The multi-vehicle series of crashes that took place in Florida recently brought national attention to a most serious question. It’s one that must be looked at carefully by public officials. The question is: When should the government shut down a major highway in bad weather? There are a number of occurrences that can be bad enough to cause a major highway to be shut down. Whether it’s a dust storm in Arizona, a whiteout in Maine or wildfire in Florida, the call for a shut down of a highway usually rests with local officials. Unfortunately, in some cases, they have little, if any, written guidelines to follow. In many cases, officials rely on what officers at the scene are seeing — or what they can’t see — when they make the decision.
The multi-vehicle crashes in Florida have received tremendous media attention. They occurred on a foggy, smoke-filled stretch of Interstate 75 in Gainesville, which was closed in both directions for three hours early on January 29th. Shortly after troopers decided to reopen the highway, cars slammed into tractor-trailers on both sides of the interstate in two pileups that killed ten people.
Florida officials said they were willing to review their protocols. The Florida Highway Patrol, however, was quick to point out that conditions can change in an instant and that motorists must be prepared to quickly make good decisions. Federal transportation agencies have never issued guidelines on when to close roads due to fog, fires or dust storms. Neither national groups representing insurance companies, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration nor the National Transportation Safety Board have ever had such a policy. As reported, the NTSB is investigating the Gainesville crash.
Florida is vulnerable to smoky roads since it has one of the nation’s most active prescribed fire programs. It has a 16-item checklist for “smoke/fog incidents” that is part of a larger 28-page policy manual for Florida Highway Patrol shift commanders. Closing a road, which can be costly for tractor-trailers shipping goods, is decided by a supervisor who consults with troopers at the scene. But any patrolman can make the call if there is imminent danger, according to Capt. Mark Brown, chief of the patrol’s media relations. In the I-75 pileup, a district lieutenant based in Gainesville, who was the supervisor at the scene, made the decision. A day earlier, a different spokesman said a sergeant and lieutenant determined after about three hours that conditions had cleared enough for drivers. Capt. Brown had this to say:
We rely on the members on the ground, and their physical presence, people who are actually there — their feedback. The person that can actually see what is going on.
Troopers also use information and forecasts from the National Weather Service. One key piece of information is an index estimating the humidity and smoke dispersion on a scale of one to ten. If the score is seven or higher, the road should be closed. The index score for the early morning hours on January 29th had been forecast to be six in a four-county region that includes the crash area, according to the National Weather Service.
The Low Visibility Occurrence Risk Index was introduced to Florida troopers following a deadly crash in 2008 on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa, about 125 miles south of the latest pileup. Four people were killed and 38 injured in that crash, which was caused by heavy smoke and fog. “The index was added to get a more scientific approach to decision-making than what was used before,” according to Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman based in the Tampa area. More than anything, he says that troopers rely on the conditions they are seeing.
Source: Associated press
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