Preventable or not?


John was driving in the rain below the posted speed limit. But could he have avoided the collision?

The wipers were slowly sweeping the windshield as John Doe drove his older, full-size tractor-trailer Northward on a rural, two-lane stretch of highway. Although it was midday, John kept his speed 5 mph below the posted, conservative maximum of 55 because of the rain, which had just begun. He knew this meant especially slippery conditions because of the dirty road surface. As John’s wary eye swept back and forth, something caught his attention. It was a compact car cautiously starting to enter the road on the opposite side, not far ahead of him.

Only seconds later, a fast-moving Southbound pickup came around a corner from John’s left, a few hundred feet ahead. The pickup was heading right for the compact, which had not yet built up speed. As soon as the pickup’s driver realized a vehicle that was almost stationary was blocking her lane, she attempted a panic stop. The pickup, unloaded and also without ABS, experienced a four-wheel lockup on the wet asphalt and performed two 360-degree spins.

Because it was still in the curve, inertia carried the pickup in a straight line – right into John’s path. A witness later told police there was nothing John could have done to avoid the pickup. John had immediately applied his brakes and cranked the steering wheel as hard to the right as a reasonable driver would dare to. Even though John’s driving skills kept the tractor from jackknifing, partially locked up wheels and limited stopping ability were the inevitable result of the super-slick road surface. The left/front corner of the tractor hit the pickup’s bed, and sustained what later proved to be $3,500 in damage.

John’s fleet’s safety committee judged him guiltless. But, the corporate safety director still wasn’t fully convinced John could not have somehow better anticipated the trouble and found a way to avoid it. A full report was sent to the National Safety Council’s Accident Review Committee to break the tie. After considering not only John’s report, but the corroboration of the witness, they ruled the accident non-preventable because of John’s cautious cruising speed and immediate, controlled reaction.