The report seemed eerily familiar: pile-up on a Florida interstate shrouded by fog and smoke. This time it was I-75 near Gainesville.
The toll is high. Eleven dead, dozens injured. Enough charred metal on the highway to start a junkyard.
The details are still emerging. Someone is suspected of starting a brush fire. The smoke combined with a pre-dawn fog to create an impenetrable white wall. Cars traveling 80 miles an hour stood no chance. The cries of survivors mingled with the jarring of tangled metal. We can only extend our deepest sympathies to those who lost family and friends.
The sad part of this story is that troopers reportedly closed the highway, then prematurely reopened it. The repercussions will echo long after the last victim is buried. The worse part? This accident was preventable. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.
The minute I heard of the pile-up, my memory returned to a similar crash four years ago. Early on the morning of Jan. 9, 2008, thick fog and smoke from a 500-acre brush fire turned I-4 between Orlando and Tampa into a blinding wall of white. Drivers acted instinctively. They braked, and the highway became a pre-dawn execution chamber for humans and vehicles. On that morning, four people died, 38 were injured.
Four years ago, the Florida High Patrol blamed poor visibility and driver speed. The review treated the pile-up as a freak of nature -- unforeseen and unpredictable. How could the FHP plan for that?
Unfortunately, the situation was foreseeable. But how many times must we witness such carnage before the highway patrol institutes a protocol for action? If we have one, when are we going to start using it?
According to reports, the state has made safety improvements on I-4. Missing: a fog detection system.
What’s also missing is foresight, given the prevalence of drought and foggy conditions this time of year. It was only a matter of time before brush fire, smoke and fog would combine to create conditions that require the closure of a highway. It’s worth investing in an early-warning system.
Gov. Rick Scott did what he usually does. He asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. The review will predictably blame driver speed and poor visibility.
It should also cite poor vision -- not of drivers, but of those who failed to see this one coming and failed to put in place procedures to ensure I-4 didn’t happen again.
Once was bad luck. Twice is incompetence. Let’s get it right.
Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University. He is the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South.
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