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No charges for driver in 2023 Manitoba bus crash that killed 17 seniors: RCMP

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Manitoba RCMP and Crown prosecutors will not lay charges against the bus driver involved in a crash with a semi-truck in 2023.

The decision was announced Wednesday morning at a news conference held by Manitoba RCMP.

"As investigators, we hoped to provide the why of what happened, and that is why we do what we do. But in this case, we cannot say why the bus proceeded into the intersection that day when it was unsafe to do so," said Supt. Rob Lasson, officer in charge of major crime services with Manitoba RCMP.

The crash happened on June 15, 2023, near Carberry, Man. as a bus carrying a group of seniors from the Dauphin area was heading to a casino.

Seventeen people died as a result of the crash.

The bus driver was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury.

Officers previosuly said the driver of the semi-truck had the right of way.

Lasson said RCMP put together a 'comprehensive investigative package' for the Crown attorney. Based on his review, no charges were authorized in relation to the crash.

"I need to say this was a very tragic collision, and it happened because of a choice made by the bus driver. However, we cannot prove that that choice that day was a result of anything criminal," Lasson said.

Superintendent Rob Lasson, officer in charge of major crime services with Manitoba RCMP, speaks at a June 26, 2024 news conference. (Glenn Pismenny/CTV News Winnipeg)

While RCMP's investigation was extensive, Lasson said officers were not able to speak with key witnesses as many were on board that day and died as a result of the collision.

He noted they recovered cell phone data from the bus driver and confirmed there were no incoming or outgoing text messages or calls at the time of the collision.

"Very importantly, early on, we were able to pull evidence from the semi-truck dashcam, which we had previously discussed. This dash cam enabled us to gather that evidence, and show that the bus proceeded when it was unsafe," he said.

"This was a very key piece of evidence, and a turning point to provide the public with immediate answers."

Lasson said police have still not spoken to the bus driver, nor do they anticipate being able to do so based on "medical reasons." Therefore, they do not have their account of the collision.

Lasson said RCMP and Crown prosecutors travelled to Dauphin Tuesday to give the news in person to families and answer any questions.

"Like the families, today will bring about varied emotions. All of this is very understandable," he said.

A scorched patch of ground where a bus carrying seniors ended up after colliding with a transport truck and burning on June 15, 2023 is seen on the edge of the Trans-Canada Highway where it intersects with Highway 5, west of Winnipeg near Carberry, Man., one day later. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Blind spot played 'significant role' in collision: Crown

Crown attorney Chris Vanderhooft was also on hand to break down his office's decision not to authorize charges.

He recounted the facts of the collision and what investigators were able to piece together in the year since. 

Vanderhooft said the bus driver was travelling southbound on Highway 5 just after 11:30 a.m. that day.

As he approached the intersection of Highway 1, he came to a stop at the stop sign to allow for westbound traffic to pass. He then proceeded across the westbound lanes of Highway 1 into the median that had a yield sign.

He continued across the eastbound lanes of Highway 1, driving across the path of the oncoming semi-truck.

"(The semi-truck driver) attempted to avoid the collision, but the bus driver did not appear to see the semi-truck coming," Vanderhooft said.

Crown Attorney Chris Vanderhooft provides an update on the investigation into the Carberry bus crash at a June 26, 2024 news conference at Manitoba RCMP Headquarters. (Glenn Pismenny/CTV News Winnipeg)

Transport Canada and the RCMP collision reconstructionist conducted investigations into the collision, Vanderhooft said, and determined the bus driver would have had three separate blind spots that contributed to the bus driver not seeing the semi-truck.

"The 10-second video obtained from the semi-truck, along with the scene evidence and the examination of the bus, demonstrated that the right front corner of the bus passenger cabin clearly played a role, a significant role in the collision," he said.

Vanderhooft said the bus had only been in operation with Quality Care Transit for about a month prior to the collision, and there were no mechanical defects with the vehicle. 

RCMP also obtained the bus driver's medical records shortly after the offence and in the spring of 2024 after a lengthy treatment and hospitalization.

The bus driver remains unable to care for himself or function without assistance in the community, Vanerhooft said, and his condition is unlikely to improve.

The charges submitted by RCMP for assessment were dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm.

Flowers that were left by a person are seen on the side of the road where the Trans-Canada Highway intersects with Hwy 5, west of Winnipeg near Carberry, Man., Friday, June 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Crown applies a two-part test to determine whether a charge is approved; whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction; and whether the public interest requires a prosecution.

"Momentary inattention does not constitute dangerous driving," Vanderhooft said.

"The act of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle is driving in a manner dangerous to the public in all of the circumstances. The focus must be on the risks created by the driver's manner of driving and not on the consequences of the driving."

Based on the evidence, the Crown would not be able to prove that the driver's actions were a marked departure from the standard of a reasonable person in similar circumstances, Vanderhooft said.

"While the Crown is certainly aware of the consequences of this mass casualty and the tragedy that the families have had and continue to deal with, there is no public interest in proceeding against the bus driver, and we have therefore decided not to authorize criminal charges."

'You don't hear her voice anymore'

Valerie Owen's mother, Claudia Zurba was one of the people killed in the crash.

Her family is finding ways to cope in the year since Zurba's death.

"It's just hard that you don't hear her voice anymore, but I have other memories and things that she gave me, so I hold those dear," Owen said.

Wednesday's news that no charges would be laid against the driver came as a relief to Owen.

"It's a relief that there's an answer," she said.

"But it's still sad."

Valerie Owen smiles with her mother Claudia Zurba in an undated photo.

Owen wishes upgrades were made to the intersection sooner to increase safety and prevent the crash.

That is still hard to accept, Owen said.

"Why, over that many years, when there's been other fatalities at an intersection, why wasn't there a controlled intersection? We wouldn't even be having this conversation."

Public consultations for the future of Highway 5 and the Trans-Canada Highway intersection are expected to begin before July 1 and finish in the fall.

According to the province, consultations will include residents, municipal government, and trucking companies. Options floated for the intersection include creating a roundabout, widening the median to provide a safe space for vehicles to stop while crossing the highway, or a restricted crossing U-turn or RCUT.

A decision on the final design option and layout is expected in early 2025, and construction will be finished in 2026.

As for Owen, she and her family are healing slowly while keeping her mother's memory alive.

"You can't not move forward, and you can't keep the memory of the trauma. Keep memories of who she was. "

- With files from CTV's Danton Unger and Charles Lefebvre

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