Friday, October 18, 2002

I was wondering why Werner was all jumpy. This article is why!!!!!

News Story

Lawyer links trucker's messaging system to fatal crash

Margaret Gibbons, Special to The Mercury October 04, 2002

NORRISTOWN -- A truck driver's use of an onboard electronic messaging system was a major factor in the fiery 1999 multi-vehicle crash on the Schuylkill Expressway that resulted in the death of two motorists, including a Limerick man, according to the lawyers who represented the family of one of the victims.
"This accident could have been prevented and lives saved if the driver of the tractor-trailer would have been paying more attention," said lawyer Peter M. Villari of the Lansdale law firm Ostroff, Villari & Kusturiss.

But it is Werner Enterprises Inc. more so than its driver that must shoulder responsibility for the accident, Villari claimed Wednesday.

While Werner, a nationwide trucking firm headquartered in Omaha, Neb., warns its drivers not to use the messaging system while driving, it has never "taken the simple measure" of having the messaging systems disconnected when its trucks are on the road, said Villari.

"Why tempt a driver," said Villari, explaining that a light and tone go off when a message is sent to the driver. "It's like having your phone ring but being told not to answer it. It just does not make any sense to us."

Villari and law partner Paul D. Brandes represented the estate of the late Jeffrey Shober, 42, of Havertown in Delaware County. The pair recently secured a $6.5 million mediated settlement on behalf of Shober's widow and two teenage daughters.

Shober was one of two men who burned to death in the Feb. 2, 1999, collision.

The accident occurred about 2:15 p.m. in the westbound lanes of the Schuylkill Expressway near the interchange with Route 202 in King of Prussia.

Tractor-trailer driver Robert Spadaccine, 48, of Milford, Del., was driving his rig in the right-hand westbound lane while the late Louis Ottaviano, 31, of Limerick, was driving his Volkswagen west in the left-hand lane.

The Volkswagen made a sharp right turn into the right-hand lane immediately in front of the tractor-trailer, according to a police account of the incident. The car was so close to the truck that the truck rear-ended the Volkswagen, the police report said.

The Volkswagen then collided with a car driven by Shober.

Both cars exploded in a fiery blaze and Shober and Ottaviano were killed.

Cleanup of the accident, which also involved two other cars, shut down the expressway for more than six hours.

Shortly after the accident, then-District Attorney Michael D. Marino and state police Capt. Thomas LaCrosse held a press conference to announce Spadaccine was not to blame for the accident and that the tractor-trailer was in good working order.

Talking in general terms, LaCrosse said there have been problems in that area in the past with cars in the left lane cutting in front of cars in the right lane to exit onto Route 202.

However, in an independent investigation of the accident, Villari said he had learned that Spadaccine had been sending a message over his on-board messaging system just seconds before the accident.

"This means that basically he (Spadaccine) was looking down, typing a message and that when he looked up, it was too late," said Brandes. "He jammed on his brakes but could not stop in time to avoid crashing at high speed into the traffic in front of him."

The system on the Werner trucks enables dispatchers to send out written messages to its drivers and allows the drivers, who have keyboards connected to the system, to return written messages, said Villari.

It also serves as a satellite tracking system, according to Villari. Also, the system keeps a paperless log of the driver's activities, he said. Both of these capabilities could continue to function even when the actual messaging system is shut down when the vehicle is on the road, Villari said.

Villari pointed out that various states are adopting laws that bar drivers from using their cell phones while driving because the cell phones distract drivers and have resulted in accidents, including some with fatalities.

However, to date, neither Werner, the federal Department of Transportation nor the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration have taken any action limiting the use of onboard messaging systems to a time when tractor-trailers are safely stopped.

"Why there have been no investigations launched nor steps taken to eliminate the use of this tractor-trailer onboard messaging system while 40,000- to 80,000-pound trucks daily are traveling at high speeds on America's highways is frankly unbelievable to us," said Villari.

Villari said that he and Brandes, at the request of the Shober family, are trying to get the message out about the use of these systems to the public and to state and federal lawmakers in an effort to have the use of these systems restricted.

---WernerScrews 10-4