Thursday, January 23, 2003

Police sift factors in fatal wreck

Bridge lights, trucker's record, car malfunctions examined

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - The streetlights on the bridge have been malfunctioning, the car's headlights may have been off and the driver of the truck was cited nine months ago for tailgating after being involved in a seven-car pileup in Cincinnati.

Those are some of what investigators are looking at as possible factors in a fatal accident Monday in which a tractor-trailer slammed into a car on the Brent Spence Bridge, killing the driver.

"We are looking into all these factors," said Lt. Col. Michael Kraft, "but we may never have the answer to all the questions surrounding this fatal wreck."

Todd Whatley, 41, of Covington was alone in a 1991 Dodge Shadow when the tractor-trailer, loaded with garbage, smashed into it at 4:25 a.m. Monday on the bridge. The truck pushed the car a distance across the bridge and wound up partially on top of it, police said.

The car was so badly crushed it took rescuers hours to be certain only one person had died. The impact drove the rear seat of the car nearly into the front seat.

The truck driver, Neil Howard, 51, of Middletown, was not injured. No charges have been filed.

The wreck, which caused havoc for rush-hour traffic Monday, was again blamed for a slowdown Wednesday as crews tried to get the lights on the bridge to stay lighted.

Bridge lights shorted

Electrical engineers found the short that had darkened the right side of the upper deck on Monday morning and Wednesday morning, said Kentucky Department of Transportation spokesman Larry Roberts. The question remains though, whether Monday's collision, in which debris hit some parts of the bridge, may have caused the short. "We might never know if the lights went out before or after the wreck," Mr. Roberts said.

He said the bridge, the jurisdiction of Kentucky, is inspected monthly, and the electrical system was in order during December's inspection. Mr. Roberts said no drivers had reported the bridge's lights being out before the wreck.

Car lights were off

Covington Police said witnesses to the wreck confirm the truck driver's statement that Mr. Whatley's car had no headlights on. Investigators speculate the car may have been suffering mechanical trouble and moving slowly in the far right lane. Lt. Col. Kraft said police will have a mechanic examine the wreckage to see if he can independently verify there was an electrical problem.

At least two motorists witnessed the wreck.

Driver caused pileup in May

Mr. Howard was ticketed for traveling too close to the vehicle in front of him when he rammed into the back of a Jeep Cherokee at 7:48 a.m. May 15 in the fast lane of Interstate 75 near the Norwood Lateral.

The collision caused a seven-car pileup that Karen Simmons said she was lucky to walk away from.

The 49-year-old Fort Mitchell woman's white Ford Mustang was clipped by the Cherokee.

"This guy needs to get off the road," said Ms. Simmons, whose brother is a truck driver. "He was a cowboy on the road the day he pushed a car into me. I watched him weave in and out of traffic before he hit the Jeep."

Mr. Howard couldn't be reached Wednesday for comment.

The trucking company he worked for in May, USF Dugan of Wichita, Kan., didn't return phone calls Wednesday. Covington Police say Mr. Howard was driving for R&J Trucking of Youngstown Monday. That company declined comment.

Mr. Howard's driving record, on file with the Ohio Department of Public Safety, shows the veteran driver had never been in a wreck before May. He received two points off his license for May's wreck and was fined $100.

Ohio records indicate Mr. Howard has received 11 citations since 1989, including four for speeding. It was unclear from the records how fast Mr. Howard was traveling for each speeding citation.

A spokesman for Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo., said the average over-the-road driver covers 120,000 miles a year and that 11 citations over a career wouldn't be unusually high.


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