Preventable or not?


John Doe’s priority was clearing the way for a state trooper’s emergency response. In that light, was his unplanned merger with a tree limb truly preventable?

John Doe was relaxed, cruising his tractor and half-empty van down a two-lane interstate not far from a big city. It was morning, but long enough after rush hour that traffic was thinning out. His mood was buoyed by sun and the trees that lined both sides of the road, giving it the feel of the kind of elegant, European boulevard he had seen in the movies. He thought of the summers of his childhood.

Doe had his CB on, and there suddenly came the crackle of a report from a fellow driver of an accident near a landmark Doe recognized. He knew it was about two miles ahead.
He watched for signs of slowing traffic, but for now, everything kept rolling along at nearly 65. Believing he still might easily make it to his next delivery appointment on time, he popped a lime-green Gummy Bear into his mouth and savored the flavor.

Doe hardly noticed that he had just passed a state police barracks. A few minutes later, a call came into the barracks about the accident, and an officer was dispatched to the scene. Trooper John Law happily leapt into the driver’s seat of the shiny, new full-size sedan with a 300-hp V8 under the hood and light bar full of multi-colored strobes on the roof. Soon, having found the passing lane nearly empty, he’d reached 85 mph and was closing on Doe.

Doe saw the strobe lights in plenty of time – long before hearing the wail of the siren. Having been chewed out by a trooper for taking too long to pull over in his youth, he immediately took his foot off the throttle and quickly glanced at the shoulder ahead. Finding it flat and free of broken down cars and trash, he briskly cranked his wheel to the right.

“Blammo!” Doe heard a crack and felt a shudder even before his duals reached the edge of the shoulder. As he looked into his right side mirror, he could see that a low branch on a big oak tree only a few feet away from the shoulder’s edge had been smacked and broken by the right front corner of the trailer. The trailer corner was dented, and its paint was scratched.

The fleet safety director listened to Doe’s side of the story carefully, but the next day he was handed a letter notifying that him he had been charged with a minor preventable accident. Doe headed right for the safety director’s office, indignant but controlling his anger to the point where he was able to at least confront the man without shouting. The director, though considering the damage relatively minor, wouldn’t back down, so Doe asked the National Safety Council’s Accident Review Committee review.

Doe might have saved them the trouble. The panel’s members took little time to decide to uphold the safety director’s judgment. They decided Doe should not have driven off the highway without taking the time to let his peripheral vision sweep farther to the right to look for such common hazards as big, overhanging tree limbs. One panel member commented, “It only takes a moment to look before you leap.”