photo)

NOTE: This is the third article in a three-part series on stunt driving concerns on Highway 6 between Wiarton and Tobermory. Part 1 focused on the concerns of residents and cottagers on the Bruce Peninsula, while Part 2 looked at the work that’s been done so far to address the problem.

News Near Port Elgin

This Week in Flyers