Just last month I wrote a column on work-zone safety that included information on a crash that took place on I-40 near Jackson, TN, a few years ago. Since then, two things have taken place relating to that accident.
First, Clifford Engum, the driver of the truck, was sentenced to six years for vehicular homicide and an additional two years for aggravated assault. Second, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released it official report.
An NTSB press release and newspaper accounts indicated that the crash, which claimed the life of a Tennessee State trooper, occurred when Engum failed to slow down when he approached a highway resurfacing project. Engum's vehicle rear-ended the trooper's car, which was positioned about 600 ft. back from the repaving operation.
The patrol car is said to have exploded on impact before being pushed about 190 ft. out onto the median. The truck continued on through the median and into the westbound lanes, where it collided with another vehicle, finally stopping in a wooded area off the shoulder of the road.
NTSB reported the probable cause of the accident as: “…the driver's incapacitation, owing to the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove a medically unfit driver from service. Contributing to this accident were the lack of planning and coordination between the Tennessee DOT, its contractors, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol regarding work zone projects; the lack of traffic control training, specific to highway work zone operations, provided to Tennessee Highway Patrol officers; and the failure of the Tennessee DOT and its contractors to protect all work zone personnel and road users.”
Engum is apparently a long-time sufferer of “obstructive sleep apnea,” which has gone essentially untreated for a number of years. Complicating that is hypothyroidism, a condition often associated with sleep apnea, which can cause diminished tendon reflexes, fatigue, sluggishness, and mental slowing or “dazed” states.
This is a prime example of inadequate driver oversight. I've criticized NTSB's level of diligence in documenting driver oversight issues before. But since the full report is not yet available, for now I'd like to focus on the work zone safety lessons of this incident.
The preliminary report criticizes both the Tennessee DOT and the Tennessee Highway Patrol for inappropriate work zone management. The contractor had intended for its workers to remain on the shoulder, since their work that day was confined to milling “rumble strips” about one foot off the traveled portion of the highway.
However, the Highway Patrol officers misinterpreted the contractor requirements (the contractor requested only a shoulder closure) and closed the eastbound lane using just their flashing lights. But protocol for a lane closure requires much more extensive traffic control. Since the driver wasn't given adequate warning, he had to react quickly to a developing “non-peak”congestion condition. (See this column, June issue.)
This tragic incident demonstrates the need to provide more training in how to drive through work zones safely; heightened vigilance on the part of drivers is paramount. Unfortunately, many mistakes led to the tragic death of a highway safety officer.
That death has lead to another lawsuit that has yet to be resolved. Suits have been filed against Eck Miller Transportation — the now-defunct trucking company that employed Engum — seeking $15-million in compensatory damages and $60-million in punitive damages. Bankruptcy proceedings will no doubt complicate the final damage settlements.
I feel very strongly that this incident could have been prevented if driver oversight and training had been more diligent.
Keeping this tragic case in mind, ask yourself whether your company is satisfied with the status quo. If the answer is “no,” please take immediate steps to increase your drivers' awareness of the hazards of highway work zones.
Jim York is the manager of Zurich North America's Risk Engineering Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.