Preventable or Not?

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John Doe’s premium, long-nose tractor and gleaming van trailer were rolling contentedly down I-95 early in the evening of a dark, winter day. John, though intently staring at the road, was munching on his daily ration of Gummy Bears and talking on the CB with a friend of the airwaves who was worried about what might happen if the airbag in the steering wheel of the new tractor he was driving was triggered accidentally.

Suddenly, John spotted a large, flat object in the road ahead. He was caught slightly off guard by the attention he was paying to the conversation. The darkness meant the object didn’t show up under the headlights until it was too close to give him much time to react.

The tractor’s three axles, and then the two trailer axles, rode over the object with a sound no harsher than a “galump.” The suspension had obviously not even bottomed out, and absolutely no vibration or change in operating characteristics was apparent. John heaved a sigh of relief and went on as his blood pressure gradually descended back to normal.

Everything was calm until, about three miles later, John saw something in his driver’s side mirror. A look at the image revealed an officer of the state police with his face lit by his cruiser’s interior light, and with a panicked look on it. The officer was madly tapping his horn and waving his finger at John’s drive axles. Then, John saw what had the officer alarmed: It was smoke emanating from the drive tires. He hit his right turn signal, gradually applied the brakes, and soon found a clear spot to pull well over onto the shoulder.

John then popped the parkingbrake buttons out of the dash, unclamped the fire extinguisher from its mount behind his seat, jumped to the ground and raced for the drive axle area with the extinguisher in tow. The officer brought another extinguisher and the two collaborated in a valiant attempt to douse the flames. Soon, they were out, but not before the tires were all but melted and the trailer bottom was badly charred.

The problem was that the object John had encountered was an improperly secured mattress that fell from a truck that had passed by earlier. The impact had tossed the object up between the wheels and the trailer, generating quite a bit of heat as the lug-type tread pattern on the tires had rubbed it for several miles. John received a warning letter from his fleet’s safety director for a preventable accident.

Indignant, John contested the ruling, but the National Safety Council’s Accident Review Committee ruled the accident preventable.

There were two bases for their decision. First, NSC said, John obviously had been over-driving his headlights, or he’d have had enough time to stop. Second, even given a failure to react appropriately at the moment he sighted the mattress, John should have immediately pulled over and inspected the vehicle. He would have been able to remove the mattress long before it had generated enough heat to cause a fire.