Judgment in fatal accident out of line

What exactly is protocol for drivers who find themselves blindly navigating a busy, foggy highway, murky with plumes of smoke from flaming tractor trailers and an out-of-control wildfire burn? The Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) seems to think it knows.

That is why patrolmen issued citations to drivers involved in at least eight traffic accidents during last Wednesday’s massive pileup on Interstate 4.

Citations for careless driving and improper stopping procedure were issued to drivers traveling in the westbound lanes, just across the median from the fiery eastbound mess that resulted in four deaths (now five) approximately an hour earlier.

FHP Trooper Larry Coggins told reporters the citations were rightly issued to drivers who failed to use caution during such chaotic conditions. Coggins also said that no drivers involved in the initial pileup in eastbound lanes received citations because an investigation was needed to determine fault.

If one set in these series of awful accidents deserves further inquiry before placing blame, then certainly so does the other.

Sure, the secondary accidents occurred after sunrise, unlike their deadlier pre-dawn counterparts, but these drivers were also dealing with some extreme conditions of their own.

Westbound drivers confronted rescue workers all around, emergency vehicles driving in the wrong direction to reach injured parties, incoming traffic which should have been rerouted until the scene was cleared, smoke from burning vehicles across the median, smoke from the Florida Division of Forestry’s “controlled” fire which burned 40 times the amount of acreage as intended, not to mention the same dense fog that was present earlier in the morning (and many early mornings on this stretch of I-4, which cuts through an area of Polk County referred to as “the green swamp”).

The injuries were less severe, but the conditions surrounding the accidents in the westbound lanes were not independent or isolated from those that took place a few yards away.

The audacious assertion by representatives of FHP that one group of people were victims of circumstance due to a set of confounding conditions while another group in those same conditions were somehow at fault is ludicrous.

The same stretch of I-4 has already been closed several mornings since Jan. 9’s accidents due to low and zero-visibility conditions as well as reoccurring smoke from the smoldering flames of the FDF burn. Did that one hour really make the difference between hazardous conditions and navigable ones?

As Lee Coppock, professor at Stetson College of Law, said: “Negligence, by definition, is failure to act as a reasonable person could in the same or similar circumstances. The first question always is ‘Did the defendant do something wrong?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then you go home.”

Did the drivers in the westbound lanes do something wrong? I don’t know, but I think it would be worth taking a closer look.

Issuing citations for a law or procedure that doesn’t actually exist is unlawful and unfair, especially in a situation like the I-4 pileup where so many components contributed to the accidents.

I guess it is easier for governmental agencies to elevate an already horrible situation to a disgraceful one by punishing people who didn’t actually commit offenses than to step up and admit they messed up also.

Renee Sessions is a senior majoring in creative writing.