On January 8, 2010, veteran Chicago trucker Zygmunt Wiechowski lost control of his truck on a snowy I-70 near Springfield, OH. The truck jacknifed and went across the median, striking a bus. The bus driver and three special needs adults were killed in the crash and others were injured. The Ohio Highway Patrol investigators felt that excessive speed was the cause of the accident and Wiechowski was cited for Failure to Yield and Speeding.
The local prosecutor decided that Wiecchowski was negligent and he was charged with four counts of vehicular manslaughter. Wiechowski recently entered into a plea agreement. He plead no contest to the four counts and the two traffic violations were dismissed. Even though he had no criminal intent, even though he has a long trouble free record, even though he had slowed below the speed limit, none of those factors were considered mitigating. Wiechowski will likely spend time in jail and sentencing is set for October 20th.
Post-accident criminal charges are usually only filed if the driver was guilty of a negligent act, such as failing a post-accident drug test or running beyond their hours of service. In this case, none of those factors were present. In fact, the driver had even slowed down. But how slow is slow enough? If he had been doing 50 instead of 57mph and lost control, would that have made a difference? There's really no legal guidance to answer these questions.
One outcome of analyzing accidents and assessing preventability is to provide information to your drivers about how to avoid situations that can lead to an accident. In fact, any safety director will tell you that avoiding a bad situation is the best defensive driving strategy. With winter around the corner, drivers will be receiving the standard annual bulletins about the hazards of winter driving. But the big question is, how is that information perceived by the drivers?
Competition is intense, customer demands are at an all time high, and just-in-time service is expected. Everyone in trucking is all too aware of these expectations, as well as the consequences of not meeting them, so when a driver falls behind, they won't be in position to handle tomorrow's freight, causing the problems to multiply.
To be fair, no trucking company has a policy of "full speed ahead, we're in a hurry". However, carriers are judged by how well they stack up against their peer group for on-time performance. Add into that mix the fact that in order to maximize utilization carriers routinely schedule runs that take advantage of all, or nearly all, of the driver's service hours. Drivers are well aware of this and, with their pay based on mileage, they're rewarded for performance. All is well as long as traffic is flowing and the weather remains clear. But what happens when the conditions aren't optimum?
If a driver starts to fall behind, calls dispatch and is told, "see what you can do", what does that mean? It certainly isn't a command to slow down and approach the situation with caution. There's no mention of stopping. There's no mention of rescheduling for tomorrow. We can save that hassle for later, hoping that somehow the driver will get through. The driver slows down, somewhat, and keeps going. In most cases, all is well, the weather clears by the next day and we quickly get back to normal.
But it didn't end that way for Zygmunt Wiechowski.