The Florida Highway Patrol has come out swinging against the highly critical report published by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in April regarding the series of fatal crashes on the I-75 stretch of Paynes Prairie. Mainstream media outlets bludgeoned the FHP over what the press saw as mistakes in the Patrol’s smoke/fog response on January 29, 2012. Six crashes involved 24 vehicles, resulting in 11 deaths and 46 reported injuries.
In the wake of mounting criticism and 13 wrongful death lawsuits against it, the FHP investigated and published its own report of the incident response, which involved not only the FHP, but the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Fire Rescue, Florida Department of Transportation, and Florida Forest Service.
In its defense, FHP mitigates the finger-pointing by noting that in addition to the requested presence of other agencies and closure of the road, six additional troopers and a shift commander were called to Paynes Prairie that night. The decision to reopen I-75 was made by the on-scene shift commander, Lt. John Gourley.
Back in April, I aired out my opinion that the driver of a vehicle is ultimately responsible for its safe travel. The FHP Report echos this:
“The FDLE report addresses the policy, procedures and training relative to this event. Driver behavior, which was not addressed, contributed to the crashes. Drivers of vehicles are responsible for adapting to roadway conditions, including weather, in accordance with Florida Statutes. The investigations of the crashes that occurred during the 4:00 AM hour determined that the smoke rapidly reduced visibility and, in response, some drivers stopped in the roadway. Despite the presence of Fog/Smoke warning signs, some drivers did not take proper precautions and slow their speeds to prepare for reduced visibility. This reaction to environmental conditions warrants additional outreach for driver awareness. Also, drug/alcohol use was confirmed on the part of several of the drivers.”
I am certainly sensitive to the tragic nature of the crashes. At the same time, an objective assessment of such a series of multi-vehicle collisions must hold the drivers responsible for their actions. The FDLE report did not do this. The MSM seized upon the FDLE report to vilify the FHP.
I’m glad to the the Highway Patrol clear the air. Unfortunately, the damage was done and the perception that law enforcement agencies can predict and prevent all tragedies was reinforced by a skewed investigation, ignorant news articles, and an abdicated sense of personal responsibility.