Who’s Going to Investigate A Semi Truck Crash? Maybe Not Who You Think.

Michael GrossmanJanuary 12, 2018 5 minutes

When an accident happens, who's the proper authority to investigate? Check the comments sections of news articles about the wreck and you'll find no shortage of armchair authorities who think they know exactly "who you gonna call." Their ideas on that are often wrong, but they'll treat them as the gospel truth when discussing the crash.

I hate to pick on these folks, but I see this sort of thing all the time after a serious accident: In his rush to look smart, so-and-so incorrectly fingers thus-and-such agency as the one that is sure to deliver justice. In fact, I ran across exactly this kind of misunderstanding while scrolling through reader comments about a recent 18-wheeler accident in West Texas.

What Happened?

In late December, an multi-vehicle accident in El Paso took two lives on Interstate 10 East.

El Paso police investigators said that a large construction vehicle was parked in the center median between Interstate 10's eastbound and westbound lanes, near the Americas Avenue exit. On the unmanned vehicle was a large conveyor belt--four feet of which protruded into the inside lane of eastbound I-10.

From the scene: Picture of the conveyor belt hanging into the lanes of traffic.

Just after 2 a.m. a Peterbilt semi-truck with a tanker trailer hit a glancing blow on the conveyor arm, damaging the driver's side mirror. The driver pulled the truck onto the shoulder and exited to survey the damage.

Shortly after, a 2017 Freightliner semi-trailer also hit the conveyor arm, much harder than the first truck had. The construction equipment pierced the Freightliner's cab, killing the driver, 24-year-old Patrick Van Fossen. The conveyor arm continued through the cab's sleeper berth, killing Van Fossen's passenger and new fiancée Keserie Paredes, 22.

The Freightliner continued east, striking a Jeep Compass in the outside lane. The Jeep then ran into the trailer of the first truck--the one that broke a mirror. No other injuries were reported beyond the two fatalities.

It's Not 100% Clear Who's Responsible.

Readers flocked to the comments to give their two cents. Some offered condolences for the pair who died that night, but others took it upon themselves to dissect the accident, trying to decide whom to blame.

Most commenters seem to believe that authorities will find JAR Construction, the contracted firm working at the job site, at fault. A few seemed to believe the trucker might be to blame for not noticing the conveyor arm. Regardless, though, most seemed to agree that some investigatory body (opinions varied on which one) needed to take a closer look, pronto. On that I agree with them; many accidents are not what they appear to be at first glance.

For example: Like many others, I initially blamed a careless construction worker for not properly securing the conveyor arm at quitting time, but realistically even the most feckless employee probably wouldn't have just left it dangling over a traffic lane like that. What else could it be? Trespassers might have entered the empty site, but I don't think they'd be able to start or move the machinery. Maybe an equipment malfunction, then? Some suggested that the vehicle's hydraulic systems might have leaked, which would let the conveyor gradually swing into harm's way. If JAR Construction rented the faulty conveyor rig from a supplier then its dangerous positioning that night might not be JAR's fault.

So who's going to find the truth? The answer, despite the claims of people who think they know it, isn't clear.

No Agency Will Investigate This Right.

Regardless of what the investigation might turn up, who should conduct it in the first place? Readers suggested several groups, but none of them seem like the best choice for a thorough inquiry:

  • Police: In typical auto accidents, local police responders do a basic analysis and draw up an understood timeline of events that they use to determine further actions. Things seldom escalate beyond a standard crash report, and it's rare to call a detective out to an accident site unless there are clear signs of foul play. Police are almost guaranteed to show up at an accident, and in that way they're helpful than some other options. They certainly provide crucial support, but if they're the sole investigatory body there's a chance some details will be overlooked.

    While I don't want to undermine the importance of local law enforcement, traffic officers are a fairly basic response unit and reconstructing complicated wrecks may be a little out of their depth. I have no doubt they do everything they can with the resources they have, but in many cases they settle for the easiest plausible explanation without asking too many questions.

  • OSHA: I get why some people thought OSHA should conduct the El Paso inquiry: The crash involved a construction site, and OSHA is often referenced when talking about work accidents. However, OSHA would be more likely to take a role if Joe Hardhat was hurt while working at the site, rather than a trucker being killed while driving past it.

    OSHA's agents are code compliance officers, inspecting workplaces for hazards and fining employers who put their workers at risk. They're checklist jockeys, if highly necessary ones. The agency doesn't really get involved in personal injury or wrongful death cases, and it rarely investigates trucking accidents unless the trucker's employer already has a laundry list of other safety infractions. They're important for keeping workplaces honest, but their investigations wouldn't do much to help the victims of the El Paso crash.

  • NTSB: The National Transportation Safety Board might at first glance seem like a shoo-in to look more deeply into the El Paso crash. Their agency is responsible for "civil transportation accident investigation," and among the plane, train, and bus crashes they often investigate, they sometimes look into commercial truck accidents too.

    As an investigatory body the NTSB works differently than OSHA; when it comes to finding what caused a truck accident, I know which one I'd bet on. However, the comprehensiveness of the NTSB's investigations means that they only deal in a handful of them each year. Their services are used in situations that cost numerous lives, like airplane crashes and train wrecks, so they are extremely selective when committing their time and resources. Moreover, they take a very long time to close a file, which isn't always helpful for crash victims. Every state's statute of limitations starts to run from the time of the crash, and sometimes the NTSB's working pace can cut things pretty close if a victim wants to use their findings as evidence in a lawsuit.

  • So there you have it: Police won't dig deep enough, OSHA's unconcerned with traffic investigations, and the NTSB's glacial pace and picky case selection makes them unreliable. Where do we turn, then?

    An independent investigation conducted by a contracted party is often one of the best ideas for uncovering the real truth of a crash. A hired third-party investigator is generally better trained in accident analysis than a given municipal or state police officer, focused on helping their clients rather than fining an employer like OSHA, and works a lot more quickly than the NTSB.

    Wrapping Up

    All this may seem like unnecessary nit-picking when people are just trying to claim authority on a topic via an Internet comments section, but seeing it over and over again on accident news reminds me that a lot of people don't really know what some investigatory bodies actually do. Bureaucracy by its nature is complex, as is the law it administers, so it's best for everyone to be as informed as possible.