The replica police car that the gunman drove on his killing rampage through rural Nova Scotia last month was distinct from most other RCMP patrol vehicles in at least one key and specific way.
In video surveillance footage and images released by the RCMP Tuesday, Gabriel Wortman’s mocked-up patrol car appears to be equipped with a black push bar on the front bumper.
CBC News has learned that piece of equipment could have made a significant difference in how the tragedy played out.
One road safety expert even says the push bar on Wortman’s car could have made a critical difference in the head-on collision with the vehicle of RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who died at the scene after confronting him on the morning of April 19 on a Nova Scotia highway.
The RCMP have not provided details of the injuries Stevenson sustained in the collision. The Mounties said after the two cars collided, “Stevenson engaged the gunman.”
“The gunman took Const. Stevenson’s life. He also took Const. Stevenson’s gun and mags,” the RCMP said.
Less than an hour later, Wortman, 51, was shot dead by police.
The RCMP confirmed to CBC News that Stevenson’s patrol car was not equipped with a push bar.
When Wortman and Stevenson’s vehicles collided, the gunman would have had a “massive” advantage, according to Barry Wellar, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, who is a pedestrian advocate and road safety expert.
“The person in the vehicle that does not have the bars would feel, in effect, the equivalent of 100 per cent of the impact,” Wellar told CBC News.
“Both cars are going to suffer some damage, but the point is that the one with the push bar rams that right into the front end of the engine compartment and everything just gets pushed back.
“The person with the push bar, the amount of impact felt by the vehicle driver is minimal relative to the person who’s getting hit. Huge difference.”
Push bars, or push bumpers, on police vehicles can serve a number of functions, including as equipment mounts, as protection for the front bumper and as a battering ram to push vehicles off the road.
A 2012 review of literature on risks posed to pedestrians by push bars (or “bull bars”) found they “do indeed increase the severity of injuries to vulnerable road users in the event of a collision.”
Former RCMP deputy commissioner Pierre-Yves Bourduas says the gunman came prepared.
“Because he outfitted his vehicle with a push bar, stands to reason that he might have expected any type of roadblocks or having to go through fences.”
Push bars are legal on civilian vehicles in Nova Scotia, but not common on police patrol cars in the province.
The RCMP told CBC News they operate 588 vehicles in the province, and that “some vehicles are equipped with external equipment guards, sometimes referred to as push bars or push bumpers,” but they did not have an exact count.
WATCH | Video shows N.S. shooting suspect shortly before he was caught
In an emailed response to questions from CBC News, the RCMP said they believe Wortman attached the push bar to his replica vehicle after he purchased it at an auction last fall.
Wortman was on the move just south of Shubenacadie, N.S., that Sunday when he pulled up alongside the car of RCMP Const. Chad Morrison and shot at him. Morrison was injured but managed to get away. Shortly after, Stevenson was travelling northbound on Highway 2 when she encountered Wortman’s car travelling south. The RCMP said the two cars collided head-on.
Unclear if RCMP warned others of push bar
The RCMP said they confirmed that Wortman was driving a replica RCMP patrol car after a female witness emerged from hiding at 6:30 a.m. that Sunday.
“When this was confirmed, we issued a BOLO [be on the lookout] bulletin that included a description of the suspect and vehicle to all police officers in Nova Scotia,” the Mounties told CBC News in an email.
But it is still unclear if they included the push bar in their description.
In a tweet posted at 10:17 a.m. AT on April 19, alerting the public to the gunman’s replica car, the RCMP noted only that the suspect’s vehicle could be distinguished from a real police vehicle by the decal of a number on the side.
<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Colchester?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Colchester</a>: Gabriel Wortman may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform. There’s 1 difference btwn his car and our RCMP vehicles: the car #. The suspect’s car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11 call 911 immediately. <a href=”https://t.co/yyeOeBt8Ui”>pic.twitter.com/yyeOeBt8Ui</a>
Retired Nova Scotia RCMP officer Mike Gregory said seeing a push bar on a patrol car in the area would be a red flag.
Gregory was a Mountie in the province for 25 years, including seven years as detachment commander in Tatamagouche. He is now a municipal councillor in Colchester County, where Wortman’s rampage started on the evening of April 18 in the rural community of Portapique.
“As far as I know, there are no police cars in Colchester County with push bars,” Gregory told CBC News.
Nearby Truro Police are located 43 kilometres east of Portapique. Chief David MacNeil told CBC News that his department was not informed during the rampage that Wortman’s replica car had a push bar.
MacNeil says push bars on patrol cars are uncommon in the province.
“We’re probably one of the few in the province that have them,” he said.
Truro Police have 10 marked vehicles in their fleet. Of those, four patrol cars and three SUVs are equipped with push bars. But MacNeil said their patrol cars — Dodge Chargers — are different models than the RCMP cars in the province.
He said the primary purpose of the push bars on Truro Police vehicles is not to push cars off the road, but to mount auxiliary red and blue lights and position the siren speaker on the front of the vehicle, where it’s more effective.
Could be used as a battering ram
The use of push bars by police in Canada is controversial because of the damage they can do.
“If somebody steals a police car, then that person has himself a battering ram,” road safety expert Wellar said. “So, they’re actually dangerous if they’re not used properly.”
CBC News found use of push bars by police services varies across the country:
- Halifax Regional Police does not have them on any of their 80 marked patrol cars.
- Montreal police also do not use them on any of their vehicles.
- The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said they have push bars on all their marked patrol vehicles.
- The Ontario Provincial Police said their 1,252 front-line vehicles all have them.
Saskatoon Police have eight vehicles in their fleet with push bars. Last August, a provincial coroner’s inquest recommended that more Saskatoon police vehicles be equipped with push bars. The inquest was reviewing the 2017 death of Austin Eaglechief, who died when a stolen truck he was driving collided with another vehicle. Earlier in the pursuit, Eaglechief rammed a police car. Saskatoon police testified that having a push bar on their patrol car could have stopped Eaglechief sooner.