Baltimore Freeway Pileup Leaves Two Dead After Fuel Tanker Crashes, Burns
Icy Weather Claims Another Driver
The first major storm of the winter to hit the Baltimore area led to a
67-vehicle pileup that left two dead, including the driver of a tanker
truck that was filled with gasoline, and sending two dozen more to area
Around 5:00 AM on Saturday (December 17) a series of accidents began on
an icy stretch on Interstate 95 had effectively blocked all northbound
traffic. At about 5:30 AM a tanker truck filled with gasoline approached
the accident scene but was unable to stop in time due to ice on the roadway.
The driver lost control and skidded over a low retaining wall, crashing
onto the railroad tracks below as the truck exploded into a fireball and
then burned furiously.
The Baltimore accident was similar to an accident that occurred in Michigan
less than two weeks before: the driver of a tractor trailer rig lost control
on an icy divided highway when approaching an accident, lost control,
with three deaths in the ensuing chain reaction.
The questions that will be raised here are the same as in the Michigan
accident: why would a professional 18-wheeler driver drive in conditions
that would seem to all but guarantee that an accident was going to occur
at some point on his planned route?
Inexperience on the part of the tanker driver would seem to be ruled out
as a factor in the accident because most tanker companies won’t
even talk to a driver unless that driver can show that they have anywhere
from three to five years of over the road (OTR) driving experience. When
you add in the assumption that the driver was probably an East Coast resident
(most tanker deliveries are made within a 300-mile radius of the tanker’s
home terminal), it is unlikely that inexperience or unfamiliarity with
winter weather driving played a role in the accident.
There is always the possibility that the driver was going too fast and
wasn’t aware that there was an accident on the road ahead. This
seems unlikely as well since, even though the “Smokey and the Bandit”
years of trucking are long gone, drivers still warn each other of hazards
on the roads ahead. This would seem to eliminate driver error on unfamiliarity
with conditions as a factor.
Equipment failure, particularly of the tankers brakes, could also have
been involved since air brakes are prone to failure due to atmospheric
water freezing in cold weather. Given that the driver of the tanker was
an experienced driver who probably lived in the area, he would have been
alert to the danger of freezing and cleared his brake lines before hitting
the highway. The same holds true for other systems on the truck with an
Even if one of the potential problems had been present, it still doesn’t
answer the original question: why would a professional driver be on the
road in conditions that were causing flights to be cancelled or delayed
a half-hour’s drive away at Baltimore-Washington International Airport?
The true answer will probably never be known since the driver died in the
accident, but one possible explanation is that the driver had no option
but to go if he or she wanted to keep diving for the tanker company.
It is a fact of life in the trucking industry that drivers who are consistently
late with pickups and deliveries are not very popular with their dispatchers
since dispatchers are the ones who have to deal with irate customers every
day. Experienced drivers are aware of this and will try to walk the fine
line that separates their personal safety from a dispatcher who can, for
lack of a better description, make the driver’s life a living hell
of lousy trips and unending paperwork. Thus, if a dispatcher says drive
in lousy weather, the big rig driver learns to live with it and drive
in lousy weather. The company owners or terminal managers get their information
from the dispatchers rather than the drivers, so staying on a dispatcher’s
good side means that the driver’s life may be a living hell but
it beats no hell at all.
The real reasons for the Baltimore accident will probably never be known
with any certainty but, in the absence of a better explanation for why
an 18-wheeler driver was on the road in rotten weather, pressure to make
deliveries must be considered as at least a possibility.