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Week of 11 April 2022: Without much time to think

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There was a fatal automobile accident in our neighborhood lately that can serve as an excellent study on how we think when there is little time to sort out the situation.

A major train line runs through our town. I'll not mention the railroad, but it is a famous one here in the southeastern United States. Historically, one needs to remember that Atlanta was founded as a railroad town; we are not on navigable waters as are most large cities. Lots of trains here.

Our town is about twenty miles north of the main railyard for the subject line. Trains going north are picking up speed and can be moving quite fast. Trains going south are slowing down as they approach the yards twenty miles ahead.

On this particular morning, it was 5:30 am. Although daylight savings time had started, it was still dark. All the crossings in town are guarded with lights, bells, and gates. This particular crossing was not a major one, but it had all the safety features.

An Uber driver with passenger, in the driver's pickup truck, were crossing the single track mainline. Somehow, I don't know, they got caught between the gates as they came down to warn of an approaching train. Apparently the Uber driver tried to turn around (first mistake) and got off the pavement and stuck between the tracks.

The coming train was northbound and gaining speed. Apparently as soon as the train engineer saw the pickup, he applied the emergency brakes and continuously blew his horn.

The Uber passenger, feeling no allegiance to the truck, jumped out of the truck and out of the way. The Uber driver stayed with his truck, which was knocked about a quarter of a mile down the track in the impact. He was killed on impact.

Now, there are many interesting physics and engineering issues in this crash (by the way, early in my career, I served as an expert witness on several railroad collisions). More important for us, as members of the pulp and paper industry, is the thought processes that we can only speculate went through the minds of the two truck occupants in the approximately thirty seconds between them getting in trouble and the impact.

The passenger's actions are very clear and understandable. He saw the danger and immediately proceeded to get out of harm's way. The truck driver's thought process is less clear. I have seen a picture of his family, a modest household, likely watching every penny to get by. He was up very early in the morning, earning some extra money. I don't know the status of the truck--did he fully own it? Was it insured as it is supposed to be? Did his value system keep him from just driving through the barrier gates because that might cause a liability problem for him? It is impossible to know what he was thinking but we can observe that as a driver and truck owner, he felt more allegiance to the physical equipment than did his passenger. This attitude cost him his life.

There are lessons here for all of us. Dangerous conditions can come upon us in a flash. One would have to have the issues encumbering this driver sorted out ahead of time; there is not enough time left to process the options when there is only thirty seconds between life and death.

Another good safety topic for you.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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