Clearing deadly wrecks a challenge to local officials

North Buckhead Driving and DUI School

By Craig Schneider
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
6:29 a.m. Wednesday, April 18, 2012
The DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office and the Dunwoody Police Department gave differing accounts Tuesday of the response to a Monday morning crash on I-285 that left traffic at a standstill for four hours.
Police said it took the medical examiner’s staff two hours to reach the scene. The medical examiner said his staff arrived promptly but sat for an hour waiting for police to finish their work — a claim flatly denied by a police spokesman.
In any case, a national transportation expert said, there are faster ways to clear major accidents, including procedures that make it unnecessary for employees of the coroner or medical examiner to examine the scene in person.
Clearing crashes faster reduces the risk that emergency workers will be injured or that secondary accidents will occur, said Kevin Balke, a research engineer with Texas Transportation Institute. Swift action also minimizes the productivity that is lost as workers sit stuck in the traffic jam, he said.
In metro Atlanta, state and local transportation officials have poured millions of dollars in the last decade into programs designed to clear accident scenes and prevent lengthy delays. Roadway cameras, digital signage, mobile HERO units and improved communications between responders have cut in half the average time required to remove lane-blocking wrecks, according to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.
Nevertheless, Monday’s logjam revealed unresolved issues that can render such improvements largely meaningless — especially in crashes in which someone dies.
The incident brought into sharp focus two competing pressures: the desire by emergency personnel to perform a thorough investigation and show respect to the deceased, versus the frustration and economic losses associated with keeping thousands of people from their jobs.
Dunwoody Sgt. Mike Carlson said police understand the frustration of drivers, but need to ensure the investigation is complete and that the road is safe to travel.
“We are not going to jeopardize a thorough investigation to open up a road,” he said.
Outraged motorists such as Jerry Blanson, whose car overheated while he waited in the traffic jam, said there’s definite room for improvement.
“They should have cleared it quicker,” said Blanson, 47, of Marietta, a disabled veteran taking college classes in Alpharetta. “It wasn’t a 12-car pile up.”
Something more than drivers’ emotional equilibrium is on the line: The monetary costs associated with crashes far outstrip those caused by traffic congestion, according to a study published by the American Automobile Association. In major metro areas such as Atlanta, the cost of crashes comes to an average of about $1,400 per person per year, or about twice the per capita price tag for congestion, the study said.
The I-285 collision capped a weekend that included a deadly wreck Sunday afternoon that shut down I-75 near Cartersville for nearly 10 hours. On I-75, a northbound pickup crossed the median at about 3:30 p.m. and collided head-on with a southbound tractor-trailer, according to the Georgia State Patrol. Both vehicles caught fire and the driver of the pickup was killed.
Officials said the cleanup was complicated because the tractor-trailer was carrying plastic bags. They had to let the fire burn out rather than spraying it with water, they said, in order to avoid possible contamination of nearby waterways.
The I-285 shutdown occurred after a car driven by Christopher Conze, 23, of Snellville collided with another vehicle, police said. Conze, who was traveling westbound, then hit the median wall before coming to a stop in the center westbound lane, police said. He got out of his vehicle and jumped the wall into the eastbound lanes, where he was struck by several vehicles.
The crash happened at about 4:38 a.m., according to the police report. Carlson said police placed the first call to the medical examiner’s office at about 5 a.m. A staffer arrived between 6:40 and 6:50 a.m., Carlson said. Three lanes reopened at 8:30 a.m., and the rest at about 9 a.m.
Carlson said the medical examiner’s office responded without “undue delay.” But he said in response to a question that if the staffer had arrived earlier, the highway would “possibly” have reopened sooner.
DeWayne Calhoun, interim director of the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office, said his staff arrived at the scene in a timely fashion and were kept waiting by police. “In reference to the two-hour delay, that is not true,” he said.
On one thing the two agencies did agree: The grisly nature of the scene made it time-consuming to recover the remains.
Nationally, transportation planners are promoting laws and policies that allow police or other emergency personnel to work via phone with a coroner or medical examiner to certify a traffic death. Several municipalities have adopted such policies, which are designated as a “best practice” by the Federal Highway Administration.
“It’s a recommended practice,” said Balke of the Texas Transportation Institute, a nationally recognized leader in transportation analysis.
That isn’t always appropriate, particularly when criminal charges are likely, Balke said. Dunwoody police said no charges are expected in relation to Monday’s crash.
In November, Gov. Nathan Deal signed an Open Roads Policy, which establishes guidelines for the roles of various state and local agencies at the scene of a crash. An addendum to that policy, which must be approved by individual municipalities, proposes that in certain circumstances, the coroner or medical examiner need not be at the crash scene to allow removal of a body.
That proposal has stirred mixed reaction. Sonny Wilson, president of the Georgia Association of Coroners, said he agrees with it in accidents that do not require a lot of investigation, where the scene can be documented with photographs.
But he said he wouldn’t certify death remotely for an incident such as Monday’s I-285 crash, because there is too much evidence to document.
And Calhoun of the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office was even more emphatic: “We’d rather be on the scene,” he said. “We don’t declare a death over the phone.”
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