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Inexperience Causes Deaths, Injuries On Colorado Highways

CC BY-SA 3.0
I-70 West, east of the Eisenhower–Johnson Memorial Tunnel in Colorado.";

Sixteen people lost their lives and another 337 were injured between 2013 and 2017 because the drivers of large trucks or buses were inexperienced or unfamiliar with Colorado's roads.

Those findings are based on KUNC's analysis of state transportation crash data. They come as authorities continue to investigate the semi-truck crash on Interstate 70 in Lakewood last week involving 28 vehicles, killing four people.

A prosecutor has called the driver, 23-year-old Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, reckless and is expected to file at least four counts of vehicular homicide. Aguilera-Mederos' defense has suggested that a mechanical issue — brake failure — could have led to the crash.

Law-enforcement officials declined to discuss the case with KUNC, citing the ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, experts are speculating over evidence in the public realm, including social media videos. One shows Aguilera-Mederos' truck moving extremely fast on a downhill section of I-70 west of Lakewood, swerving and passing a runaway truck ramp.

Jim Park reviewed that video and others, at times frame-by-frame. He is a former trucker with 20 years of experience and equipment editor for California-based Heavy Duty magazine, which covers the trucking industry. Park said the evidence seems to show that Aguilera-Mederos underestimated the safety needed to navigate steep, downhill grades on I-70 in a heavy truck. He noted the long descent on the east-bound stretch of the highway from the Eisenhower and Johnson Tunnels into the Denver area.

"All the way down this long, 50-mile hill you're heating up your brakes slowly and by the time you get to the tricky part of the hill — or Lookout Mountain down into Lakewood there — a mountain grade empties out onto a downtown freeway," Park said.

Park said the driver didn't appear to be gearing down. That's when drivers downshift and the engine slows the truck. If a trucker fails to do that, they risk overheating their brakes and, in the worst cases, that can cause them to fail. He also noted the 23-year-old driver was from Texas and likely unfamiliar with Colorado, including the metro area traffic he was fast-approaching.

"Inexperienced and unfamiliar with the area — they have to be contributing factors, I believe, unless something comes up to prove otherwise," Park said.

Inexperience and unfamiliarity with Colorado's roads were a deadly combination in 15 percent of the 16,500 crashes where the drivers of large trucks or buses were found by officers to be at fault. That's according to KUNC's analysis of Colorado Department of Transportation data between 2013 and 2017. The data, which lumped large trucks and buses in the same category, was obtained through the state's freedom of information law.

Nine people died because the drivers of large trucks or buses were unfamiliar with the area. Another 154 were injured. Seven more people died because of truck or bus drivers who lacked experience and 183 were injured.

That did not surprise Greg Fulton, the president of the Colorado Commercial Motor Carriers Association, a leading trade group for truck companies. The industry, he said, has long asked questions about ways to improve safety on the roads. He referenced the association's own look at different data on runaway trucks.

"We found that in most cases, the vast majority of cases, is that it involved a company from out of state," Fulton said. "It has involved a driver who is driving that vehicle from out of state. It has involved, in many cases, a driver who has not driven on I-70 very often, if at all. It may be their first. And then the other thing is in many cases they may be somewhat inexperienced in terms of how many years of experience they're driving."

"This is one of those situations where hopefully we all learn." -Greg Fulton, Colorado Commercial Motor Carriers Association

He added that when police wrap up their investigation of Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, he'd like to see truckers and state officials look at ways safety can be improved on I-70.

"It saddens us when anybody is involved in an incident like this," Fulton said, adding, "this is one of those situations where hopefully we all learn."

Distracted truck and bus drivers were also found at fault in crashes that resulted in deaths and injuries. While there are laws that aim to curb distracted driving, officials and experts say it is hard to imagine laws against inexperienced and unfamiliar drivers.

CDOT Chief Engineer Joshua Laipply said driver behavior appears to be a critical factor in understanding what led up last week's crash.

"You've got a driver behavior issue, whether that was inadequate training or why he didn't take some steps that he could have taken because there are hundreds of trucks that drive through there from the mountains every day and that doesn't happen to them," Laipply said.

Laipply added that CDOT is bound to take another look at safety on I-70 even though there are numerous safety precautions already in place for truckers. Beyond the ramps, there are big yellow sign warning truckers. One near Lookout Mountain read: "You Are Not Down Yet."

"I'm sure we'll go back and we'll be looking at could we have signed something better?" Laipply said. "Could we have done something better?"

There were 16,571 crashes between 2013 and 2017 where truckers were blamed by investigating officers. Those crashes resulted in 106 deaths and 2,702 injuries. In roughly half the cases, officers identified "factors" that preceded the crash. Top factors were:

  • Driver unfamiliar with area (9 deaths / 154 injuries)
  • Driver inexperience (7 deaths / 183 injuries)
  • Driver preoccupied (14 deaths / 319 injuries)
  • Driver asleep at the wheel (8 deaths / 100 injuries)
  • Driver fatigued (2 deaths / 44 injuries)
  • Illness (1 death / 16 injuries)
  • Distracted by a passenger (8 injuries)

UPDATE 5/3/2019: Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos has been officially charged with four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assult, and 24 counts of attempted first-degree assault.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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