A report calls for numerous changes in the way Florida handles road safety… (Phil Sandlin / Associated…)
A state of Florida investigation into a series of crashes that killed 11 motorists near Gainesville during one smoky, foggy, early morning in January has concluded that the Florida Highway Patrol committed multiple errors before the accidents, including a failure to effectively monitor the conditions on Interstate 75 as visibility worsened for motorists.
The report, compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, was ordered by Gov. Rick Scott and released Thursday morning. It found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of Highway Patrol personnel, but it called for numerous changes in the way the state handles road safety issues, particularly in low-lying parts of the state, where fog is a persistent problem.
The problems began with a fire that burned in an area called Paynes Prairie on the afternoon of Jan. 28. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, amid dense smoke, a six-vehicle crash and a three-vehicle crash occurred. The Alachua County Sheriff's office responded by closing stretches of Interstate 75 and nearby U.S. Highway 441.
At 3:26 a.m., Highway Patrol Lt. John Gourley reopened I-75, after evaluating conditions, which, the report states, "appeared to be favorable toward restoring the flow of traffic" -- at least at the time.
Minutes later, numerous other crashes occurred, involving 25 vehicles and resulting in 11 deaths.
The report noted that Gourley "was not aware of any specific FHP policy or procedure that outlines how to open or close a road" and that he had received no formal training on determining when a road should be opened or closed.
The report found that the Highway Patrol personnel inadequately relayed information about the fire from the state forest service; failed to check with weather and forest experts about the smoke and fog; and failed to effectively monitor the highway after it was opened.
It also found that Highway Patrol policies were vague about who, exactly, is responsible for the following the current agency checklists that are meant guide the decisions for opening and closing a road.
The report made a number of recommendations for an improved response to the visibility problem that regularly affects this part of Florida, including a suggestion that permanent signs and electronic message boards be installed to warn drivers of hazardous conditions.
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