NTSB probe of Fort Worth I-35W pileup could go beyond deicing

The NTSB says its investigation into a 133-car build-up that killed six people on an icy stretch of Interstate 35W in Fort Worth on Feb.11 will be limited to examining the de-icing techniques that highway crews used before historically horrific crash applied.

However, others who have experience working with and following the National Transportation Safety Board say it is important not to rule out the independent federal agency that has a reputation for keeping up to date by the time their research is complete , will broaden their investigation.

The NTSB could broaden its focus and include factors such as:

Why so many cars and trucks drove 75 mph or faster that morning in a well-known frost.

Whether the design of the managed toll lanes, which are built on an otherwise toll-free motorway and separated from toll-free traffic by concrete barriers, has created an inevitable trap for the vehicles in the pile.

How automotive features like high-speed collision avoidance performed on black ice – or possibly failed.

Initially, the NTSB’s decision to investigate only de-icing techniques angered some Fort Worth drivers, who say that some seemingly obvious culprits in the fatal chain reaction accident – namely speed and road design – are being ignored.

Viral video of the I-35W tragedy

The buildup occurred before sunrise on a cold Thursday morning after a brief rainfall on a section of the I-35W TEXPress toll lanes heading south with a top speed of 120 km / h and impenetrable concrete barriers on both sides of the road.

The crash occurred on a stretch of road between 28th Street and Northside Drive that motorists might have warned only a few hundred yards before spotting the pile in front of them as they climbed a small hill and descended the slippery descent of the road.

Videos recorded by passers-by showed cars and 18-wheelers spinning out of control at high speeds and crashing into each other with violent noises of crushing metal and breaking glass – and those images went viral on radio and social media.

John Holt, a Fort Worth resident who has traveled the I-35W corridor for decades, said he usually avoids the toll lanes that opened in 2018 in wet or cold weather because the lanes don’t feel safe.

The legal speed limit is too fast, and the lanes do not have broad shoulders to serve as puncture lanes or to provide relief to drivers who have to bypass the concrete barriers to avoid an accident.

“If you think about it, why would you ever open a ‘fast lane’ during an ice storm?” Holt asked in an email.

‘Treasury of Data’

Mike Slack, an aviation attorney who has represented clients in many airplane crash cases investigated by the NTSB, said the information available to Fort Worth investigators could “provide a treasure trove of data and analytical support for NTSB in a single incident . ”

For example, Slack said the so-called “black boxes” installed in most modern automobiles could provide NTSB data on how fast cars were driving and whether their artificially intelligent safety features like lane departure history were activated when they were in control of it Lost ice.

In recent years, the NTSB has intensified its research into how artificial intelligence works and where its weaknesses lie in automobiles. This work is expected to become even more important in the years to come as self-driving cars gain prominence on the country’s roads.

Whether or not NTSB can get their hands on all of this good data is another question.

Slack said he was certain that NTSB, which was founded by Congress in 1974, has legal authority to take control of plane crash investigations and hold black boxes or other evidence for as long as necessary. But Slack said he was less sure how absolute the NTSB’s authority is on non-aviation related cases.

An NTSB spokesman said the agency’s powers were somewhat limited in non-aviation-related investigations.

“No, the NTSB has no legal authority in other modes of transport such as highway, rail, shipping or pipeline,” said spokesman Keith Holloway.

When NTSB investigates highway accidents, it often plays more of a collaboration with local authorities, in this case the Texas Department of Transportation and North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners. The agency can then make recommendations to Congress or federal agencies to help prevent similar crashes from occurring in the future.

Lawsuits could also hamper the availability of black boxes and other evidence. Several people involved in the crash have already filed lawsuits against several of the shipping companies involved in the crash.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Hidalgo District Court, alleged the drivers drove unsafe and contributed to the buildup and sought $ 1 million in damages. The lawsuit lists the defendants as Fed Ex, GGs Produce Transport, JB Hunt, Rich Logistics, and GO2 Logistics – and their drivers, who are listed on the court records as John Does 1-6.

Plaintiffs include three people who were seriously injured in the crash, according to the lawsuit: Mark Patel, Halee Escamilla and Angela Childeress.

NTSB may also be limited in the amount of evidence it can collect in the Fort Worth investigation, in part because the agency didn’t send a “go team” to the crash site and instead chose to use the probe over large Distances to start from the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

Why not lower the speed limit?

Officials from the Texas Department of Transportation, the arm of the state government that owns the I-35W, declined to answer questions about the Fort Worth pile, referring to a litigation warning from their attorneys.

Officials from North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, the private consortium of companies hired by the State Department of Transportation to build the toll lanes and collect tolls for 52 years, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Fort Worth pile was meant to serve as a wake-up call that Texas and other states are putting speed limits too high, leaders of several security organizations said.

“We need people outraged because we need to do better,” said Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs at the National Security Council.

However, lowering the speed limit would likely significantly reduce the toll revenue collected by North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners as less motorists would be motivated to use the toll lanes. As a result, the consortium’s agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation may need to be revised.

Under the terms of the contract, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners provided a large portion of the funding to expand the I-35W by $ 1.4 billion so that the state does not have to pay for the entire project in traditional highway tax dollars. In return, the consortium can collect and store tolls on the TEXPress railways for 52 years – in order to reimburse road costs and generate profits.

Legislators, not engineers, set the speeds

Texas law passed a law a few years ago making 75 mph the default speed limit for highways, although the Texas Department of Transportation may conduct speed tests to lower the limit on a stretch of road if traffic engineers have speed concerns.

During a speed test – sometimes called a speed zone study – traffic engineers use radar detectors to determine the speed at which motorists are already driving on a given route. The speed limit is then set at the 85th percentile and rounded down to the nearest number divisible by 5. (For example, if the 85th percentile of traffic is moving at 100 km / h, the speed limit is set at 100 km / h.)

The so-called 85th percentile speed test is viewed as a solid technical principle by traffic experts across the country, although security groups say the test has several flaws.

For example, speed tests are usually carried out during off-peak hours and when the weather is good. In practice, however, many motorists assume that the speed limit (or even a few miles per hour above it) can be safely adhered to even in heavy traffic or slippery weather.

“Of course we want to evaluate how we are setting speed limits across the country,” said Terry. “If the decision is made by lawmakers, is this the right place to set speed limits?”

As President Biden and Congress work on a new multi-year bill to fund transportation projects in the United States, a nonprofit called Governors Highway Safety Association is pushing for more federal funds to be tied to speed reduction programs.

“We urge Congress to give states more resources and flexibility to address the overspeeding,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the association. “Let’s treat pace in the same way as seat belt use and drunk driving.”

Street crews “throwing under the bus”

Fort Worth resident Dan Hardin said he was concerned that by focusing on whether the night crews were properly de-icing the streets, the NTSB would “throw the street crews under the bus” rather than addressing the issue of Whether drivers have been properly warned of icy conditions – and if so, why they missed or ignored the warnings.

“I saw the videos on the news showing the accident,” Hardin said in an email. “In my opinion, the vehicles that came in the crash did not seem to adapt to the conditions.”

“My bottom line is, if this is to be a thorough investigation, and not one that is trying to throw the road crews under the bus, shouldn’t NTSB also investigate vehicle speeds that are too fast for the conditions?”

Another motorist, Willis Bell, said state officials should consider permanently lowering the speed limit of the TEXPress lanes and installing gates on the ramps of the toll lanes so that they can be more easily closed to traffic in bad weather.

“When I watched the short videos of the crashes, it looked like something out of a movie, but it wasn’t staged or orchestrated,” Bell wrote in an email. “It was really.”

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Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star Telegram in 1997. He’s excited about the hard news coverage. His beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, and business trends. Originally from El Paso, he loves food, football and long car trips.

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