FHP report blames drivers for fatal I-75 crashes

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper works at the scene of a multi-vehicle wreck on Interstate 75 at Paynes Prairie on Jan. 29.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, August 10, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 10, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.

The Florida Highway Patrol is blaming drivers, rather than its own actions, for a series of crashes in dense smoke and fog that claimed 11 lives on Interstate 75 in January.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation had faulted FHP actions and policies in the decision to close and then reopen I-75 before the Jan. 29 crashes.

While the Highway Patrol says it plans to improve its training and policies, the report concluded that changes recommended by FDLE wouldn't have prevented the crashes and that driver behavior contributed to the incident.

"Even if each of the recommendations made by the FDLE in its incident review were to have been present or occurred that night, it is probable the same decision would have been reached," the FHP report said. "Also, no amount of planning or policy will take the place of driver reaction to low visibility and unpredictable conditions."

Gainesville attorney Daniel Glassman, who is representing one of the drivers involved in the crashes in a possible lawsuit against the state, said drivers made mistakes but that the state had sole control over opening and closing the interstate.

"Those people that made errors, they lost their lives … they have taken responsibility, and they've suffered consequences," he said. "I think it's time for the state to accept some responsibility."

The Jan. 29 crashes are believed to be the deadliest in state history. In addition to 11 deaths, the FHP on Friday reported 46 injuries. FHP Lt. Col. Ernie Duarte said the figure is higher than earlier reports because it includes people who said they were hurt but weren't hospitalized.

Attorneys representing more than 18 victims have filed notices of intent to sue the Highway Patrol and other government agencies over the crashes. The director of the state agency overseeing the FHP said officials wouldn't comment on FHP's actions because of the threat of lawsuits.

Duarte struck a similar tone Friday.

"Our response is comprehensive, transparent, and we're going to allow it to speak for itself," he said.

Much of the Highway Patrol's report is a point-by-point response dismissing or downplaying concerns raised in FDLE's investigation, which was ordered by Gov. Rick Scott and released in April. The investigation recounted a similar series of crashes in smoke and fog on Interstate 4 in Polk County in 2008, finding that the Highway Patrol planned changes after that incident but didn't fully implement them.

Glassman said the Highway Patrol could have avoided the I-75 crashes by doing so, an issue that is again a concern with the latest set of recommendations.

"It was great on paper, but if you don't follow through with it, why bother with the paper?" Glassman said.

The Highway Patrol's report said it implemented a policy in May to more clearly identify a supervisor in charge during shifts, a problem identified in the FDLE investigation. New training has been done with about 1,500 troopers and will be completed by Oct. 31, while other policy changes will be made over the next few months, according to the report.

The report found that the decision to reopen I-75 on Jan. 29 was a "judgment call" made by the on-scene commander based on information he had on hand at the time.

"To second-guess the Incident Commander's decision based on facts unavailable to the commander is inappropriate," the report said.

FHP had closed I-75 for about 2 hours before it was reopened around 3:30 a.m. About a half-hour later, a thick mass of smoke and fog returned and led to a string of crashes that involved two dozen vehicles in the northbound and southbound lanes.

The Highway Patrol plans a public information campaign on driving in smoke and fog, according to the report. It noted that some drivers stopped in the road before the crashes on I-75, while others didn't take proper precautions and slow their speeds.

"Drivers of vehicles are responsible for adapting to roadway conditions, including weather, in accordance with Florida Statutes," the report said.

The report also cited drug and alcohol use on the part of some drivers. Two drivers have been charged with DUI, and a driver who was killed was found to have marijuana in his system, according to an investigation also released Friday.

Just one driver was lauded in the report: a woman who saw a tractor-trailer coming from behind and took evasive action.

"This driver collided instead with the guardrail, mitigating the potential damage and injuries a collision with a much larger truck may have caused," the report said.

In response to the I-4 crashes in 2008, FHP had pledged to train troopers in a weather index used to predict smoke and fog on roads. The FDLE investigation found that the Highway Patrol started the training that year but let it lapse for four years, before resuming it four days after the I-75 crashes.

FHP's response dismissed the value of the index, finding 15 examples in the region in 2012 in which the measure predicted a problem with fog that never came to pass.

Lt. John Gourley, who made the decision to reopen I-75, didn't first consult the National Weather Service about the potential for conditions to change. The Highway Patrol's report downplayed the importance of weather information.

"More often than not, the weather information provided does not substitute for visual observation of current conditions on the ground," the report said.

It also questioned a statement from Steve Letro, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service's office in Jacksonville.

Letro had told FDLE investigators that communication between troopers and forecasters could help determine whether conditions warranted road closures. The FHP claimed that was inconsistent with his statements to The Sun that the service's forecasts don't deal with conditions as localized as what happened on I-75.

Letro said Friday that the report takes his quote out of context and shows a "basic misunderstanding" of his message. The weather service can't forecast visibility for a specific location at a specific time if it doesn't know a fire is happening, he said, as was the case with the Paynes Prairie blaze.

But Letro said the service could provide troopers with real-time information about the likelihood that conditions could change.

"That's why it's important to actually talk to someone," he said.

The FDLE found that Highway Patrol traffic policies are vague and ignored in the field, including a policy on the commander in charge during major incidents. FHP started a policy May 2 to designate one supervisor per shift, according to its report.

FHP plans a number of other changes expected to be completed between next week and Nov. 16, the report said. They include new training in road closures and requirements to monitor roads while they're closed because of low visibility as well as after they're reopened.

The FDLE investigation also had found that FHP wrongly dismissed the Paynes Prairie fire from its computer system before the crashes. The FHP report said that didn't matter, as the Highway Patrol later learned of the fire and consequently increased its staffing to eight from two.

The FDLE's investigation also found that FHP failed to monitor the roadway after it was reopened. Two troopers left the interstate, and two others were in rest areas at the time conditions were deteriorating, according to the investigation.

FHP's response disputed the finding. It reported that one trooper drove through the area during a seven-minute period before the crashes, while Alachua County Sheriff's Office and Florida Department of Transportation responders also were on scene.

No troopers have been disciplined in connection with the crashes. FDLE recommended an investigation into discrepancies in statements by the lieutenant who reopened the interstate and a sergeant who questioned the decision, but the Office of the Inspector General couldn't find any independent witnesses to provide further information.

FDLE also recommended that the Department of Transportation install computerized message boards in the Paynes Prairie area. FDOT plans to do so but is waiting for studies that likely will delay the work from being completed until next summer.

In its report, FHP recommends that FDOT install variable speed signs and additional lighting in the area.

But the FHP report also downplayed problems with fog and smoke in that area. It cited a Department of Transportation study that found fog was a factor in just three of the 276 crashes that happened on I-75 in the Paynes Prairie area from 2008 to 2010, and smoke wasn't involved in any of those crashes.

A University of Florida study found 0.11 percent of the 1.3 million traffic crashes that happened in the state from 2008 to 2011 involved fog or smoke, according to the report. FHP argued that driver behavior was a bigger issue than weather.

"Nationally, driver behaviors are the leading cause of traffic crashes, while environment conditions, such as smoke and fog, contribute to only a small percentage of traffic crashes," the report said. "Several crash causal behaviors including impaired driving and drowsy driving are most prevalent during the nighttime hours, when driver attention tends to be lowest."

The report also claimed "that although visibility was drastically reduced, the area was passable when drivers reduced speed and carefully navigated the area."

That statement is contradicted in the Highway Patrol's own investigation of the crashes, also released Friday, which includes drivers reporting visibility of three feet or less. One driver described conditions as "nothing but white" and said she had "never been in anything that thick, ever."

Glassman said driver error was a factor in the crashes but that the state hasn't taken responsibility for its actions in responding to conditions that morning.

"Certainly the state can't control if there's a fire, and they can't control if there's fog," he said. "But they can control how they deal with it."

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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