The day of April 26, 2019 in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colorado was marked by a horrific, multi-vehicle traffic crash that resulted in four deaths, a multitude of personal injuries to occupants of the 28 different vehicles directly or indirectly involved, the destruction of a few hundred feet of three lanes of travel on Interstate 70 and significant collision to a multitude of the many vehicles involved. Some of those vehicles, as well as the asphalt pavement surface in those three interstate lanes, were destroyed by a fire that was ignited during the collision event and gradually spread across a wide expanse of the incident area. The crash events occurred within the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 at the Denver West Blvd. interchange (Mile Marker 263).
Every local news media dispatched reporters and helicopters to thoroughly cover the multitude of activities surrounding the collision events and the aftermath of the rescue, the law enforcement investigation, the fire mitigation, as well as the recovery and clean-up tasks. Numerous eye-witnesses accounts to the collisions and to some of the heroic rescue efforts were documented and broadcast. Amateur videos related to the pre-crash movements of the out-of-control truck tractor and semi-trailer soon surfaced and were broadcast repeatedly within news coverage and within social media. It wasn’t long before the national media outlets picked up on the story, further distributing the news of the human and property devastation that had occurred. Truck crashes like this one are big news.
Due to my professional occupation as a forensic crash reconstructionist for motor carriers, insurance companies and the legal profession, I was repeatedly asked by local friends and family, as well as by colleagues from across the country, if I had been assigned to this crash investigation. I had actually traveled that exact segment of highway about an hour before the crash, while returning from a vehicle inspection and heading towards my office. The trip through Mile Marker 263 on eastbound Interstate 70 was pretty unremarkable at that point in time.
The frequent question of, "Did I get to work this crash?" caused me to pause and think that the crash reconstruction on this one was not really complex. The “who, what, when and where” questions were easily determined facts. The “how” of crash reconstruction could be summarized by the phrase, “hundreds of vehicles were stopped, or nearly stopped, and one semi didn’t stop.” It was the “why?” question that needed to be analyzed a little bit deeper. What were some of the root causes and contributing factors that may have unintentionally assembled to create ”the perfect storm” that played out on this urban interstate highway?
In no particular order, these would be some of the major inquiry points that should be analyzed more thoroughly to fully understand why this crash event occurred and to learn, once again, how to prevent similar crashes in the future.
- What type of operation and viable safety program did this motor carrier have?
- Was there sufficient management oversight to ensure that this driver was properly qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV)?
- Was there sufficient management oversight to ensure that this driver was properly qualified to operate a CMV for this particular trip?
- What experience did this driver have in operating and controlling a CMV in mountain terrains?
- What was the quality of training that this driver received to operate and safely control a loaded CMV on steep downhill grades?
- Was the driver able to really “read and understand” the English language, as required by FMCSR regulations, when it came to “understanding” the numerous highway warning signs that have been placed on this 5-mile, downhill segment with sharp curves and varying steep grades?
- Was there a safer route between the load origin and load destination that the driver could have taken to avoid the multitude of risky driving situations that are present within the mountain regions of Interstate 70 in Colorado?
- Was the driver being pressured by a dispatcher, broker or by company management to deliver the load quickly, due to some other secondary issue?
- Was the motor carrier’s compensation for the trip being manipulated by management, due to the anticipated income for the shipment predicated on the minimum point-to-point mileage?
- Was the driver’s employment compensation directly tied to the load’s income potential, which was predicated on the minimum point-to-point mileage dictated by the shipper?
- Was the CMV adequately equipped with a transmission, engine brake/retarder, tires and foundation brakes to handle a loaded combination vehicle that was descending multiple, long and steep, mountain grades?
- Was the CMV properly maintained to safely operate in a loaded condition in the mountains?
- Was the driver familiar with how and when to use a “runaway truck ramp”, based solely on the information within the uniform version of the CDL Manual used by all states?
- Was the design of the 0.6 mile long runaway truck ramp on eastbound Interstate 70 at Mile Marker 257 misleading or confusing to this driver while he approached it, as it was on a significant downhill grade, directly adjacent to the travel lanes and parallel to the left-hand, horizontal curvature of the interstate?
- Did the driver think about diverting his “runaway” CMV to the shoulder after he passed the only “runaway truck escape ramp”, but was thwarted by the almost continuous presence of guard rails or concrete barriers contiguous to the right-hand, outside shoulder between the end of the mountain canyons and the crash scene?
- Did the truck driver develop “tunnel vision” while attempting to cope with the extreme stress level which he was undoubtedly experiencing during this mountain descent, such that he missed “seeing” the multitude of warning signs for truckers relating to the steep mountain grades?
- Was the decision, by a different local law enforcement agency, to close all three of the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 near Mile Marker 266.7, which directly created the 4 miles of congestion and stopped traffic that the CMV driver collided with, appropriate during the “afternoon rush hour” in the Denver metropolitan area?
- Should accepted traffic incident management practices been implemented to potentially minimize and reduce the effect of an interstate highway closure during the afternoon rush hour, so that the high potential for “secondary crashes” would be reduced?
The list of questions could continue, but the point is clear. There were numerous contributing factors that combined to form “the perfect storm” of conditions that lead to this horrific crash.
Many of the answers to these questions may never be determined due to the loss of physical evidence from the subsequent fire that destroyed the highway surface and the vehicles involved. Some of the answers may not be found due to the lack of recollections by the truck driver or his reluctance to discuss certain aspects of the events. And some answers may not be resolved, depending upon one’s point of view related to the question being discussed.
The reality is, however, that every motor carrier is only one driver lapse in judgement or attention away from experiencing this same crash.
Arnold. G. Wheat, ACTAR Reg. #226
Accident Reconstruction Services, Inc.
Wheat Ridge, CO
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