In a split second

By Steve Ladurantaye  

A few days after being involved in a really nasty car crash on Canada’s busiest highway, the legendary 401, I was casually talking to Kingston Whig-Standard editor Christina Spencer about the experience. As the conversation continued, she became more and more interested in the costs associated with the crash.

As I saw her interest, my interest increased. Agreeing that it would make a great story, I wandered out of her office and returned to my job as city editor. A few days later, she asked me how far along I was in writing the story. Of course, I hadn’t done anything. There were other things to worry about, such as putting out the next day’s paper. Christina cleared my schedule for the following week and told me to work on the story.

Knowing a numbers-based story had the potential to be the most boring thing ever written, I decided to track  down the truck driver who had almost killed us. To do this, I contacted the Ontario Provincial Police and my insurance company for a copy of the police officer’s accident report. The report contained the name and address of everyone involved in the crash. I probably would not have gotten this document had I not been involved in the actual collision. 

At that point, I didn’t know if the trucker had survived, but now I had his home address. I phoned, expecting to speak to a grieving widow or a sad family member. Instead, Joe answered the phone and suspiciously answered a few questions. He then said he wasn’t interested in talking to me.

The next day, I got in my car and drove three hours to his Brampton home. Again, he was reluctant, but he came around once I was in his doorway. The trip was extremely worthwhile because Joe became the central character in the story. But his presence in the story also posed problems. He had suffered head injuries and was also involved in legal proceedings resulting from the crash.

I made a key decision, after seeing him, to veer away from the cause of the crash and focus solely on the costs. He told me several things off the record that I’ve not repeated, which I think is only fair given the trauma he’d been through and the suffering he’ll likely continue to endure.

The bulk of the remaining story was gathered using basic reporting techniques (interviewing other participants and going over records). Interestingly, once I decided to write the story in first person, I found I couldn’t completely trust my memory. A friend in the car with me that fateful day corrected details I wrote about the actual crash sequence. I was just plain wrong on a few points: whether we spun out or not and what lane we were in when it all started. It took several additional interviews with those involved just to confirm basic events.

Interviews done, I had a somewhat compelling piece about the emotional effects of the crash and the costs incurred by the private individuals involved. But there were other questions about public costs. How much did the roadwork cost? Did the fire truck that hit the wreckage take any damage? What did the policemen get paid for their time at the site? 

To answer such questions, I had to file Freedom of Information requests because nobody volunteered the information. For example, the Napanee fire chief flat out lied to me when asked about the damaged fire truck. I requested paperwork to back up his answer and the FOI request I filed showed more than $10,000 damage.

I also had to rely heavily on FOI requests for the roadwork data, because at first the government insisted the repair bills were proprietary information. I kept arguing, and filing requests, until I got enough data to start making some extrapolations. Once all the numbers flowed in, months after the requests went out, the story started to take shape. I wrote the top 12 paragraphs, and knew it was going in the right direction. It felt right, and I managed to write the rest of the text within a few hours.

The first draft landed on Christina’s desk, and while she liked it, she insisted that more numbers be included. She was relentless in her pursuit of data: how many cars would use that stretch of road that day and how long were they delayed? 

My challenge was to continue cramming in the data while not losing the personalities the story needed. To make certain the emotion was not lost, I’d send drafts of the story to my friends outside the newspaper business. They told me when the story got boring. It took several months to complete from start to finish: a solid week of reporting, a day or two of writing, sporadic in-progress editing — and a lot of waiting for information requests.

Read “One Costly Crash”