Family demands improved safety after losing father, son in Trans-Canada horror
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The family of a father and son killed in a head-on crash on a notorious stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway is urging Manitoba’s government to make safety improvements to the untwinned road.
Mark Lugli, 54, and Jacob Lugli, 17, were driving from their home in Dryden, Ont., to Selkirk on July 21, 2019, when an oncoming tractor-trailer swerved into their lane just west of the Manitoba-Ontario boundary.
Relatives were informed the eastbound truck driver steered into the wrong lane to avoid crashing into the back of traffic after a vehicle stopped abruptly to make a left turn onto a gravel road leading to cottages on Barren Lake.
“It could have been prevented with better signage or a turning lane, or if the (twinned section of) highway had continued,” said Lynn Konkle, Mark’s wife and Jacob’s mother. “If some good could come out of this, in terms of changing the highway and maybe doubling (the lanes), that would be a great legacy.”
Konkle, 54, left sunflowers at a memorial to her husband and son Thursday. It was the first time she drove the highway since the crash.
She felt her chest tighten as she approached the site while on her way to pick up a friend at Winnipeg’s airport.
“I was bound and determined that I was going to (visit), that this highway is not going to get the best of me,” she said. “For the first time in three years, I felt some anger. I felt a sense that (the crash) was totally senseless, that it should not have happened.”
She wondered why the trucker chose to swerve left — into the path of her husband’s westbound pickup truck — instead of the right, where there is a shoulder and a barrier.
A small ditch separates the barrier and Provincial Road 301, which runs parallel to Highway 1 at that spot in Whiteshell Provincial Park.
“The way it was explained to me (by a Crown attorney) was that it was a big drop. I didn’t see it as a big drop,” said Konkle.
Last December, the province said it has no immediate plans to twin the Trans-Canada from Falcon Lake to the Ontario boundary, a distance of about 17 kilometres.
Ontario is moving forward with plans to twin about 40 kilometres of road between the provincial boundary and Kenora.
At Barren Lake, Konkle and other family members want Manitoba’s government to build a turning lane for eastbound vehicles trying to access the gravel road, located on the north side of the two-lane highway.
She would welcome signage to alert oncoming drivers of the road, and a lowered speed limit from the posted 100 km/h.
A spokeswoman for Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure said a dedicated turning lane is not feasible because of the terrain.
“After thoughtful consideration, the department determined that it is not reasonably able to install a turning lane at this location due to significant topographical challenges,” she wrote in an email. “Highway 1 near Barren Lake is tightly located between two lakes (Barren and Falcon) and is on the crest of the hill.”
After the fatal collision, the province trimmed back brush at the intersection to improve sight lines, and put up signs informing drivers they are not allowed to park on the north side, where there is open space.
The province determined left turns are permitted across the double solid centre line because the access road is not public.
The spokeswoman said information signs with the name of the access road were installed on Highway 1, after cottagers contacted the province in 2020.
Mark’s brother, Peter Lugli, described the province’s explanation as “woefully inadequate.”
“Neither of (the brush-trimming and no-parking signs) actions would have reduced or in any way impeded what happened that day. Tragically, I believe we have not heard the end of tragic stories from Barren Lake Road,” Peter, who lives near Seattle, Wash., wrote in an email.
“How many more must perish before a far more reasonable approach is taken?
“Topographical challenges apparently haven’t hampered other Canadian highway infrastructure projects. Should Manitoba’s ministry look elsewhere, say British Columbia or Alberta, for engineering advice?”
He said the deaths on the “perilous” section weighed heavily on his and Mark’s mother, who died a year ago.
“I’m not a doctor, but I’d say it accelerated her demise,” he said.
Citing the highway’s dangers, Konkle pointed to previous collisions in the Barren Lake area, including one that killed a Dryden man in 2005.
A 29-year-old Kenora man died a head-on crash near Barren Lake on March 15, 2020. At the time, the RCMP believed icy roads were a factor.
In response to the family’s concerns, local MLA Wayne Ewasko (Lac du Bonnet) said the province is trying to implement as many safety measures as possible on roads and highways.
Asked if he’s been pushing for the highway to be twinned, Ewasko, the minister of education and early childhood learning, said he’s an “advocate” for safety measures and improvements.
Konkle, meanwhile, is returning to Winnipeg on Aug. 24 for the sentencing of the 25-year-old semi-truck driver, Abhinav Abhinav. She and other family members plan to read victim-impact statements.
The Manitoba Prosecution Service declined to comment on whether more serious charges were considered in the case and how it reached its decision on which charges to authorize.
A spokeswoman said all available offences are looked at, and the Crown considers two factors — whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction and whether the prosecution is in the public interest — when deciding how to proceed.
The Crown informed Konkle that the Toronto-area truck driver, who was not seriously injured in the crash, pleaded guilty to two counts of careless driving causing death.
The family is bracing for a possible sentence of a fine and a driving ban.
Konkle said she initially felt empathy for Abhinav, who was 22 — the same age as her eldest son at the time — and had completed his training just months before the crash.
However, the Crown informed her the man has continued to drive since the collision.
“It seemed nothing had changed for him. He just kept driving,” said Konkle. “Then we found out it was a Highway Traffic Act offence, which wouldn’t hold much penalty at all. It’s somewhat maddening.
“He didn’t mean to kill these two people, but, at the same time, our lives have changed drastically because of this choice that he made.”
She questions why trucking companies allow new drivers to drive such a dangerous route.
As for the punishment, Peter said he will leave it up to the court to determine the appropriate sentence.
“There are people who feel strongly that a great injustice has been done,” he said. “My perspective is nothing is going to give us back what we had.”
If any good comes from the incident, he said, it will be safety improvements, including a dedicated left-turn lane, at the site.
Mark, who was very familiar with the highway, was taking Jacob to a Maple Leaf Junior Golf Tour Manitoba Series competition when they were killed.
Afterward, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those to offer condolences to the family. At the time, Mark’s sister, Monique Lugli, was chief of staff for then-health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor.
Mark, the principal of St. Joseph’s School in Dryden, was preparing to join his wife in retirement. They were going to move to Ottawa to be closer to their four children’s post-secondary pursuits.
Recent Dryden High School graduate Jacob, who was accepted to the University of Ottawa, was going to take a year off and spend the winter playing hockey.
“Mark and Jacob were extremely good people. These were two great human beings who always thought of other people,” said Konkle, who has since moved to Ottawa. “We’ve all put on brave faces and tried to move forward the way Mark and Jacob would have wanted us to.”
She is grateful to Dryden residents for the support they’ve given her and her children, including Jacob’s twin sister.
A golf tournament is being held in the northern Ontario community Saturday to fund a $1,000 memorial scholarship in Jacob’s name. It is given annually to a DHS student-athlete.
The MJT also created a scholarship in Jacob’s honour.
Mark was posthumously honored with the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario’s award of excellence.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Friday, August 5, 2022 9:40 PM CDT: Fixes typo in cutline