When a North Carolina state trooper is needed to help two civilian drivers escort a very long, very heavy truck rumbling down our highways and across our railroad tracks, which person in this convoy is responsible for our safety?
Let’s put this another way: Why didn’t the trooper make an emergency call last week to warn railroad dispatchers that a gargantuan tractor-trailer had been sprawled across the tracks, for somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes, at a rail crossing in Halifax County?
In the wake of the March 9 crash that hurt 62 people and knocked an Amtrak locomotive off its wheels, officials with the state Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol are putting limits on the trooper’s responsibility in such cases.
This is a good time to ask what training and what expectations we give troopers who provide escorts for 400 to 500 oversize truck trips each year. An 85-year-old Amtrak passenger from Delaware was seriously injured in last week’s crash. We’re lucky nobody died.
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The trucker was hauling a load of electronics gear from Clayton to New Jersey. It was so heavy that its 127 tons needed the support of 13 axles. It stretched 164 feet from bumper to bumper – more than twice the length of that unfortunate Amtrak engine, and so long that its front end blocked a highway intersection while its rear end blocked the CSX track nearby.
Posted at the crossing was a blue sign stamped with the emergency number for CSX dispatchers. That’s the number for contacting the people who would immediately radio the Amtrak engineer to warn of an obstruction ahead. That’s the number nobody called, including the trooper standing a few feet away.
The DOT unit that issues oversize truck permits typically includes a trooper or two in its requirement for escort drivers who go in front and behind to warn the rest of us that something big is coming. Trooper Christopher Baker was assigned to join the procession only after it exited I-95 onto the two-lane N.C. 903.
DOT regulations appear to focus safety responsibilities on escort drivers, who must receive training and read a safety manual before they can be certified. Do trooper escorts receive the same training? Nobody will say.
“You will have to check with Highway Patrol for information on how they handle trooper escort training and what responsibilities are expected from a trooper in that role,” Kevin Lacy, DOT’s chief state traffic engineer, said by email. DOT apparently does not require escort training for the heavy-load driver, but Lacy said “the driver is the individual in charge of the operation.”
From DOT’s noncommital response, it’s hard to see why they bother involving troopers – our primary state traffic cops – at all.
The Highway Patrol spokesman, Lt. Jeff Gordon, agreed that the truck driver is “the sole individual in charge.” He said by email Monday that the escorting trooper’s “primary function is to warn the motoring public of an approaching oversized/overweight load.”
Trooper Baker was concentrating at the time on helping the truck driver navigate a sharp left turn onto U.S. 301, about 80 feet from the rail crossing, Gordon said. The big trailer rolled forward and back as the driver adjusted his maneuver.
But the driver was unable to move off the tracks when the warning lights flashed to signal the oncoming Amtrak Carolinian, which carried 212 passengers and eight crew members.
The Federal Railroad Administration and the Highway Patrol are still investigating the crash, and their reports are expected to address similar areas of responsibility. But last Tuesday, barely 24 hours after the accident, Highway Patrol officials had made up their mind about one question.
“Is there any fault on the part of the trooper? No,” Gordon said.