Tour driver pleads guilty to not using brakes in fatal accident

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It was a momentary lack of attention to details for a tour bus driver, but it is one that will mark the lives of the Wang family of Toronto forever.

George Wang and his wife Jing Zhang were on an Amazing Travel four-day bus tour of Banff National Park in September 2016 when the incident occurred.

Chinese immigrants, the pair were part of a tour group enjoying the majestic Rocky Mountains when they asked their bus driver and tour guide Jian Song to make an unscheduled stop at the Castle Mountain lookout on the Trans-Canada Highway between 9 and 10 a.m. on Sept. 21.

According to Provincial Crown prosecutor Bev Shugg, the bus was on a slope with a curb in front of it when it began to move down the embankment and two passengers, 55-year-old Wang and his 53-year-old wife Zhang, were standing with their backs toward the vehicle when it hit them both.

“The bus struck both individuals, jumped the curb and dragged both individuals down the embankment and ended up in the river,” Shugg told Judge George Gaschler in Canmore Provincial Court. “Mrs. Zhang died almost immediately. Mr. Wang suffered life threatening injuries.”

Wang was transported by STARS air ambulance to Calgary and suffered permanent brain damage and a broken back.

Song was subsequently charged under the traffic safety act with careless driving, however, in Canmore Provincial Court this week (Feb. 20), he pleaded guilty to a lesser included offence of failing to follow the rules of the road regulations.

The plea was to failing to effectively use the parking brake on a grade or slope. Shugg said the investigation found the bus was still in drive, with the parking brake improperly applied, when the driver exited the vehicle and it subsequently began rolling down the embankment.

Wang, meanwhile, spent a month in a coma after the incident and has since been unable to work or care for himself without full time medical support.

“I cannot do any job now and for the rest of my life,” he wrote in his victim impact statement. “I have brain and psychological problems and I need two personal workers to support my daily life now.

“I do not have any income … my wife cannot contribute anything including income to our family because she has passed away in this accident.”

Defence counsel Michael Oykhman argued against a 90-day drivers licence suspension as part of the sentencing, telling Gaschler it would be disproportionately punitive to Song.

Oykhman told the judge his client had only been living in Canada since March 2015, having moved to Calgary from China. He was a structural engineer but had difficulty finding work in his field when he started working part time as a tour guide for Amazing Travel.

On the day of the incident, Oykhman said it was the third day of a four-day tour that had a driver and tour guide assigned to it. He said the company told one of the two employees to go home, and that effectively left Song alone as the driver and tour guide when he was asked to make an unscheduled stop.

“He stopped where he did in a place he had never stopped before, on a bus he had never driven before, one man short of what should have been a two-person team,” Oykhman said. “Mr. Song advises me this is his first driving incident in his history and he is wracking his brain playing back what happened and why it happened.

“To his best recollection, he stopped the bus and he engaged the parking brake in a process of making a typical stop, but was distracted by one of the passengers, effectively taking his mind off completing the protocol.”

The defence said Song has suffered from the stress and guilt he feels over the incident, it has affected his relationship with his wife and his eight year old son.

Shugg, however, argued that putting any vehicle’s transmission in park first is a common practice before applying the parking break.

“I have compassion for Mr. Song and I realize this is a troubling experience, but I also feel there should be a driving suspension,” she said. “The Crown submits this was a mistake … it could have been avoided if the proper practice had been followed and the lives of many people we heard about today would not be changed forever.”

Gaschler noted in his sentence – a $2,000 fine, $300 victim fine surcharge and 30 day driving prohibition – that the mistake took only moments to occur, but has had a lifetime’s effect on the victim and his family.

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