Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Get that $*#% thing off the road!

Post by Brian O'Neill on June 3, 2013 at 8:35 am with 5 Comments »
June 4, 2013 1:20 pm

In the years before the new Narrows bridge forever changed the commute, rush hour was a daily misery. Worse, when a nasty accident blocked the bridge deck it meant panicked phone calls, grinding teeth and a lot of cursing.

The recipe is the same everywhere – take one traffic chokepoint, add a blocking collision, and the result is miles of backup,  flaring tempers and imploding schedules. This effect can domino into huge financial implications for drivers, their workplace and local businesses.

A jackknifed semi is towed away/ courtesy
A jackknifed semi is towed away/ courtesy

Such an event occurred last week when thousands of motorists endured an eight hour closure of southbound I-5 after a Fedex truck (driven by a Tacoma man- why did he have to be from Tacoma?) jackknifed and caught fire almost directly under the Seattle Convention Center (Trib 5/29). The blame for this crash should be placed squarely on Fedex and the driver, but the lengthy wait is something else entirely.

Why did it take eight hours for the State Patrol, Department of Transportation workers and tow truck drivers to clean the mess and get traffic flowing again?

There are only a few reasons for an extended lane closure following an accident: a  lengthy police investigation, a complex debris situation or a difficult motorist extraction. Since the latter is an absolute necessity, let’s discuss the other two.

Serious injuriy or fatal accidents are extensively investigated, often using real measurements, photos and evidence collection to reverse engineer the crash. This time-consuming process is necessary to prosecute subsequent vehicular assault or homicide charges.

Yet when one compares that priority to the real potential for further collisions – rubberneckers have been crashing since the advent of the car – as well as the cascading economic, social and environmental consequences of hours long delays, the relative importance of a lengthy and painstaking investigation rapidly diminishes.

The other reason for the delay is cleaning up the mess. The Washington State Patrol trooper on the scene is responsible for orchestrating a smooth and timely return to the normal traffic flow by calling in tow drivers, emergency flaggers and vehicles, heavy removal equipment, etc. As an agency, the Patrol can do a better job of resetting traffic.

While individual troopers and local police officers are well trained for the job, when they arrive at collision scenes their actions are based on protocol hammered into them by leaders who place a higher priority on diligent investigation than on traffic flow. The result is a driving public with an almost fatalistic acceptance of the seemingly endless delays that follow collisions on major roadways.

This is not to say that every collision needs to be swept aside at maximum speed. Instead, it means that a better, more proactive and efficient system for investigating and clearing accident scenes should be developed.

It is no surprise that mammoth rigs roam Washington’s highways and interstates, and that these rigs occasionally run into things. When said object is attached to an essential part of the region’s traffic flow – say, an aging bridge in Mount Vernon or a jersey barrier in downtown Seattle – the public safety response should demonstrate a “We knew this was going to happen and we’re ready for it” attitude.

This would require the collective wisdom and ingenuity of traffic engineers, transportation experts, road repair crews, tow drivers and, of course, the State Patrol. With the mission of more efficient accident response and better traffic management, this is a task force that could make broad changes to a broken traffic model.

With aging roads built for a fraction of today’s vehicular traffic, the motoring public needs this type of change now more than ever. Think about that the next time you see brake lights flash in front of you and traffic grinds to a halt.

Leave a comment Comments → 5
  1. What about hot dog roasts by the side of the freeway and just letting
    the bicycles through? When such things get discussed I’m glad that
    I’ve chosen not to drive a car.

  2. Interesting article. For a police officer, Brian shows a remarkable lack of understanding of what is involved in investigating and clearing a major collision from the roadway. The process becomes more involved when it concerns large commercial trucks. If, as I’m sure he will claim, he really does understand what all the aspects of investigating collisions and clearing the resulting carnage, perhaps he could offer some suggestions on how to streamline the process rather than just complaining like an uninformed drone.

  3. Brian O'Neill says:

    RyanA – thanks for your comment, which I will attempt to answer (hopefully minus the drone).

    As a former traffic officer, I have investigated or assisted on many major collisions – that includes collisions in which troopers have shut down.

    I have also traveled and seen how other agencies – both here and in abroad – prepare for, and respond to, major incidents, such as: posting tow trucks at choke points during rush hour decreases response time; ensuring that other essential road clearing machinery is available on a 24 hour basis; planning for unexpected catastrophic traffic incidents and training responders to better prioritize.

    Since I was not there, I can not honestly say that better planning or more rapid response could have cut down on the 8 hours it took to clear the Fedex truck off I-5 last week, but that was just one example. I maintain that WSP must reprioritize their investigations in favor of clearing the roadway when it leads to massive backups. It is simply not worth the risk and the cost.

  4. I’m not sure where you were assigned as a traffic officer, but I don’t really care and it’s not germain to the conversation. For the most part, this is a non-issue: fatality collisions are, fortunately, rare and most are cleared in just a few hours. Even you will have to admit an eight hour shutdown is exceedingly rare, which should tell us there was something different about this one.

    As a cop for 24 years, a motor cop for the last 13 and a commercial vehicle enforcement officer for the last 6 of those, I have worked trained and worked with collision investigators from many agencies including WSP. Every one of us is very aware of the inconvenience and impact to commuters when we have to shut down a roadway and we strive to get the roads open as quickly as possible while conducting a thorough investigation. Our families use these same roads, too, and we know what it’s like to sit in traffic for hours.

    Staging tow trucks is a good idea, but someone has to pay for those trucks and drivers to just sit there for hours on the off chance a collision will occur. Meanwhile, those trucks are not available for other roadside emergencies that come up on surface streets. Everythhing is a trade-off. When investigating a major collision, we try to organize things so that multiple tasks are accomplished simultaneously. We call for tow trucks a little before we are ready to have vehicles removed so the tow driver is not wasting a lot of time on-scene and so there is no delay when we are reaady for the vehicles to be removed.

    Almost all collisions are the result ofthe actions or inactions of at least one of the involved parties. Sometimes that activity is criminal in and of itself, such as DUI. Sometimes the causal activity is not criminal, but merely an infraction (such as texting while driving), that is raised to a criminal level when it results in a collison in which someone is injured or killed. Do we, as police officers, not owe it to the victims and their families to conduct a thorough investigation so the responsible party can be held responsible? Are you suggesting that because the crime involves a motor vehicle and a public roadway that clearing the roadway should be the primary concern of law enforcement? That we should shortcut our investigations to allow suspects to not be prosecuted in the first place or get off on technicalities so as not to inconvenience the motoring public? Is that what you mean by “training responders to better prioritize”?

  5. Brian O'Neill says:

    I appreciate your experience, Ryan, though I do not believe it was necessary to describe a job you and I already know so well. You did, however, get right to the heart of the problem: prioritization.

    When we respond to a bank robbery and shut the bank down for several hours, it serves an imminent public safety concern. It does inconvenience a few people during that time, but that simply can not be equated to the catastrophic loss of money and the potentially hazardous consequences of shutting a freeway down (or causing a huge backup after shutting down a few lanes). As law enforcement professionals, we have a duty to the public which requires good judgment and hard decisions.

    Yes, we owe a complete investigation to every victim of every crime. That especially includes the victims and families of drunk drivers. My point, which I’ll make yet again, is that the responsibility to the public at large can, in special circumstances, outweigh the need to conduct a thorough and complete investigation. The purist may not see this, but the pragmatist has no choice. When this column ran in print there was an overwhelming agreement by the driving public on this point.

    Again, I’m not talking about an inconvenience. This is about the risks of secondary collisions, legitimate emergencies and cascading financial loss from the rare collisions that transform our roadways into parking lots.

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