One of the major findings of a state investigation into the horrific Jan. 29 accidents on Interstate 75 near Gainsville, FL, is that Florida lacks a coherent policy for troopers to use to determine when and how to close a highway because of poor visibility and how to reopen it. A report by the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement (FDLE) indicates this is a national problem.
A poll of national and state traffic authorities found that most of the country’s highway departments also lack specific policies regarding closing and reopening roads due to poor visibility.
The report was conducted following the January accidents where a long line of cars and trucks collided one after another on a dark Florida highway so shrouded in haze and smoke that drivers were instantly blinded.
The highway had been closed for a time before the accidents because of the mixture of fog and heavy smoke from a brush fire. After the Interstate was ordered reopened, at least a dozen cars and six tractor-trailers were involved in a series of accidents where many of the vehicles burst into flames. Ten people were killed.
The FDLE sent requests to officials in Florida and 13 other states and to federal agencies seeking their policies on controlling roads during bad weather, fire or other events limiting visibility.
A review by The Sun shows that there is no national policy and that most states lack specific criteria to use in assessing visibility and for reopening roadways.
In some cases, the FDLE concluded, there were only general directions such as “when conditions improve” or “when the hazard has been corrected.”
Following are responses of agencies polled:
- Florida Dept. of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the parent agency of the Florida Highway Patrol, cited Policy 17.14. The FDLE said this protocol “lacks clarity”' and leads to “confusion among FHP command personnel.” Also, “current opinion among FHP personnel suggests that adherence to the checklists is not mandatory.” There is no policy dealing with how to reopen closed highways, it said.
- U.S. Dept. of Transportation: No national policy on closing a road because of poor visibility.
- Alachua County Sheriff’s Office: No policy on road closures and openings or smoke/fog protocols.
- Kentucky DOT: No policy dealing with road closures because of limited visibility.
- California Highway Patrol: Has a code that calls for troopers to direct traffic as conditions require.
- Georgia DOT: Has a memorandum titled “Smoke and Fog Strategy — revised.”
- South Carolina Dept. of Public Safety: Has a document called “Emergency Traffic Management.”
- Arkansas Highway Patrol: Has administrative orders dealing with closing highways because of snow and ice.
- Alabama DOT: Has no policy regarding road closures because of low visibility.
- Virginia State Police: Has a Traffic Improvement Plan Operation Manual.
- North Carolina Highway Patrol: Has no policy dealing with road closures based on fog and smoke.
- Washington DOT: Has a transportation maintenance manual.