Trucker acquitted in fatal 2017 collision on Highway 401

A truck driver who was charged with dangerous driving in the 2017 death of a Gananoque man has been acquitted.

Superior Court Justice Graeme Mew acknowledged that his findings would no doubt be “disappointing” to the family of 46-year-old John Ross Moulton of Gananoque, who died in the crash, but “ Driving is an inherently dangerous and complex activity… even the most able and prudent driver will, from time to time, suffer from momentary lapses of attention… the law does not lightly brand such a person as a criminal.”

Photo by Logan Cadue.

The trial for the truck driver in question, Robbie O’Neil, took place in December 2021. Evidence was heard from three witnesses who were at the scene at the time of, or immediately after, the accident. In addition, the court heard from two experts, from a Ministry of Transportation witness, and from an individual who gave some evidence about the possible position of the sun and its effect on driving conditions. The defendant did not testify. 

Witness testimony described the morning of the deadly accident. Around midnight, a three-vehicle accident had caused the closure of the eastbound lanes of Highway 401, east of Joyceville Road. Due to this closure, traffic was being directed to exit the 401 at Joyceville Road.

Witness Ronald Armstrong was driving a Freightliner Cascadia transport truck hauling a triple axle dump trailer from Brampton to Cornwall. He remembered seeing signs as he approached Kingston that there was a detour at Joyceville Road. He had a CB radio in his cab, and there was chatter from even before Kingston about a detour eastbound because of an earlier accident.

Armstrong testified that it was a beautiful sunny morning. The roads were dry and the sun was, “a little low in the sky,” he told the court. After seeing the signs about the detour, he continued normally, but kept his eyes open for traffic up ahead. As he approached Joyceville Road, he said he could see traffic stopped about two kilometres ahead of him. As he got nearer, there was what he described as a long line of vehicles in the right (driving) lane waiting to exit the highway. A transport in front of him had its four-way flashers on. He was also able to see traffic coming up behind him in his mirrors. Immediately behind him, there was another transport truck hauling hay; then a Chevrolet Cruze sedan driven by Ryan Donlon; and, at the end of the line, a Chevrolet Orlando crossover-style SUV driven by John Ross Moulton. 

Donlon testified that he had set out from his home in Kingston to travel to work. He pulled onto eastbound Highway 401 at the Gardiners Road intersection at around 6:30 a.m. He testified that he had not seen any highway signs warning about the highway closure or detour before arriving at Joyceville Road. When he approached the line of traffic exiting the highway, he thought the cause was construction, not realizing the road ahead was closed.

Donlon recalled that he had passed the Chevrolet Orlando on the highway and could see it behind him as he slowed down for the traffic ahead. Donlon came to a complete stop. The vehicles ahead appeared to be exiting the highway one vehicle at a time, he said.

As Donlon reached for his cup of coffee, he noticed a truck in his mirror – the defendant’s vehicle – rounding a slight bend in the road behind him. The truck was not slowing down. “I thought I was dead,” he testified.  

Donlon dropped his coffee and floored his accelerator in an effort to get out of the truck’s way. He recalled the force of the accident as the truck hit him. The hood of his car ended up facing the barrier wall a few hundred feet down the highway from the point of impact, and his car was perpendicular to the lanes he had been travelling in.  

After realizing he was alive, despite a cut on his left leg, Donlon exited his vehicle by the passenger door and ran down the highway to get away from the accident scene, as there were still cars going by, driving over the debris from the accident. 

After Donlon received some assistance from Freightliner driver Armstrong, he went back to the vehicles that had been involved in the accident. The Chevrolet Orlando was tangled up with the trailer between the fifth wheel and the barrier wall.  

He found the transport driver, Robbie O’Neil, leaning over his wheel; Donlon helped him out of his cab. Donlon testified that O’Neil seemed to be in a state of “denial,” confused about how many cars he had hit and unable to appreciate that two vehicles had been struck, not just Donlon’s Cruze.

Armstrong had heard the impact and looked into his mirror to see everything getting pushed out. The SUV and the car were pushed into the passing lane, and then the SUV went in beside the truck on the left-hand side and the other car was turned to the side by the transport truck. Armstrong said he saw a tire come whizzing past him. 

Armstrong pulled over onto the right shoulder and went to see if he could help. He helped Donlon, as Dolon mentioned, and then went and asked O’Neil if he was all right.  Armstrong said O’Neil responded: “I think I just killed someone. How do you think I am?” Armstrong then went towards Moulton’s SUV, but quickly realized there was nothing he could do, he told the court.  

Both Donlon and Armstrong were asked about the sun that morning. The sun was just rising around that time.  

Donlon testified that “it’s a horrible piece of highway there” — that the sun wasn’t in his eyes, but that his position in a Chevrolet Cruze would have been lower to the ground than a transport driver, and that he may have had a different sight line than someone sitting up in a transport’s cab. 

Armstrong said that he always kept a good pair of sunglasses on hand. He had been blinded by the sun in the past while driving. In his experience, Armstrong explained, it would be dangerous to slam on the brakes because of being blinded by the sun. His practice was to put on sunglasses and, if necessary, lower the visor or adjust his seat. 

Armstrong said that, around the time he was driving past Kingston that morning, the sun became an issue. He testified that he did tell the investigating police officers that the sun may have been an issue; it was, he said, “blinding at times.” However, at the time of the accident itself, there was a large transport in front of Armstrong that was blocking the sun. 

The court also heard expert testimony by Sgt. John Martin, an experienced accident investigator from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). He was the assigned senior investigator and was on the scene within three hours of the accident, the court heard. 

Sgt. Martin testified that there were tire marks at the scene. They were faint and had the appearance of “skip skids” that would have come from the trailer of the transport as it braked. A gouge mark was identified where, it is believed, the truck struck the rear of the Orlando and pushed it down. That mark was measured as 105 metres from the first tire mark. Sgt. Martin said that this was evidence of some braking but not “a hard braking activity.” Another gouge was believed to represent the Chevrolet Cruze. The Orlando and Cruze gouges were 17 meters apart.

Sgt. Martin concluded that data obtained from the computers in the Orlando and the Cruze showed O’Neil’s vehicle was coming up behind both vehicles at a much higher speed than either of them we travelling. His calculations showed that O’Neil was travelling at 100 km/hour.

Martin further explained that O’Neil started braking approximately 104 metres before the first gouge made by the impact with the Orlando. This was the first evidence of braking, but not all brakes locked up from that point to impact. Sgt. Martin estimated that O’Neil reacted to the slower traffic when he was approximately 160 metres back from it. 

Sgt. Martin calculated that Mr. O’Neil would have required 116.16 to 124.67 metres to recognize the hazard of the slower cars in front of him and come to a stop using 100 per cent braking.  

Asked about the role that the sun may have played in the accident, Sgt. Martin said that, if the sun had been in the sky in such a position that it would blind drivers, he would want to know that and make a note of it. He acknowledged that he had reviewed the statements given by witnesses, including Armstrong, who had indicated that, at certain points, the sun was blinding to drivers that morning. Sgt. Martin agreed that this was information to know, but ultimately he concluded that the sun had not been a factor.

The defence expert, Peter Williamson, a forensic consultant, took a different view of the potential role played by the sun. Using software similar to that consulted by Sgt. Martin, Williamson found that, at the time of the accident, the sun would have lined up, to within one degree, with the road – it would have been almost directly in front of eastbound drivers. In his opinion, for an eastbound driver, the sun would be straight ahead as one came past the bend. Assuming a driver was looking straight into the sun, he said the hazard lights or brake lights of vehicles ahead would have been harder to detect. Based on the information available to him in the circumstances, as he understood them, and in particular having regard to the possible effect of the sun, Williamson’s opinion was that the accident was unavoidable.

Justice Mew ultimately agreed. His judgment that Mr. O’Neil was “not guilty on the charge against him” that was handed down Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

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