one summer evening right at dusk, John Doe was making his way eastward on a two-lane, central Indiana highway as a severe thunderstorm, complete with 70-mph wind gusts, blew up. John geared down the 13-speed in his late-model Pete, cranked up the wipers, and popped a Gummy Bear into his mouth to ease the tension.
Soon, John could see flashing lights ahead. As he cautiously approached, going down another gear, it became clear these were mounted on top of a sheriff’s car. Its occupant was diverting traffic onto a side road because of some downed wires ahead.
John was worried about his ability to negotiate the tight, right turn with his 48-foot x 102-inch trailer and long-nose tractor. He gently brought the rig to a controlled stop right by the officer, cranked down his window and, after politely greeting the policeman, explained his dilemma.
The officer, drenched and agitated, and seeing traffic rapidly accumulating behind the long rig, expressed little concern for John’s worries, and cracked a clear order: “Just keep it movin’. You can make it. These folks all want to get home tonight!”
John closed the window, put the Pete in low, and popped a couple more Gummys into his mouth to steady his hand. He began to stare intently at the dark image in the right side mirror, and gently let up on the clutch. As he found what he was sure was the best arc he had room for, the trailer soon slowly bumped up over the curb and the duals began rolling across the grassy corner – just what he expected. ‘Things are going better than I anticipated,’ he quietly thought to himself.
Next, John heard a loud crack like a rifle shot. Not knowing his rig was involved, he continued for a few more seconds – until he heard the ominous groan and crackling of splitting wood. At that instant, his right foot mashed the air brakes and his clutch foot went to the floor, lurching the rig to an immediate stop. He nearly choked on his Gummy Bears.
John threw the gear lever into neutral, set the parking brake, got out to have a look, and found that the trailer tandem had snagged a thin guy wire that had been all but invisible in the gloom. The wire had braced a wooden power pole, which had snapped and dragged down a companion located across the street. Now there were more wires down!
When reviewing the situation, the fleet’s driver trainer decided that John hadn’t maneuvered himself into the best possible position to make the turn. The trainer said John should have stopped earlier to give himself more room to maneuver after getting the order to proceed. If he’d had so much doubt about the negotiability of the corner, he should have refused to continue and arranged to back out. In the trainer’s opinion, the accident had been preventable.
The National Safety Council’s Accident Review Committee disagreed. A law enforcement officer’s direct order must be obeyed. John had stopped where the officer was standing to communicate with him effectively in a noisy environment. John was only proceeding as specifically ordered, and, therefore, he should not be held responsible for the damage.