You can’t legislate accidents

This week, the trucking industry learned an important lesson about roadway safety. Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG) and its driver Donald Creed settled a civil lawsuit in Oklahoma for $62.7 million. The suit was filed by the families of eight people who were killed in a June 26, 2009, accident when the truck Creed, who was 76 years old at the time, was driving slammed into the back of a sport utility vehicle stopped on the roadway in a traffic tie-up.

In all, 10 people were killed that day. The SUV was part of a backup that resulted from a minor traffic incident just ahead on Interstate 44 near Miami, OK. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Creed’s vehicle never slowed and there was no indication that he did anything to try and avoid the collision.

By most accounts, this appears to be an accident in the truest sense of the word. Attorney Jim Secrest, who represented AWG and Creed in the civil case, said that the AWG truck he was driving included “state-of-the-art” equipment and that Creed himself had “5 million miles without one personal injury accident.”

So what went wrong? NTSB attributed the crash to fatigue in its report, along with the lack of onboard technology such as forward collision warning systems and video event recorders. Creed, according to both the report and Secrest, seemed to have followed the letter of the law that day up until that point.

“To this moment, we know what happened, but we don’t know why,” Secrest said.

Creed had been driving for just over 10 hours that day, which might have played a role, but was still within the legal limits. He was not speeding at the time. Did he black out or doze off? We don’t know.

Secrest told me that there was a second claim against AWG that blamed the company for allowing the 76 year old to be driving.

“He’s older for a truck driver, we admit that, but you can’t fire him for that,” Secrest said, adding that that there was nothing in his history that would have indicated he was an unsafe driver.

NTSB proposed a number of items in its report, including the use of recorders, more fatigue management, etc. Because Secrest even admits that Creed remains fuzzy about what happened to this day, no one will ever really know why this tragedy had to occur.

We can legislate all the devices we want into trucks. We can take advantage of all the technology available to us today. We can even institute comprehensive fatigue management programs (Secrest and AWG admitted the company’s program may not have been strong enough at the time). What we cannot do is prevent accidents.

If all these devices had been installed in Creed’s truck, and if Creed had gone through a thorough fatigue management program, might this horrific tragedy been prevented? It’s impossible to know for sure.

Sometimes, accidents just happen.