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March 15, 2021
FORT WORTH, Texas (Star-Telegram) - The NTSB says its probe of a 133-car pileup that killed six people Feb. 11 on an icy stretch of Interstate 35W in Fort Worth will be limited to exploring whatever deicing techniques were followed by the highway crews before the historically horrific crash.
But others who have experience working with and following the National Transportation Safety Board say it’s important not to rule out the possibility that the independent federal agency, which has a reputation for being tight-lipped until its research is complete, will expand its investigation.
The NTSB, they say, could expand its focus and look at factors such as:
▪ Why so many cars and trucks were traveling 75 mph or faster during well-publicized freezing weather that morning.
▪ Whether the design of the managed toll lanes, which are built on top of an otherwise non-toll interstate highway and separated from toll-free traffic by concrete barriers, created an inescapable trap for the vehicles in the pileup.
▪ How automobile features such as collision avoidance performed — or perhaps failed — at high speeds, on black ice.
Initially, the NTSB’s decision only to investigate deicing techniques angered some Fort Worth drivers, who say some seemingly-obvious culprits in the deadly chain-reaction crash — namely, speed and road design — are being ignored.
VIRAL VIDEO OF THE I-35W TRAGEDY
The pileup occurred before dawn on a frigid Thursday morning, after a brief rainfall on a stretch of southbound I-35W TEXPress toll lanes with a 75 mph speed limit and impenetrable concrete barriers on both sides of the road.
The crash took place on a stretch of road between 28th Street and Northside Drive, where motorists may have had only a few hundred yards of warning before spotting the pileup ahead, as they crested a small hill and started down the road’s slippery decline.
Video shot by passers-by showed cars and 18-wheelers careening out of control at high speeds, and crashing into each other with violent sounds of crushing metal and shattering glass — and those images went viral on broadcast and social media.
John Holt, a Fort Worth resident who has driven the I-35W corridor for decades, said he typically avoids the toll lanes — which opened in 2018 — during wet or cold weather because the lanes don’t feel safe.
The legal speed limit is too fast, he said, and the lanes don’t have shoulders wide enough to serve as breakdown lanes, or to provide a relief outlet for drivers who need to get around the concrete barriers to avoid an accident ahead.
“If you think about it, why would they ever open a ‘fast lane’ during an ice storm?” Holt asked in an email.
Mike Slack, an aviation attorney who has represented clients in many airplane crash cases investigated by the NTSB, said the information available for investigators in the Fort Worth crash could be “a treasure trove of data and analytic support for NTSB, all in a single event.”
For example, Slack said the so-called “black boxes” installed in most modern automobiles could provide NTSB with data on how fast cars were going, and whether their artificially intelligent safety features such as lane departure were engaged as they lost control on the ice.
The NTSB in recent years has stepped up its research into how artificial intelligence works and where its weak points are in automobiles. That work is expected to become even more important in the coming years, as self-driving automobiles become more prominent on the nation’s roads.
Whether NTSB can get its hands on all that good data is another matter.
Slack said he is certain that NTSB, which was created by Congress in 1974, has the statutory authority to take control of any aircraft crash investigation, and to take possession of any black boxes or other evidence for as long as necessary. But Slack said he is less certain about how absolute NTSB’s authority is in cases not aviation-related.
An NTSB spokesman said the agency’s authority is somewhat limited in investigations that aren’t aviation-related.
“No, the NTSB does not have statutory authority in other modes of transportation like highway, rail, marine or pipeline,” spokesman Keith Holloway said.
When NTSB investigates highway accidents, it often serves in more of a collaborative role with local agencies, which in this case would be the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners. The agency can then make recommendations to Congress or federal agencies to prevent similar crashes from occurring in the future.
Lawsuits also could complicate the availability of black boxes and other evidence. Several people who were in the crash have already filed lawsuits against several of the trucking companies involved in the crash.
The lawsuit, filed in Hidalgo County district court, alleges the drivers drove unsafely and contributed to the pileup, and asks for $1 million in damages. The lawsuit lists the defendants as Fed Ex, GG’s Produce Transport, JB Hunt, Rich Logistics, and GO2 Logistics — and their drivers, who are listed as John Does 1-6 in the court records.
The plaintiffs include three people who according to the lawsuit were seriously injured in the crash: Mark Patel, Halee Escamilla and Angela Childeress.
NTSB may also be limited in how much evidence it can gather in the Fort Worth investigation, partly because the agency didn’t send a “go team” to the crash site and instead opted to launch the probe long-distance from the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
WHY NOT LOWER THE SPEED LIMIT?
Officials at the Texas Department of Transportation, the state government arm that owns I-35W, declined to answer any questions regarding the Fort Worth pileup, citing a warning from its lawyers about litigation.
Officials at North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, the private consortium of companies hired by the state transportation department to build the toll lanes and collect tolls on them for 52 years, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Fort Worth pileup should serve as a wake up call that Texas and other states are setting speed limits too high, the leaders of several safety organizations said.
“We need people to become outraged over this because we need to do better,” said Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs at the National Safety Council.
However, lowering the speed limit likely would significantly reduce toll revenues collected by North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, because fewer motorists would be motivated to use the toll lanes. As a result, the consortium’s agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation might have to be revised.
Under terms of the contract, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners arranged much of the funding for the $1.4 billion I-35W expansion — so the state wouldn’t have to pay for the entire project with traditional highway tax dollars. In return, the consortium gets to collect and keep tolls collected on the TEXPress lanes for 52 years — to reimburse itself for the road expenses, and to make a profit.
The Texas Legislature several years ago passed a law making 75 mph the default speed limit for highways, although the Texas Department of Transportation can conduct speed tests to lower the limit on a stretch of road if traffic engineers have a concern about the speed.
During a speed test — sometimes called a speed zone study — traffic engineers use radar detectors to determine what speeds motorists are already traveling at on a given stretch of road. The speed limit is then set at the 85th percentile, rounded down to the nearest number divisible by 5. (For example, if the 85th percentile of traffic was moving at 67 mph, the speed limit would be set at 65 mph.)
The so-called 85th percentile speed test is considered a sound engineering principle by traffic experts nationwide, although safety groups say the test has several flaws.
For example, speed tests are typically done during off-peak hours, and when weather is favorable — but, in practice, many motorists assume it’s safe to go the speed limit (or even a few miles per hour above it) even during heavy traffic or slick weather.
“Certainly we want to evaluate how we are setting speed limits everywhere in the country,” Terry said. “If the decision is made by legislators, is that the right place to set speed limits?”
As President Biden and Congress work on a new, multi-year bill to fund transportation projects across the United States, a nonprofit organization known as the Governors Highway Safety Association is pushing for more federal funding to be tied to speed-reduction programs.
“We are asking Congress to provide states more funding and flexibility to address speeding,” said Jonathan Adkins, association executive director. “Let’s treat speeding the same way we treat seat belt use and drunk driving.”
THROWING ROAD CREWS ‘UNDER THE BUS’
Fort Worth resident Dan Hardin said he is concerned that the NTSB, by focusing on whether overnight crews were properly deicing the roads, will “throw the road crews under the bus” rather than addressing the issue of whether the drivers were properly warned about icy conditions — and, if so, why they missed or ignored the warnings.
“I watched the videos on the news showing the accident unfold,” Hardin said in an email. “In my view, the vehicles coming on the crash were not apparently adjusting to conditions.”
LEGISLATORS, NOT ENGINEERS, SET THE SPEEDS
“My bottom line is, if this is to be a thorough investigation, and not one looking to throw the road crews under the bus, shouldn’t NTSB also be looking into vehicle speeds too fast for conditions?”
Another motorist, Willis Bell, said he believes state officials should consider permanently lowering the speed limit of the TEXPress lanes, and installing gates at on-ramps to the toll lanes so they can be more easily closed to traffic during bad weather.
“When I watched the short videos of the crashes, it looked like something out of a movie, but it wasn’t staged or orchestrated,” Bell wrote in an email. “It was REAL.”
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Information sourced from Star-Telegram