She had been in hospital for two weeks before she was told.
Still recovering from grave injuries, Varinder Badh heard the inconceivable: the last time she saw her mom and dad was the last night she’d see them alive.
That final evening had begun joyfully, with a party celebrating the engagement of Varinder’s youngest sister, Rupi.
After the family get-together on July 12, 2008, 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 down 128 Street near 85 Avenue 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.
Ravinder Binning, who was at the wheel of the car that hit them, fled the scene. He didn’t phone for help. He didn’t provide assistance to the injured.
Weeks later, her family’s foundation shattered, a traumatized Varinder began leafing through newspaper accounts about the crash, desperately trying to piece together what had happened. What she noticed exacerbated her already immeasurable pain.
“I kept seeing the word accident over and over again,” she recalls. “It started really bothering me because I had this feeling people would think we were somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In her mind, her parents had been killed and the incident was not only being diminished and her family’s loss minimized, but the driver’s actions were portrayed as unintentional.
She spoke to several news reporters, kindly requesting they not to use “accident” in coverage of her family’s case.
Eventually, she and her siblings also 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., they do not in Canada.
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?”
That’s when she began looking at the terminology used for such incidents and how it impacts perceptions. Why weren’t criminal acts involving vehicular negligence viewed through the same lens as other serious crimes?
Already armed with a criminology degree, Varinder set out to do more research – and get her doctorate while she was at it.
Her PhD dissertation, which was approved in June, 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.
“Some participants even argued that the term accident suggested that the incident was the result of fate or God’s will,” Varinder wrote in her thesis, noting “accident” also removed accountability from the offending motorist.
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.
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,” Varinder says. “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 mere fate or bad luck.
Her research, she hopes, will help shift people’s perceptions, by changing the way crashes are defined and labelled. 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.
“The more people read it, the more they talk about it, the more knowledge there is,” Varinder says. “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.”
In June 2010, two years after the Badh parents were killed, Ravinder Binning was arrested. On what was supposed to be the first day of his trial in February 2012 – nearly four years after the crash – he pleaded guilty to two counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, one count of dangerous operation of a vehicle causing bodily harm and one count of failure to stop at the scene of an accident.
“It was a complete accident,” he said.