An ongoing investigation of the deadly multivehicle pileup on both southbound and northbound stretches of I-75 in Florida has raised a couple of questions about procedure in the event foggy conditions impair highway visibility: First, why did the Florida Highway Patrol reopen the interstate to traffic after it had been closed about three hours due to blinding fog and smoke; and why did two tractor trailers stop in their lanes on the southbound stretch?
According to the Gainesville Sun, a wildfire broke out in the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Saturday afternoon, creating heavy smoke along I-75 south as the nearby fire smoldered. High atmospheric pressure caused an inversion layer to develop after sunset, generating fog and trapping it close to the road with the smoke. The combination of darkness, heavy fog, and thick smoke reduced visibility on the parts of the interstate to near zero.
FHP closed I-75 and U.S. 441 in the state preserve after dark for about three hours because of the poor conditions, but reopened them when the smoke began to clear. However, according to the Gainesville Sun, “Within 45 minutes, smoke and fog had again sunk into the prairie, and the collisions started.”
Eleven people died and 21 others were sent to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville with injuries.
Investigators are looking at the decision to re-open the highway in addition to probing possible causes of the brush fire, which the Florida Forest Service told the AP may have been intentionally set.
After the smoke and fog set over the interstate again, two commercial trucks traveling south apparently stopped in their lanes, despite state rules ordering trucks not to stop when driving through fog, unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Subsequently, two passenger vehicles collided with the stopped trucks before being struck by other vehicles. Three people in the two vehicles that struck the tractor trailers died while three others were injured.
The FHP reports do not say why the trucks had stopped on the interstate, but FHP Lt. Patrick Riordan told the Gainesville Sun “that part is under investigation.”
“I’m not going to take a stab in the dark about what they did or should have done,” Riordan told the Sun. “I’m sure there is an applicable statute that says you can’t stop in the road.”
The Gainesville Sun cites the Florida commercial driver’s license manual, which states that truck drivers entering fog must slow down and turn on the four-way flashers. It also cautions commercial drivers to listen for traffic when they can’t see it and to refrain from passing other vehicles.