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Florida Highway Patrol: Some drivers didn't slow before crashes

By John Couwels and Vivian Kuo, CNN
updated 10:49 PM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
"Despite the presence of Fog/Smoke warning signs, some drivers did not take proper precautions," the report says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Florida Highway Patrol releases its report on crashes
  • It says drivers didn't heed caution on fog and smog from fire
  • Law enforcement department said policy changes needed

(CNN) -- The Florida Highway Patrol defended its role in a fiery multi-car crash on Florida's Interstate 75 in Gainesville, where 11 people died and 46 were injured due to heavy fog and smoke from a nearby fire.

In a report prepared by the FHP and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the agencies concluded the drivers killed and injured in the January accidents were responsible for their actions by continuing to drive through the dense smoke.

"Despite the presence of Fog/Smoke warning signs, some drivers did not take proper precautions and slow their speeds to prepare for reduced visibility," said the report.

The report also concluded patrol officers acted fairly when they made the decision to reopen the interstate after monitoring smoke and fog drifting through the area.

"The FHP's review of the events of January 29, 2012, found its members acted reasonably," the report said in its conclusion. "The rapidly changing conditions that morning in such a localized area could not be predicted with any degree of reliability."

The accidents occurred in the early morning hours outside Gainesville as smoke from a nearby brush fire enveloped the highway.

The FHP increased its staffing from two troopers to eight after acknowledging the danger the nearby fire posed, the report stated.

After monitoring the roadway conditions throughout the night, the agency reopened a section of I-75 after the on-site incident commander determined the roadway's conditions were clear.

"Response personnel continued to drive through the area at approximately 10-minute intervals and noted no significant smoke or fog until the time the crashes occurred," the report said.

Barely half an hour later, a chain reaction of crashes involving at least 25 vehicles, including semi trucks, would occur.

911 calls from that evening reveal panicked voices and sickening crunches as cars careened into accidents that hadn't had enough time to be cleared from the scene.

After Gov. Rick Scott ordered an investigation into the cause of the horrific crash, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a report in April to detail the FHP's role in the deadly pileup.

The FDLE found that while there was no criminal intent involved, the FHP did need to revamp its policies and procedures in such situations, and improve its inter-agency communication.

"Even if each of the recommendations made by the FDLE in its incident review were to have been present or occurred that night, it is probable the same decision would have been reached. Also, no amount of planning or policy will take the place of driver reaction to low visibility and unpredictable conditions," the FHP said in the report released Friday.

As conditions improved onsite commander FHP Lt. John Gourley decided to reopen the highway despite fellow deputy Sgt. Bruce Simmons warning that conditions could quickly deteriorate.

""This would not have happened," said Simmons as captured on his dashboard camera while speaking to an Alachua County deputy sheriff.

"They wouldn't freaking listen earlier. That's what I told my lieutenant. That's what I told my lieutenant. I said that it (smoke) will roll in faster than you can shut it down," said Simmons.

Many of the FDLE's recommended changes have been accepted, including improved training, procedures and guidelines when opening or closing roads along with better communications with the National Weather Service and the Florida Forest Service for the latest information on how smoke is affecting state highways.

"The Patrol has reviewed the events of the crash and is enhancing policies and training to advance our mission to promote a safe and secure Florida through professional law enforcement and traffic safety awareness," said FHP director Col. David Brierton in a written statement.

"The crashes on Interstate 75 in Alachua County in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2012, were tragic, and our prayers go out to the families involved."

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