A car crash is no accident
By: Sheila Reynolds/Black Press
Varinder Badh had been in hospital for two days before she was told she’d never see her parents alive again.
That final evening had begun joyfully, with a party celebrating the engagement of Varinder’s youngest sister, Rupi, on July 12, 2008.
After the family get-together, Rupi, Varinder and their parents headed home in the same car – Rupi at the wheel, Varinder in the front passenger seat and their parents tucked in the back seat.
They were driving in Surrey when they were struck from behind by a speeding driver. Dilbag, 61, and his 60-year-old wife, Bakhshish, died at the scene, and Rupi and Varinder were seriously injured.
In the weeks following the crash, a traumatized Varinder began leafing through newspaper accounts and found herself exacerbated by what she read.
“I kept seeing the word ‘accident’ over and over again,” she said. “It started really bothering me because I had this feeling people would think we were somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
It took four long years before Ravinder Binning, who was at the wheel of the car that hit them, was sentenced to four years in prison for the deaths.
Today, Badh is taking some much-needed time off after completing her doctorate in social science at Royal Roads University earlier this summer. The Greater Victoria mom and former criminology instructor chose to engage with her deep psychological scars of losing her parents by tackling the issue head-on in her research.
“If you think of the term ‘accident,’ there’s a social connotation that’s been given to it. We think of chance or God’s will or fate,” Badh said. “We remove the accountability and responsibility. So if we label these incidents in a neutral way, then perhaps the accountability becomes stronger.”
As Binning’s trial dragged on, Badh and her siblings began advocating for tougher sentences for dangerous driving causing death or injury, to better reflect the severity of the crime. While vehicular homicide charges exist in the U.S., Canada has no parallel criminal charge.
Feedback showed people generally agreed hit-and-runs – especially fatal ones – are unacceptable. But Varinder kept wondering: “Why is it people still aren’t getting it?”
Her PhD dissertation focused on five randomly selected cases of vehicular negligence. She interviewed family members of people killed in crashes, as well as survivors.
What they told her echoed her own views. They were frustrated by words such as accident, often feeling re-victimized as the terms sounded negative or appeared to shift blame back on the victim.
She also spoke to police and other first responders, who expressed extreme dismay at the use of the word accident for incidents that clearly weren’t.
“The objectivity in my research was a difficult one, but with my supervisor and internal committee, they really kept me in line to ensure I had a venting outlet but that I remained objective,” she said.
Since the crash, Varinder has undergone two unsuccessful surgeries to remedy hearing loss and is still going through active rehabilitation to address migraines, neck, shoulder and back problems, numbness and tingling in her legs and vertigo issues.
She admits she used to use the word “accident” without thinking twice.
“I’m just as guilty as anyone,” Badh said. “Had I never had this experience, I would never have thought twice about car crashes. I felt sorry for them in the moment, but it didn’t affect me beyond that.”
She’s since learned that the leading cause of death worldwide is car crashes. She’s also learned that the average person attributes the resulting injuries or fatalities to fate or bad luck.
Her research, she hopes, will help shift people’s perceptions. She plans to meet with influential people and organizations, including former Attorney General Wally Oppal, who was also one of three people on her dissertation committee. She also plans to return to teaching and continue her research into the social impact of labelling car crashes.
“The more people read it, the more they talk about it, the more knowledge there is,” Badh said. “If this just sparks a conversation in a household, that’s huge.”
She has dedicated her research to her parents, husband, daughter and other victims and survivors of road crashes “for whom I argue this research has provided a voice.”
When Binning finally pled guilty to his driving charges in February 2012, he read an apology before the court and the Badh family. In it, he reasoned that what happened on that tragic night could have happened to anyone.
“It was a complete accident,” he said.
-with files from Daniel Palmer