JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Florida Highway Patrol issued a report Friday defending its actions surrounding a chain of fatal crashes on a fog-choked roadway, suggesting that unpredictable weather and motorist failures made it unlikely that any amount of planning or policy changes could have prevented the 11 deaths.
The patrol rejected many of the findings of an April report by another state agency, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which found errors but not criminal violations were made in decisions leading to the Jan. 29 wrecks that killed 11 people along Interstate 75 near Gainesville. FHP laid significant blame on drivers themselves, not law enforcement.
"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," the report states. "Also, no amount of planning or policy will take the place of driver reaction to low visibility and unpredictable conditions."
FHP and FDLE are separate state agencies that do not report to one another. FHP's report offers a point-by-point rejection of the earlier FDLE report on the crashes. Among its findings:
- FDLE said FHP didn't adhere to its policies on incidents involving smoke and fog, including consulting with the National Weather Service. FHP says the nearest weather service tower was about 10 miles away and wouldn't have been able to provide information on conditions better than what officers were seeing on the ground.
- FHP "failed to effectively monitor conditions of the interstate" after its reopening, FDLE charged. The highway patrol provides an accounting of patrols, saying "The facts do not support the finding that the roadway was not monitored."
- FDLE noted a lack of signage, including electronic message boards, prevented broadcasting of updates to motorists. FHP responded that the Department of Transportation is responsible for signage.
- FHP also notes that the FDLE report does not address driver behavior, saying some drivers did not reduce their speeds, causing collisions with vehicles that had slowed or stopped. The report also says drug and alcohol use was confirmed on the part of several motorists. A review by The Gainesville Sun of other investigative reports released Friday showed two drivers involved in crashes were charged with drunken driving, but were not responsible for any deaths or serious injuries.
An FDLE spokeswoman did not immediately respond to the latest report.
Lt. Col. Ernie Duarte of FHP declined to elaborate on the report's findings, saying "It's comprehensive, it's transparent and we're allowing it to speak for itself."
The patrol's parent agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said Tuesday that it has received 13 lawsuit notices from people who either were injured in the crashes or had family members killed.
The early-morning crashes came in an unlit stretch of road where wildfire smoke mixed with fog. The road had been closed due to visibility, and a highway patrol officer suggested it remain closed, but a superior overruled him. Within a half-hour of its reopening, the first of six separate fatal crashes began, involving at least a dozen cars, pickup trucks and a van, six semitrailer trucks and a motorhome. Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the dead. Eighteen other victims were hospitalized.
It was also learned Friday that two of the drivers involved in the crash have been charged with DUI, but not manslaughter, which means their intoxication may not have played role in the crash.
"There was one person who was reported as having used a marijuana substance, but that person is deceased, so there is no charges," Duarte said. "There was someone else who was driving with a revoked license."
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