To say that the Thursday, February 11, 2021 133-car-pile-up on I-35W in Fort Worth, Texas received a lot of media coverage is an understatement. Hundreds of articles and dozens of videos of the incident litter the internet.
We know that the following people died in the crash:
- Aaron Luke Watson, 45, Fort Worth, TX
- Tiffany Louann Gerred, 34, Northlake, TX
- Christopher Ray Vardy, 49, Boyd, TX
- Michael Henry Wells, 47, Justin, TX
- William Darrell Williams, 54, Pahoa, HI
- Tamara Fatima Mendoza Quereles, 46
Of course, the focus should be on those who lost their lives, in addition to the dozens of people who suffered serious injuries, as a result of the crash.
However, journalists and politicians quickly joined the conversation raising other concerns ranging from icy road conditions to the design of that stretch of highway. While those are important considerations, in the search for a villain, they neglect a crucial aspect of this tragedy; they ignore the most obvious possibility that some drivers were going entirely too fast for the road conditions.
What We Know About the February 11, 2021 Pile-Up in Fort Worth, TX
According to the most recent reports, the pile-up began shortly after 6:00 AM Thursday, February 11, in the toll lanes on I-35W, past the 28th Street exit. We don't yet know what triggered the crashes, but in their most recent report, authorities indicate that an initial crash spawned as many as 19 separate collisions involving 133 vehicles.
When all was said and done, the scene of these incidents stretched a mile and half, cost 6 lives, and injured dozens of others. At the time of the crash, a freezing rain fell in the area, leading to icing on that elevated stretch of highway.
While local authorities initially investigated the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (the people who usually investigate plane crashes) announced that they were taking over the inquiry, within a couple of days of the crash.
Reporters and Politicians Point Fingers in the Many Directions
With victims still stranded on the interstate, some reporters attempted to chalk the whole incident up to ice on the roadway. I watched an exchange at one press conference, where a reporter questioned a police spokesman, asking directly if authorities believe that ice caused the crash.
The police officer's response was insightful. Rather than say "ice caused this massive wreck" and call it a day, he pointed out that police departments throughout north Texas spent the prior days getting the word out that icy conditions were coming and drivers needed to slow down and increase following distances. Watching the press conference, it was difficult to come away thinking that authorities were ready to just blame the wreck on icy roadways.
Shortly after the wreck, State Representative Kelly Hancock called for a separate investigation into the de-icing procedures prior to the crash. Another State Representative, Roman Romero Jr., echoed the need to investigate de-icing, but also expressed a desire to discover why that particular stretch of highway didn't have shoulders, suggesting that poor road design may have led to the crash.
While it's certainly prudent to learn any lessons we can from this tragedy, in order to prevent loss of life in the future, it seems to me that current attempts to explain this crash try to do so in a way that completely overlooks the decisions and behavior of the drivers involved.
To be clear, I don't mean to suggest that everyone in the crash did something wrong or careless. In fact, most people probably did the best they could in a bad situation. But to properly assess responsibility for the injuries and loss of life, which resulted from this crash, we can't just ignore the actions of those who were involved, which most reporters seem more than happy to do.
Commercial Truck Drivers Abide By a Different Standard in Inclement Weather
On the day of the crash, like everywhere else in north Texas (and throughout the country), it was the major topic of conversation in our office. One particular conversation that I had with attorney Keith Purdue touched on an important consideration that it appears the media and the politicians missed, but which is vitally important to understanding what happened in Fort Worth.
I suggested to Keith that it would take a herculean effort to pinpoint which driver in all those crashes was most responsible for what happened. He replied that I was thinking incorrectly about how the law applied and that for the commercial drivers, each driver's negligence or lack thereof would be looked at individually.
Keith referred to 49 CFR Section 392.14, which imposes a duty on commercial drivers in inclement weather. Here's what the regulation says:
Let's take a moment and unpack that.
Understanding 49 CFR 392.14
Attorney Keith Purdue was kind enough to explain this regulation to me, and I think it could benefit a wider audience to know his perspective.
First, when weather conditions conditions make for hazardous roadways it triggers a duty that professional truck drivers owe to other motorists. This duty obliges truckers to slow down. If conditions are bad enough to make safe driving impossible, then drivers must stop driving altogether.
Regulators implemented 49 CFR 392.14 precisely to prevent the type of crash that we witnessed in Fort Worth. You don't need to be a physicist to know that trucks need more time to stop than other vehicles. Inclement weather exacerbates this issue. When you marry that risk to the immense damage that commercial vehicles can cause, due their size, it makes sense to impose a higher burden on the professionals who operate those vehicles.
As a practical matter, this means that each trucker on the road February 11, 2021 had an obligation, as a matter of law, to reduce their speed to whatever extent was necessary to prevent a collision. If that wasn't possible, then each driver had a duty to pull over and wait for the road conditions to improve. For that reason, it's possible that determining who set the whole chain of events into motion is irrelevant for the victims of this crash and their families, because there's a strong reason to believe that many of the truckers in this crash did not fulfill their duty under the law.
Is 49 CFR 392.14 Fair to Truckers?
I'll be perfectly frank and acknowledge that when a firm that pursues claim against negligent truck drivers talks about a law that applies only to truckers, there are people out there who will charge that we're "just out to get truck drivers."
When it comes to inclement weather, they'll also rightly point out that every driver has to a duty not to drive faster than conditions warrant. Some may argue that 49 CFR 392.14 is redundant. However, that's not quite the case, and there is a good reason why a difference remains.
First, when a person acts in a professional capacity, the law holds them to a higher standard. As attorney Keith Purdue explained to me, most of the time, the law judges our actions based upon what a reasonably prudent person would do. When someone is paid to do something professionally, whether it be to practice medicine, law, or drive a commercial vehicle, they're judged by what a reasonably prudent professional would do in similar circumstances.
For instance, if someone tells me they have a headache and I tell them to take an aspirin only to find out later that they were in the middle of a stroke, I haven't committed medical malpractice, because I'm not a doctor and reasonable people recommend aspirin all the time. However, if a doctor overlooks a sign of a more serious medical condition that any reasonably prudent doctor would see, then their aspirin advice could be malpractice and lead to legal consequences.
Leaving aside that truck drivers are paid professionals, one need only look at the videos of the crash in Fort Worth to see why a higher standard applies for truckers in inclement weather. While many of the videos begin with cars losing control on the icy roadways and crashing into one another, I've yet to see a collision between two cars in those videos that looks like it would cause serious or catastrophic injuries. On the other hand, the videos record out of control commercial vehicles colliding with other motorists, literally launching smaller vehicles into the air.
The takeaway is that we regulate truck drivers differently from other motorists because the amount of damage their vehicles can inflict when not operated properly is significantly more than what passenger cars are capable of, to say nothing of the extra training required to drive an 18-wheeler.
In short, a standard exists; there is compelling evidence to believe that it may not have been met; and perhaps dozens of upended lives resulted. You don't need a vendetta against truck drivers to want to examine that part of the story, just a common desire to explain what happened.
Moving Forward after the Fort Worth Pile-Up
Don't get me wrong, I am an "all of the above" type when it comes to improving roadway safety. If better road treatment practices can lessen the chances of a crash like this, by all means, let's do it. The same goes for safer roadway design to mitigate the damage these wrecks cause by incorporating proper shoulders into roadway design.
At the same time, the number of crashes where drivers bear no responsibility for the crash is infinitesimally small. Until we know all of the details surrounding the crash, I'll certainly keep an open mind that this might be on of those crashes. However, to question the weather, road engineers, and road treatment practices, while failing to scrutinize the actions of the drivers involved awful wreck strikes me as incredibly irresponsible.