Turnpike Crash Exposed Communication Gaps: Officials

Pennsylvania state senators warned Tuesday that a Valentine's Day pileup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike was a lesson in chaos and gridlock that needs to be corrected before another one happens with more serious consequences.
The hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee focused on the weather analysis before water froze on the roadway during the Feb. 14 morning's commute, the communication gaps between the responding agencies and the lack of access that police and emergency responders had to the roadway.
Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, said that when agencies did respond, it was confused and chaotic and nobody seemed to know who was in charge.
"There seemed to be nobody ... who said, 'I'm the guy,'" Rafferty said. In the future, lines of authority and communication need to be clear in a large response to a major accident, he said.
Officials from the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission acknowledged that they need to work on their response to major pileups.
"There's no question that there was some chaos," Mark Compton, the turnpike commission's chief executive officer, told Rafferty.
Nobody died as a result of the 41-crash chain-reaction over three miles on the turnpike in suburban Philadelphia, about seven miles east of the Willow Grove interchange in Bucks County. The eastbound crashes were reported just before 8:30 a.m., in the middle of rush hour and about five hours after a storm that dropped a foot of snow in the area finally moved out.
Speed restrictions put in place during the storm had been lifted at 6 a.m., but rush-hour motorists said the roadway was very slick, calling into question whether it had been adequately treated. State police also suspect sun glare might have played a role.
Turnpike officials and state police say the roadway had been treated for ice that morning and was wet before ice unexpectedly formed in patches. Still, state police say troopers issued 52 citations, mostly for speeding, and maintain that human error was the primary cause of the crashes.
It took about eight hours to clear the roadway, and state police troopers responding to the accident had to leave their cars in gridlocked traffic and get to the scene on foot, police said.
Officials acknowledged that some responding agencies did not communicate well initially. For instance, the state police and Bensalem police each set up command centers. Backed up traffic hampered the efforts of police and responders because gridlocked cars couldn't get out of the way and the barriers prevented access from the westbound lanes.
Lt. Col. George Bivens, the state police's deputy commissioner for operations, said the various police agencies train with each other, but not to respond to such large accidents.
Still, he said, the eight-hour timeframe to clear the road was probably unavoidable, given the number of disabled vehicles and the demands of an investigation. Also, it is very difficult to let motorists know about ice forming when it happens so quickly, as it did that morning, Bivens said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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