When heavy fog combined with smoke from a nearby forest fire on a Miami highway, officials were quick to close the road. There was no choice, really. Visibility was close to zero making the area a disaster ready to happen. But after a while, things seemed to be clearing and the Florida Highway Patrol reopened the highway. Unfortunately, the smoke and fog came back suddenly, and with traffic moving at near normal speed, the result was several car accidents.
As it turns out, the decision to reopen the roads wasn’t unanimous. One of the sergeants involved in the debate warned that visibility could potentially drop suddenly. However, a lieutenant didn’t see the risk as significant and the road was opened. It was the sergeant’s fears that manifested. One trucker who was on the highway when the visibility dropped again reported that he could see perfectly one minute, and the next it was “like a white blanket.” He heard more than he saw as vehicles hit his truck and it seemed the only light was coming from the flames of burning vehicles.
Besides not having an effective protocol in place for closing and reopening the highway, it turns out visibility wasn’t good even in less than compromising conditions. The lighting was poor as well, so even darkness made driving difficult.
In the year since the incident, many improvements have been made, but there is still work to be done. Programmable signs have been added to warn drivers of compromising conditions, such as heavy fog. Closed circuit cameras and visibility sensors have also been added, although the federal government had made those recommendations twenty years ago. If the recommendations had been taken to heart earlier, those car accidents, and many others, likely would have never happened.
Source: Miami Herald, “Improvements, lawsuits mark I-75 crash anniversary,” Kyle Hightower, Jan. 27, 2013