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Witnessed fiery truck crash in New Mexico

As a trucking accident trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, I often litigate about trucking accidents. As a seminar speakers, I often talk about them at continuing legal education seminars around the country. On this blog, I frequently write about them.

But last Sunday, I saw one.

While helping my son move his car and his stuff home from California, I was taking a turn driving east of Albuquerque when we saw a column of black smoke just ahead. As traffic ground to a halt, we saw that about 200 yards ahead on the westbound lanes of I-40, one tractor trailer had rear-ended another, and was beginning to burn.

Another bystander said that her husband had broken out a window in the cab of the striking vehicle and pulled the unconscious driver out before his rig burst into flames.

As traffic was blocked in both directions, my son and I waited over an hour, watching as the truck was engulfed in flames and a huge column of black smoke rose into the clear New Mexico sky.

Numerous emergency vehicles responded. Eventually a helicopter landed in our eastbound lanes and evacuated the truck driver.

While we waited, I talked with the drivers of trucks stopped behind us. A bulk freight tanker filled with plastic pellets was stopped behind me at an angle blocking both lanes. One of the other truckers thanked him for blocking both lanes that way, so that others would not get closer to the fire before stopping. He responded that he had no choice. Due in part to handling characteristics with that load, he had a hard time stopping without hitting us, and wound up at an angle across both lanes.

The truck drivers waiting on the road talked some about the new CSA 2010 (Comprehensive Safety Analysis) program coming online soon at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A seasoned truck driver (about my age) was concerned that anyone who has been driving over the road for 30 years, with the diet and exercise difficulties that go with that, is bound to have medical conditions that require medication that would be reported under the new system.

They also talked a little about how they manage rest, diet and exercise. Or don’t manage it, as the case may be. One mentioned the near monopoly in the truck stop business, and the lack of healthy food or exercise facilities at truck stops. If the giant players in the truck stop industry would put in healthy food and fitness facilities, it would help a lot in improving truck driver health and public safety.

Eventually the helicopter took off and we were able to drive away. As we passed the burned out tractor trailer, it was difficult to recognize the completely incinerated tractor. Traffic was backed up for many miles on the westbound lanes of I-40 and probably was not cleared for quite a while longer.

No, I don’t know the causes of the crash — fatigue, distraction, speed, following too closely, or even sudden stopping in the middle of an open interstate through the desert.

Fortunately, it was another tractor trailer that was hit. While the trailer of the lead vehicle was destroyed, there was no direct impact to the cab. If a small vehicle had been hit in that manner, and then involved in the truck fire, it is unlikely any occupants would have survived.

Ken Shigley is a trucking safety trial attorney representing seriously injured people in tractor trailer, big rig, intermodal container freight, cement truck, dump truck and bus accidents statewide in Georgia. He served as chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute in 2005, is a national board member of the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice, and is on the National Advisory Board for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America.

He has extensive experience representing parties in interstate trucking collision cases, and in the past two years has spoken at national interstate trucking litigation seminars in Chicago (trucking insurance), New Orleans (trial tactics and side underride issues), St. Louis (punitive damages), San Francisco (dealing with insolvent trucking companies), Atlanta (trucking insurance, closing argument), Nashville (use of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations), and Amelia Island (overview of trucking litigation).

A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he has been listed as a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), among the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers (Martindale). In addition to trucking litigation, he has broad experience in products liability, catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, spinal cord injury, brain injury and burn injury cases. Currently he is Treasurer and a candidate for President-Elect of the 41,000 member State Bar of Georgia.This post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.