I-TEAM looks at why semi crashes can be so deadly

7 killed in fiery pileup that involved 2 tractor-trailers on I-75, FHP says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The fiery pileup Thursday afternoon on Interstate 75 near Gainesville that killed seven people, including five children, involved two 18-wheelers.

As state troopers continued to investigate the cause of the crash, the News4Jax I-TEAM looked at dangers that can be associated with semitrucks. 

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 3,986 people died in large truck crashes in 2016. Sixty-six percent were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles.

A semitruck is hard to stop. It’s heavy and it’s full of fuel -- reasons drivers need to be careful.

"These 40-ton trucks can't stop on a dime," said former truck driver Joe Lackey, who runs Florida State College at Jacksonville's Commercial Vehicle Driving program. "I think people really need to have a better understanding of just how much space these trucks need when they’re going down the roadway."

On Friday, Lackey took the I-TEAM on the road to show why these crashes can be so deadly.

"You may not feel like it, but we are doing 65, almost 70 mph," Lackey said. "And watch when I hit the brakes. It’s going to take quite a bit of distance to stop."

Even under good conditions, it's about three football fields.

A fully loaded semi weighs up to 80,000 pounds.

"That much weight going at highway speed, (it's) just gonna go through the guardrail," Lackey said. "It’s gonna be like going through hot butter."

On Thursday afternoon, according to the Florida Highway Patrol, two vehicles traveling north -- a tractor-trailer and a car -- smashed into each other and then burst through a metal guardrail, slamming into another semitrailer and a van carrying the children. Diesel fuel leaked and the mass erupted into a fireball.

Lackey said fiery crashes are caused by a number of factors including oil, gasoline and diesel.

"In here, you can put up 150 gallons of diesel fuel and then there’s usually one on both sides," he explained. "So with a fully loaded truck, you’ve got 300 gallons of fuel."

It’s unclear if Thursday's tragic wreck could have been prevented, but Lackey says safety around semis is everyone’s responsibility.

"Statistics bear out. It is usually not the truck driver's fault. Somebody got in front of him too soon, (hit) the brakes too hard, didn’t signal their intent or whatever the case may be and caused that driver to react," he said. "Truck drivers, when you see them, they are at work. They are the professional driver. They probably got more sleep than the average car driver. They are subject to random drug tests."

Not only is it hard for trucks to brake, they also have large blind spots. That’s why Lackey says it’s important other drivers give them plenty of distance, just in case something happens.

If you have to pass a semitruck, experts say to pass on the left. If you have to pass on the right, according to experts, leave one lane in between you and that truck. That will minimize your danger and theirs in the blind spots.

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