Pa. Turnpike officials launch inquiry into massive pileup
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chief Executive Officer Mark Compton today announced that the commission has begun a thorough review of the causes of and response to a series of traffic incidents that occurred Feb. 14 just before 8 a.m. on the Turnpike (Interstate 276) about seven miles east of the Willow Grove Interchange (Exit 343) in Lower Southampton Township, Bucks County.
“This was an unfortunate set of circumstances that affected the lives of dozens of families, and we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the safety of our customers,” Compton said. “Over the last week, I’ve reflected that it just as easily could have been my family. Fortunately, many of the injuries were minor; and it’s a blessing that there were no life-threatening injuries given the circumstances.”
Compton said the evaluation – referred to as an after-incident review — got under way earlier this week. A third-party team is compiling critical facts such as the incident timeline, roadway and weather conditions, communications, response times, and other pertinent elements. Next week, reviewers will begin to interview stakeholders including call-center dispatchers, local fire, medical and safety officials, Turnpike maintenance employees, and other responders. Together with testimony from victims, witnesses, and other stakeholders, the team will compile a summary of the findings that will be made available for public examination.
“We absolutely want to understand if there was something we could have done that may have prevented or somehow mitigated the crashes,” Compton said. “Plus, we need to consider if there’s something different we could be doing to reduce or better respond to incidences like this in the future.”
The commission has received a number of questions following the incident about the roadway conditions and the restoration of travel restrictions that had been put in place on more than half of the Turnpike system. “Without a doubt, those issues will be closely examined during the after-incident review,” Compton added.
In addition to the after-incident review, State Senator John Rafferty Jr. (R-44), chairman of the senate transportation committee, said he will convene a hearing regarding the Feb. 14 Turnpike incident and other weather-related crashes that happened across Pennsylvania this winter. A hearing date has not yet been confirmed.
“I spoke to Sen. Rafferty earlier this week to pledge our full participation and cooperation in the hearing,” Compton said. “The work being done on the after-incident review will help ensure we’re prepared to offer committee members a detailed account of the events of that day – including a discussion of what might be improved upon in addition to what worked well.”
Compton noted that even though some have criticized the commission in the wake of the incident, many things were handled well for a major snowstorm that lasted more than 50 hours and dumped nearly two feet of snow across much of the commonwealth.
“It’s important to remember that Turnpike maintenance workers battled nearly two and a half days to keep our system passable, and as a result we had just a few very minor incidents until the storm passed through the state,” Compton said. “I stood in our Traffic Operations Center through much of the storm and witnessed first-hand the dedication and hard work of not only our maintenance personnel, but also our dispatchers, toll collectors, state troopers, responders, and other safety personnel. All of them went beyond the call of duty.”
State Police Capt. Greg Bacher, commander of Troop T, the unit in charge of Pennsylvania Turnpike patrols, said that the accident investigations are pointing to a number of causes that led to the crashes.
“We determined the crashes resulted from reduced visibility due to the sun’s glare and tire spray from other vehicles, in addition to slick or slippery pavement conditions and excessive speed,” Capt. Bacher said. “In fact, the investigations will result in the issuance of at least 10 motorist citations for traveling too fast for conditions.”
Capt. Bacher added that last week’s storm – and other snowfall events preceding it – generated unpredictable roadway conditions across Pennsylvania and throughout the east coast, adding that multi-vehicle accidents were reported in all affected regions of the country.
“Despite even the best equipment and expertise, it’s sometimes impossible to keep the highways completely ice and slush free, so drivers should expect the unexpected. Don’t assume the danger is gone when the snowfall stops,” Capt. Bacher said. “It’s the driver’s responsibility to be aware of what’s out there and drive appropriately. Just because the sign says 55 or 65 doesn’t mean you have to drive that fast.”
A timeframe for completion of the after-incident review has yet to be set, but officials expect it will take several weeks to finalize.
(Source: Pennsylvania Turnpike)