Traffic is back to normal on Indiana’s Interstate 94, near Michigan City, but it took almost a week for road crews and clean-up details to restore the freeway for commuter traffic after a huge, horrible mile-long crash last week of over 40 different semi trucks and other vehicles (cars, SUVs, sedans). Bad winter weather on a Thursday afternoon on this part of the interstate about 60 miles outside Chicago caused a shocking pile up.
Reports are that drivers were prey to white-out snow conditions there on the interstate, as a sudden blocking of the sun by lake-effect snow meant the drivers couldn’t see anything. In less than one minute, over 40 vehicles collided along a mile of interstate; it would take hours and hours for crews to free the victims trapped inside their vehicles in frigid conditions.
First responders to the scene told news media it was an unprecedented accident, something that they will never forget.
What happened to cause last week’s Interstate 94 Pile-Up?
Police on the scene reported that drivers involved in the I-94 pile-up explained that things went from sunny, open roadway to a dark blindness in a split-second, followed by the sound of crash after crash as vehicles slammed into each other. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the jaw-dropping photos or video footage where snow-covered big rigs pile against each other like fallen dominoes across snowy freeway lanes (to see some of the media images, go here).
Apparently, “lake-effect snow” caused a kind of black-out curtain to fall across the interstate, and as drivers drove from sunny conditions into the snowstorm area, they were literally blinded and unable to see much more than 10 feet in front of their vehicles. For those living in and near the Great Lakes, “lake-effect snow” is a known winter weather condition: in fact, the Great Lakes area is know for having more lake-effect snow conditions than much of the rest of the country. It’s a sudden and very intense snowstorm created by the particular recipe available in this part of the country, where lake waters and arctic air flows can cook up some very intense snowfalls that are able to drop lots of snow very suddenly.
Over 18 Semi Big Rig Trucks Jackknifed, Collided in Crash
What made last Thursday’s crash scenario so very serious, and the fact that so few people perished in this event (only 3) such a miracle, is that so many of these vehicles were huge, heavy commercial big rig semi trucks. Eighteen (18) semi trucks were slammed like amusement park bumper cars into family sedans and SUVs in last Thursday’s pile-up. That’s a lot of big rigs in one single accident.
This also means that there were lots of professional drivers on that road last week, and commercial truck drivers driving in the Great Lakes area are understood to know better than most about the dangers of winter weather conditions when driving on any roadways, but especially on interstates at higher speeds.
In fact, federal laws have been passed that place a duty upon truck drivers and those driving commercial motor vehicles to use extreme caution when driving in hazardous conditions. Title 49 of the U.S. Transportation Code’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (Part 392, Driving of Commercial Vehicles) states:
§ 392.14 Hazardous conditions; extreme caution.
Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist. If conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated. Whenever compliance with the foregoing provisions of this rule increases hazard to passengers, the commercial motor vehicle may be operated to the nearest point at which the safety of passengers is assured.
[33 FR 19732, Dec. 25, 1968, as amended at 60 FR 38747, July 28, 1995]
This has been interpreted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as follows:
Question 1: Who makes the determination, the driver or carrier, that conditions are sufficiently dangerous to warrant discontinuing the operation of a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV)?
Guidance: Under this section, the driver is clearly responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle and the decision to cease operation because of hazardous conditions.
Semi Truck Drivers and Lake Effect Snow Conditions
Federal law (49 C.F.R. § 392.14, as described above) mandates that truck drivers of commercial motor vehicles understand the dangers of extreme weather conditions when driving and for these drivers to take the necessary steps to stay safe when driving their commercial vehicles through the hazards of ice and snow. It is understood that these winter storms bring danger to any vehicle on the road, but that commercial vehicles carry with them additional risk because they are bigger and heavier — which makes them harder to control in a skid, for example, and easier to jackknife or fishtail on ice.
In fact, when winter storm conditions are serious, truck drivers of big rigs and semis should simply stop their rigs and not attempt to move through dangerous road conditions. This is for their safety as well as the safety of others on the roads.
In last week’s mile-long pile-up, there were no road closures and obviously, well over a dozen truckers had made the call that it was safe to drive on Interstate 94 last Thursday afternoon. Was it a fluke, an unforeseeable event – this curtain of blindness?
Whether or not the decision to drive comported with federal regulation 392.14 is going to be a big question in the future for them, however — being asked by federal officials, as well as all those drivers who were hit and injured or perished in last week’s big, big wreck and now have to deal with the aftermath.