Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Washington state plays blame game in bridge collapse

Federal investigators spread out the blame for the May 2013 bridge collapse on Interstate 5 in Washington state. Unfortunately, the Washington State Patrol puts the blame squarely on the truck driver and has charged him with negligent driving in the second degree.

The collapse of a portion of the Skagit River Bridge was investigated from every conceivable angle and we know much about what happened.

We know that truck driver William Scott of Alberta, Canada, was southbound on I-5 and in the right lane, hauling a permitted over-height load on a step-deck trailer. We know he had a pilot car up ahead, and we know that being in the right lane was not the place to be because the oversized load could not safely pass beneath the arched overhead bridge supports.

We know that a section of the bridge collapsed and that two vehicles plunged into the river. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured.

Scott told investigators he wanted to – and tried to – move into the left lane, but his truck was being overtaken and passed by another truck as the vehicles approached the bridge. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that in its final report, but the second truck driver has never come forward and has never been identified.

The NTSB concluded in its final report that the overhead bridge supports had likely been weakened over the years by numerous – or even countless – strikes by over-dimensional vehicles.

These are all factors, yet the Washington State Patrol’s Major Accident Investigation Team – known as MAIT – claims in its “final report” that Scott was negligent in causing the bridge collapse.

“The MAIT determined the proximate cause of this collision sequence was directly attributable to William Scott’s negligence,” the State Patrol wrote. “It was Scott’s responsibility to know that the height of his load would clear structures such as the Skagit River Bridge along his permitted route.”

The State Patrol says Scott’s load was 2 inches higher than listed on the route permit, and that he needed to know “well in advance” what position he would need on the bridge to ensure clearance.

According to CSA, the company that Scott worked for and continues to work for, Mullen Trucking, has a good safety record.

Sure, in an ideal world, Scott would have moved over. Ramifications from this collision and collapse are ongoing.

The NTSB has recommended to the state of Washington that permitted loads be escorted by two pilot cars instead of one. NTSB recommends a ban on all cellphone use by pilot car drivers because the lone pilot car driver in this incident was on a business call using a hands-free cellphone device at the time of the collision. NTSB has asked for CDL holders to obtain an endorsement to haul oversized loads, and further, the agency is asking for improved signage and GPS data for bridge dimensions nationwide.

Would any of these lofty recommendations have made a difference in this case? Who is to say? One thing is for sure, the Washington State Patrol doesn’t seem to be interested in it. They’re only interested in pursuing charges against the truck driver. The patrol says the driver of an oversized load is responsible for safely navigating his route.

Scott is to appear in court next year on the negligent-driving charge.