01/11/2012 08:46 EST | Updated 03/12/2012 05:12 EDT

MPP wants inquest into 10 recent traffic fatalities on northern Ontario roads

TORONTO - There are new concerns about road conditions on northern highways in the wake of several fatal collisions.

Both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats are looking for answers about road maintenance work and whether it's played a part in a series of accidents this winter.

Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli wants to know if poor road conditions contributed to the deaths of 10 people in the North Bay area in the span of a week.

He's calling for a coroner's inquest into the deaths, which all happened in late December and early January.

"Was it the weather, period, plain and simple? Was it road conditions, or is there some other anomaly that's happening with teenagers and winter driving?" Fedeli said.

"To lose that many in one very, very short period is very tragic."

New Democrat Gilles Bisson, who first raised the issue of road maintenance in the legislature, believes new government contracts are to blame for poor highway conditions.

The cash-strapped Liberal government is jeopardizing the safety of motorists by lowering the maintenance standards in winter contracts, he said Wednesday.

The government changed the terms of its plowing contracts to give companies less time to salt or clear highways, which means there's 25 per cent less equipment being used, he said.

Other northern New Democrats are getting calls and emails from their constituents complaining about closed highways and poor road conditions — and it's been a mild winter in his northeastern riding so far, Bisson said.

"You normally get some complaints during the winter, but you never get the kind of complaints we're getting now," said Bisson, who represents Timmins-James Bay.

Fedeli said complaints about road conditions are pouring into his constituency office as well.

North Bay has had its share of winter storms this year, but complaints about roads have become the single largest issue his staff have had to deal with since he was elected three months ago, he said.

Bisson said he's planning to launch a campaign in the next few days to collect information about highway conditions from the public in an effort to put pressure on the government to take action.

But Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli insists the standards haven't changed since 1996, when the Conservative government divested road maintenance to private contractors.

"We've added a lot of new technology in terms of how we deliver road maintenance and how we monitor it, but essentially, there has been no diminuation of road clearing standards in any way, shape or form," he said.

The province has experienced more severe weather in some areas and there are different standards for different classes roads, Chiarelli added. But the standards are among the highest in North America, he said.

Contractors must plow highways when there's two centimetres or more of snow or slush and vehicles have to be deployed within 30 minutes of the start of a storm, he said. The movements of those vehicles are also monitored by the ministry and are available online.

That information is available to the Ontario Provincial Police and the coroner who are investigating the fatal collisions in the North Bay area, Chiarelli said. He also plans to look at that data and the police report "as quickly as possible."

"I was on pins and needles every time (my children) were on a road in bad weather going to or from university," said the father of six.

"I understand the concerns and I understand the heartbreaking circumstances when there are fatalities."

The coroner's office is independent and will have to make a decision about whether or not to conduct an inquest, he said.

But if the investigations determine that road maintenance contractors weren't living up to their commitments, Chiarelli said he'll "deal harshly" with them, including $5,000 fines and even terminating their contract with the province.

"I will not hesitate to take strong action against the service provider if they have been found to be non-compliant," he said.