On January 29, 2012 at 3:26 am the stretch of I-75 through Paynes Prairie in Alachua County was reopened after hours of closure. For several hours vehicles had been rerouted to a two-lane road due to smoke and fog on the Interstate Highway. The smoke had already caused a number of automobile accidents on nearby US-441 and was so thick that visibility was non-existent. At around 3 am, a sustained wind pushed the smoke away from the roadway for twenty minutes. Unfortunately, a breakdown of the system led the authorities to believe this brief window of visibility on the road was enough to justify reopening the road. We all remember what happened next; what has been described by survivors as a series of accidents and explosions that “seemed like the end of the world.” Eleven people dead, more than twenty hospitalized, and twenty-five destroyed vehicles resulted from the worst series of vehicle accidents in Florida history.
As it turns out, these car wrecks may have been easily avoidable. Investigative Reporters with the Gainesville Sun have uncovered a number of recommendations and policies that weren’t followed in the buildup to this most unfortunate tragedy. January 29th wasn’t the first time a Florida Highway had been reduced to wreckage from smoke. Just four years earlier, a smoke and fog-covered I-4 through Polk County was the scene of destruction on an even more massive scale. Seventy vehicles were destroyed in the accidents on January 8th. Fortunately, the number of dead was limited to five during the 2008 tragedy; less than half the number killed in the 2012 Paynes Prairie pileup. The authorities realized that policy would need to address the problem of smoke and fog on interstates and other highways. A decision was made that the Florida Highway Patrol, the fire management department of the Florida Forest Service and the State Transportation Department would work together to address these dangerous situations as an interdepartmental task force.
On January 29th of 2012, that task force failed. A communication breakdown and improper training in addressing smoke and fog situations led to information being lost in the late evening of January 28 2012. Late night officers for the FHP were not notified of the Forest Service warning them of the possibility of smoke coming from the Paynes Prairie fire. The on-duty Forest Service officer was guaranteed that the midnight officers would be told about the fire, and the possibility of smoke or fog disrupting traffic on nearby I-75. Instead the file on the Prairie Fire was closed after an officer noticed the fire had subsided just 20 minutes later. The midnight officers were never warned of the obvious dangers, and were forced to address the overnight problems without the necessary information. It wasn’t until after 1:00 am that an officer realized that the smoke shrouding I-75 was coming from the Prairie itself, not neighboring Putnam County. That same officer objected to the reopening of I-75 shortly after 3 am, an objection that was ignored by superiors. The chaos was began and ended in the span of the next hour.
The question everyone is forced to ask next is: how did they decide to re-open the highway? Again, the answer is simple: There is no distinct policy concerning either how to open and close roads or how to respond to issues involving the combination of smoke and fog on roadways. Officers were not trained properly on how to address these conditions and not informed of the appropriate authority for using the required departmental checklist for road closure and re-opening. The current policy allows anyone to open a closed roadway, is ambiguous as to who is responsible for applying the checklist, and lacks any sort of guidance as to when the road should remain closed. It’s basically a “just use your best judgment” policy; and one that investigators said needed to be amended after the 2008 tragedy in Polk county in which a chain event of automobile accidents occurred.
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These are just some of the reasons that the Paynes Prairie tragedy occurred. And it’s unclear as to whether following the policies and recommendations that were ignored would’ve saved lives. But one thing is for certain, that road should not have been open to traffic in the early morning hours of January 29th, and many people suffered because the system failed to protect them.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when government officers fail to protect the public. And that is because our taxes pay these individuals to keep us safe. But the blame doesn’t fall solely on the policy enforcers, but also on the policy makers. Recommendations which should have become policy or statutory law following the 2008 tragedy remained just recommendations. The lawmakers have been standing still, not addressing glaring issues with public safety. In a time where texting-while-driving is one of the undisputed leading dangers of injury and death on the road, Florida is one of the few states that has failed to enact a statute banning the act. These safety policies are just a few of the necessary changes that will make Florida drivers safe on the roads. Until then, awareness of your surroundings is left up to you. So remember to be aware of your surroundings, never drive distracted, and to try and inform yourself of weather conditions if traveling on interstate highways. And if you are involved in an accident, consult an experienced accident attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.