By now most people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have heard about the I-35W crash that occurred Monday, September 11, which claimed the lives of Susana Longoria, Kiara Barker, Jasmine Jones, and Chase Mapes. The crash also left two people hospitalized.
If you missed the story, here's what officials say happened: At around 9:00 p.m. there was a minor collision on I-35W. Those involved reportedly pulled off to the shoulder, but this is where the details get sketchy: It appears that a good Samaritan saw the wreck and also pulled over to the shoulder to assist the people involved in the crash. At some point after this, an 18-wheeler crashed into the vehicles stopped on the shoulder. Soon after that second crash, another 18-wheeler collided with the pickup truck that had stopped to help with the initial accident.
In the end four people died, two were injured, and I-35W in Fort Worth was shut down in both directions for hours while authorities dealt with the aftermath of the collisions. Now, in any wreck this complex it's going to take authorities some time to figure out what happened, which is why I'm generally not one to chime in on a wreck two days after it happened. That said, there are some comments made by officials about the crash that should concern everyone paying attention to this story. In short, some remarks put out by those associated with the investigation read like officials have already picked a side, which has the potential to color their actions and opinions moving forward.
Are Officials Looking for Ways Not to Blame an 18-Wheeler Driver for This Crash?
From where I sit, the central question that must be answered by the investigation is "What caused the 18-wheeler to crash with the vehicles stopped on the shoulder?" If we're being strictly logical, one vehicle can only collide with another because the driver of the striking vehicle failed to brake in time or made an improper evasive maneuver. This leaves us trying to understand why the driver either failed to brake or steered into the other vehicles. We don't have the answer to that yet, but that hasn't stopped the media—and possibly authorities—from speculating in an irresponsible way.
For instance, I came across one report that says the vehicles from the initial crash were stopped on the shoulder "near the apex of a subtle incline." In an apparent response to questions from reporters, the police lent credence to the possibility that the truck driver may have had an obstructed view of the initial crash.
Such speculation is both premature and a stretch. For one thing, that "apex of a subtle incline" is so subtle that if you look at that stretch of highway online, it's hard to notice much of an incline at all. What's more, the cab of an 18-wheeler sits much higher off the ground than that of a passenger car. That means 18-wheeler drivers have a much better view of what's going on ahead of them than most other drivers. With that in mind, how could it be that the 18-wheeler driver had trouble seeing the crash and avoiding it, while the pickup-driving good Samaritan managed to see the crash from his lower vantage point and stop to help?
By publishing this information and phrasing it the way they do, reporters—and by extension the police who presumably agreed with them—seem to be grasping for an explanation of the crash where no one screwed up and there are no "bad guys." While it may be comforting to believe this was just an unfortunate series of events, it's also rather unlikely. The number of crashes caused by factors truly beyond the drivers' control are vanishingly small. Could this be one of them? Maybe, but one would hope that trained reporters, and more importantly trained investigators, would rule out more likely causes before they floated such an uncommon possibility in public.
If this were the only instance of those in authority attempting to blame no one for the accident, we could just chalk it up to an officer being distracted or tired at a crash scene and move on. Unfortunately, the police went further.
Are Police Blaming the Crash Victims?
Not to get too lost in the weeds, but there's a tendency among authorities and the press to mine every tragedy for "teachable moments." For example, if a mugger robs a person at the mall, invariably the news article won't just stop at providing the details of what happened in the incident, but also conclude with a "public service announcement" about how you, the reader, can avoid a similar fate.
It may just be me, but that formula strikes me as victim blaming. Authorities downplay the wrongdoer's bad behavior by saying, "Sure a bad guy did a bad thing, but if you do X, Y and Z, that bad thing won't happen to you too." It's bad enough to see that after any news story, but it's particularly irresponsible to have it at the end of an article about a horrific crash where we don't yet know all the details. It's even worse when the reporter gets to quote the police for their "public service announcement."
In one of the stories I came across about this crash that's exactly what one Fort Worth officer did. He said that the safest thing for those involved in crashes to do is to exit the interstate to exchange information after a crash. He also said it's best to pull over to the right shoulder (the victims in this crash were on the left). Further, a reporter quoted the same officer as saying that even if driving more damages your tire or rim, it's still the safest course of action. Perhaps, most absurdly, he suggested leaving the vehicle behind and exiting an interstate on foot.
From where I'm sitting, the implication of these statements in the context of this wreck is that the victims in this crash were almost asking for an 18-wheeler to hit them by not leaving the highway by vehicle or on foot (they weren't). Let's leave aside questions about how safe that advice is and focus on the fact that everyone was alive until an 18-wheeler crashed into their vehicles on the shoulder. Isn't determining why that happened what this investigation should be about, rather than making a "lesson" out of Monday's terrible events?
I realize that the reporter and officer were only trying to provide a larger context to this crash and give the public information that they could use after this crash. At the same time, does a wreck that cost four lives really need a bigger picture? That loss of life is a big enough deal in itself that we could probably dispense with the pearls of wisdom and focus solely on the facts.
The Victims' Families Deserve A Focused, Unbiased Investigation
Some might think I'm making mountains out of molehills: "What's the big deal if officers commented that a slight incline in the road may have caused a wreck, or that people can take steps after a crash to be more safe?" To those people I ask: What would you think if this was your loved one's accident?
Would you want investigators speculating or would you prefer they simply say "no comment" until they had something meaningful to contribute? Would you want authorities implying that your loved one didn't do everything they could to avoid what befell them? Of course not. For better or worse, most families that lose a loved one in a crash find themselves at the mercy of the investigating authorities to get to the truth. While radio silence may not curry favor with local reporters, only communicating facts validated through investigation is their job. It conveys the sense of impartiality vital for the public to maintain confidence not only in a particular investigation, but also in the institutions charged with conducting all investigations.
Working where I do, I regularly hear about people who believe that authorities conducted a biased investigation into their loved one's crash. Most of the time, these people are looking for someone to blame for what happened. Of course, most of the time authorities weren't publicly floating excuses for a crash that weren't backed up by evidence, as they have in this case. That's why these seemingly small remarks are a big deal.