No One Is Above Traffic Laws, So Learn and Abide By Them.

Michael GrossmanJanuary 19, 2018 4 minutes

I work in an industry that continually sees the worst consequences of reckless driving, and for all my exposure to these cases, I am still utterly confused as to how they occur. Surely few people truly believe they're justified in running red lights or whipping in and out of traffic lanes, but it happens every day. None of the usual "reasons" for this selfish negligence are acceptable given the loss of life quality (or life itself) that so often results from it.

It makes me angrier every time I encounter a new story. For example, a recent report I read about an apparently-careless trucker in Oklahoma thoroughly ground my gears.

What Happened?

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol identified 55-year-old Calumet resident Clay Comer as the victim in an accident near El Reno on December 28, 2017.

The incident occurred at approximately 5:20 p.m. at the intersection of State Route 66 and US Highway 270.

OHP officials stated that Mr. Comer came to a full stop at the 4-way intersection. As he started to cross the road, he was struck by a southbound 18-wheeler driven by 55-year-old Jerry Barnett, who had "failed to yield" at his stop sign.

Barnett's big rig crashed into the driver's side of Comer's vehicle. Comer sustained fatal injuries from the collision and died at the scene.

No charges or citations have been reported, but additional factors (speed, intoxication) haven't been specifically ruled out.

No Need to Sugarcoat What Happened.

Based on the few details that are available at this point a lot of what I can say is only speculative. After all, there might be some legitimate reason that a trucker barreled into an intersection and fatally struck the vehicle of a law-abiding motorist.

With that said, I don't see any reason we need to water down the language of the incident by saying Barnett "failed to yield." This may just be a pet peeve of mine, but call it what it was--running a stop sign. Failure to yield is a non-criminal citation issued when one driver doesn't respect another's right-of-way, mostly in situations where both their vehicles are in motion. In a technical sense, it applies to the El Reno accident since Barnett didn't respect Mr. Comer's right-of-way, but it waters down the offense in question.

Nobody needs to think that an 80-ton truck innocently inched away from a stop sign and dinged a passenger car, and language like "failed to yield" encourages such an impression. A man was mortally injured because another one ignored the law for unknown reasons, and it's disrespectful of the press to euphemize.

How Could That Have Happened?

It's hammered into our heads long before we ever get behind the wheel: when two drivers approach a four-way intersection, the first one to stop there has the right of way. Before we were taught that piece of driving etiquette, though, we learned a more basic principle: Stop at a darn stop sign.

I acknowledge the investigation might turn up unpredictable details that justify running a stop sign, but defense attorneys face quite an uphill struggle given the preliminary fact pattern outlined by the police. I suspect one or more of a few common possibilities will come to light by the time the investigation is complete:

  • While they're still the statistical minority, far too many truckers drive under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. We see a high volume of cases all across the U.S. where 18 wheelers are seen weaving erratically in the lanes and causing major crashes. The word "intoxication" often ends up on the police reports filed in those wrecks, and it's not referring to the victims.

    I have to assume truckers drink to stave off boredom on long trips. Nobody could realistically think it improves their driving, but some seem to believe they're "fine" behind the wheel despite their high BAC. That kind of thinking is dangerous and stupid, meaning it fits nicely into the general drunk-driving mindset.

    As for drugs, a variety of stimulants from caffeine (100% legal) to cocaine and amphetamines (0% legal) keep truckers awake past their natural limits on long hauls. Unfortunately, they also affect concentration and often have severe physiological effects. It's well known and yet time and again truckers at wrecks are found to be heavily drugged.

  • While the vast majority of truckers don't drive drunk or stoned, there's still the occasional case where someone is simply too exhausted to pay proper attention to his surroundings. With a brain going haywire from lack of sleep, it's a lot harder to watch for lane markings and posted traffic signs.

    "Drowsy driving" may seem less morally objectionable than DWI, but it's still within a driver's control to avoid it. More than that, federal regulations say truckers aren't allowed to be on duty for more than 15 straight hours without taking an 8-hour break. A 15-hour day is still very long, of course, but it's clear from the reports of drivers pushing for 25+ nonstop hours that the rules were created for everyone's safety.

  • The cause can be something more immediate. A trucker can be sober and awake and all it takes is a brief distraction to make him miss something critical (like a stop sign). Glancing at his phone, changing the radio station, or consulting a map at the wrong time would have been enough to take his eyes off the road at a crucial moment.

  • There are plenty of possible causes for the crash based on the common ones we see all the time, but you get the idea.

    Get With the Program Already, Lawbreakers.

    Barring completely uncontrollable circumstances, there's virtually no excuse for not obeying traffic controls. We don't cherry-pick which ones to observe, and we can't afford to treat them like mere suggestions. Law-abiding citizens drive within the speed limit, change lanes with signals, and stop when they're bloody well told too. No matter how remote an area you're driving in, it's never safe or legal to decide it's "probably okay" to ignore a stop sign or a light. That goes double--triple--for professional drivers.

    If that just sounds preachy because "everybody knows that," then why do we keep seeing victims like Clay Comer? Everybody should know the basic rules of the road, sure, but every day sees tragedies from ignored stop signs, intoxicated driving, and all manner of reckless road behavior. We come down on truckers hardest for that because they're trained professionals, but everybody who has turned a key in a vehicle has the same obligation to society at large: Drive like someone's life depends on it.