Viral Social Media Post Falsifies Crash Details, Blames Victims

Michael GrossmanOctober 17, 2016 7 minutes

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes auto accidents are simply an acceptable hazard of driving to and fro. It may be a necessary evil to spend time behind the wheel, but the road holds many dangers. Some of them are environmental, certainly--weather conditions, road quality, loose debris--but drivers themselves are responsible for many of the biggest concerns while traveling. While it brings us no joy, we have ourselves reported on hazards like drunk driving, poorly-stowed personal belongings, and poorly-maintained cars all being responsible for injury, and even death.

Certainly I'd never claim that drivers intentionally put others at risk. I'm only contending that a variety of factors, including drivers themselves, can be responsible for crashes, and when investigating such incidents it's important to get the facts.

Something I recently read reminded me of all this: In mid-September, a story circulated through social media indicating that a silver Chevrolet Suburban had recklessly changed lanes into the path of a semi-truck. The resultant crash was fatal for the SUV's occupants (allegedly including a child), and the photos of the scene were accompanied by captions suggesting the Suburban's driver was responsible for the collision. Attendant with this "information" was some proselytizing about a driver's responsibility to give truckers plenty of space and watch the road more carefully.

Unfortunately, the facts delivered on social media were inaccurate, as the wreck did not occur as described. Perhaps more harmfully, the blame was shifted by these "armchair analysts" to the operator of the personal vehicle, which does not appear to have been the case.

Separating Fact from Fiction

These are the photos of the scene that were making the rounds. Please excuse the somewhat-graphic nature of the photos, but it is important to convey how the scene appeared to responders.

Sep 2016 accident scene
Main picture: A wider angle of the scene and two involved semi-trucks. Inset: The personal vehicle destroyed in the crash.

The version of events circulated on Facebook and Twitter suggested a number of things about the crash that were false, according to official investigators. One Facebook user's commentary about the photos ran as follows:

"The space in front of a semi was put there by the driver to have a safety cushion, not for your convenience to slide on in there. I hope all my friends see/read this, and think twice next time before you want to cut off a big truck. Your funeral could be next."

Another user that shared the same photo indicated that the "Chevy Suburban jumped in front of the truck at last minute" and the crash killed everyone in the vehicle, including "a 2 month old baby." Following that was an injunction to friends and neighbors to observe the rules of the road and give truck drivers a wide berth.

News outlets picked up on the "story" as it went viral, with at least one reinforcing the message of extra caution around big-rigs:

Sadly, two people in the pickup truck lost their lives in the collision. It's a gruesome photo, but an important reminder to give big trucks room on the road.

The post was shared more than 3,200 times, just hours after it was posted on Facebook. Even if it makes just one motorist stop and rethink the way they drive around trucks, then it's worth sharing.

While this message of mindfulness isn't wrong, the information that led to it is flawed. Investigation revealed that the course of events significantly differed from what was suggested in these posts.

Firstly, the crash involved a silver pickup truck, not a Chevrolet Suburban. As the crash's details go, that one may seem fairly minor, but if basic objective details are wrong, that speaks strongly as to the credibility of the whole report. I am also relieved to report that no children were present in the passenger vehicle. The crash proved tragically fatal to the pickup's two occupants (Larry Donnell Adams, 53, of Benton, LA and the passenger, Peggy O'Neal, 51, of Bossier City, LA), but the reports of a child or baby in the vehicle are mistaken.

The sequence of events depicted in those social media blurbs is also different from that depicted in the Facebook posts. Investigators from the Georgia State Highway Patrol indicate that a tractor-trailer lost control on eastbound Interstate 20, colliding with the back of another 18-wheeler at a high speed. The second truck was pushed forward into the pickup truck, crushing it. The second semi-truck's momentum was not entirely stopped by the collision with the pickup and it moved forward, colliding with a third semi-truck that went on to hit a fourth. Indeed, it appears the pickup truck's driver was only guilty of attempting to share the road with a series of 18-wheelers, as there was no evidence of recklessness on his part. Those spreading the idea that the fatally-injured driver "jumped in front of the truck at the last minute" do him a disservice.

Of course I am well aware that "Don't trust social media for news" is hardly novel, but it's important to repeat often, much like "Never read the comments." These are lessons all Internet users know but chronically forget, and the idea that these photos were shared over 3,000 times and reported by the news with incorrect information is evidence that the lessons bear repeating ad infinitum.

Beyond the etiquette of social media, though, there's a real-world implication here that needs addressing: Truckers are often responsible for accidents on the road, and pretending that only personal vehicles need to exercise caution on the road isn't really looking at the big, 40-ton picture.

Truck Drivers Are Absolutely Responsible for Their Driving.

More disturbing than the incorrect details of this specific accident is the inherent suggestion that truckers are blameless when it comes to accidents. "Think twice next time before you want to cut off a big truck" doesn't suggest much responsibility on the part of big-rig drivers, when they in fact should be exercising substantially greater caution than normal motorists.

The average personal vehicle weighs approximately 5,000 pounds. That's still hefty, of course, and it should be treated with caution and respect during operation. However, a commercial tractor-trailer weighs in the neighborhood of 80,000 pounds. At 16 times the weight of a normal passenger-class vehicle, it stands to reason that one of these big-rigs requires greater care to drive. The government seems to agree with this assessment, because operation of a commercial vehicle requires a special license and many hours of training. Furthermore, to participate in interstate transport out of Texas, a company must insure its drivers for $1 million worth of liability coverage, suggesting they are entirely aware of how much wreckage a runaway rig can cause.

Like everyone else on the road (until the robots finally take over), truck drivers are human. They have the same smartphones, radio settings, food and drinks, and road rage as any conventional distracted driver, but housed in a bigger and more dangerous box. They also have dispatch radios to keep track of, and often need to consult either physical or electronic maps to stay on course. More than that, if they're hauling freight then they're probably on a tight deadline. They are often expected to make interstate trips in as little time as possible, and many times their payment is contingent on a swift delivery. This can lead to some questionable choices, including driving while extremely fatigued or abusing caffeine (or worse, amphetamines) in an effort to remain alert for extra hours behind the wheel. Some are inadequately trained, and others may not have been appropriately screened for any history of prior driving citations, including violations for substance abuse. Much of this traces back to their employers; some trucking firms have questionable hiring and dispatch practices.

70 percent of U.S. interstate freight traffic is done via tractor-trailers; in 2014, this amounted to over $700 billion in industry revenue. Accident statistics have shown that in two-car wrecks between 18-wheelers and passenger vehicles, the truck is the cause of one third of cases. Neither side is absolved of responsibility, of course, but to chide motorists about not avoiding tractor-trailers is to suggest that truckers cannot be responsible for poor driving of their own.

Nobody is Automatically Guilty. Justice Will Be Served.

Looking at what I've written so far, I have a feeling it looks like I want to blame truckers all the time, regardless of the accident. It would be hypocritical to say that private motorists should always have the benefit of the doubt if I'm saying that truckers should not. Nobody gets a free pass. Every motorist is responsible for his or her behavior, and while I cannot agree with the idea that everyone recklessly plays chicken with tractor-trailers, nor do I believe that semi-trucks are relentless death-engines driven by madmen.

Evidence, not anyone's opinion, is the real arbiter of truth. Crashes happen for all kinds of reasons, and no one is liable until their liability is proven. Private motorists and commercial truckers are entitled to the same due process. We don't distinguish between their Constitutional entitlements any more than we do between those of surgeons and rodeo clowns.

Things can get slightly skewed during preliminary crash investigation, because often a wreck between a semi-truck and a passenger car ends in fatal injury for the driver of the smaller vehicle. With only the trucker's testimony available, the available narrative can depart from the strictest truth. This is not a mark against the trucker, or an implication that a cover-up takes place; it's our natural inclination to tell a story that makes us look good. Like I said, truckers are human, and that means telling the details of the accident from a certain point of view in which a car might have "come from nowhere." A complete investigation is often needed to determine where perspective may have diverted slightly from fact.

When you want news, do not go to social media. Visit a reputable news source; their reporting is not always going to be impeccable, but there is significantly less chance it has been altered or doctored. For opinions about the news, there is absolutely no shortage of them available virtually anywhere on the Internet. Sometimes they're innocuous; I, for instance, cannot stand candy corn. Others are considerably more toxic; you are welcome to visit Breitbart for examples, though I will not link to them here.

The Electronic Age has also provided us all with everything we need to digest information, turn it to opinions, and resubmit it to the Web as "facts" that better serve our purposes. Some people (like our "reporters" above) are only too happy to take tragedy and appropriate it to preach their own messages. I don't disagree with their core notion of "be careful on the road," of course, but I don't believe telling lies to achieve such a simple end was particularly necessary.

The manipulation of tragedy will always turn my stomach.