There is no question that Florida Highway Patrol troopers had no control over the weather early that January morning last year. But what has been debated and parsed in the aftermath of the six crashes and explosions that left 11 dead and 24 injured is whether the agency’s decision to re-open the highway was the sole fatal mistake.
Our Palm Beach County personal injury lawyers remember there had been reports of a wall of dense fog, compounded by the smoke from a nearby brush fire, just outside of Paynes Prairie State Preserve. Visibility was near zero, which was the reason the highway had been closed in the first place. It had slightly improved, but a sergeant argued strongly against re-opening the road, saying if the visibility dropped there wouldn’t be enough time to close it again. However, a lieutenant, backed by transportation and forestry authorities, decided otherwise.
The two dozen-car pileup happened around 4 a.m., just minutes after that fateful call.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had cleared the agency of any criminal wrongdoing last spring, adding however that it was an undeniable error in judgment.
Now, just shy of that January 29 anniversary, the FHP has released its own report, indicating that it was not to blame, and that drivers were either fatigued or speeding or in a few cases, even impaired. The report added that some of the individuals who were killed would have been charged with DUI manslaughter, had they survived.
However, this has not deterred survivors and family members of those lost from filing notice that they plan to sue the state for negligence. We would say these cases are likely quite strong.
While the investigation found that drivers should have had enough time to react to the situation, those who were there say otherwise. As one truck driver told investigators, one moment, he could see perfectly. The next, he said, it was as if he had entered a white blanket.
Still, the agency said it has already improved additional safety measures and plans to implement more in the future. So far, it has reviewed and updated all of its road closure policies. From now on, there will be a watch supervisor over each troop who will be responsible for the final decision on such matters. Additionally, some 6,000 Florida Turnpike Enterprise radio communications members and reserve troopers were given training on road closure protocols. The agency is also teaming with state forestry officials to conduct yearly reviews of road closure procedures. Additionally, four cities known for a high number of fog incidents will be inundated with public awareness about reaction to fog.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation has allocated about $4 million to improve the road and safety conditions along the portion of the highway where the wrecks occurred. Those will include visibility sensors, more message signs, permanent closed-circuit cameras, vehicle detectors and infared cameras. Of course, it’s worth noting that the federal government has been recommending such measures on roads prone to fog for at least two decades.
It shouldn’t have taken this tragedy to make all of that a reality. But we do hope it’s effective in preventing such a horrific recurrence.
Call Freeman, Mallard, Sharp & Gonzalez — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Florida Marks I-75 Crash Anniversary; Tragedy Triggers Safety Measures, Lawsuits, Jan. 29, 2013 By Kyle Hightower, Insurance Journal
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