If you kill someone

| December 12, 2008

Even when you’re blameless in a fatal wreck, you might have to wrestle with serious emotional or financial consequences.

Just after 10 p.m. on June 26, 2007, on U.S. 20 southeast of Rochester, N.Y., a 17-year-old driver lost control of her eastbound Chevy Trailblazer. She spun into the path of an oncoming 2000 International hauling a load of paper products to Buffalo.

The trucker braked, leaving a set of skid marks 124 feet long, but was unable to avoid broadsiding the SUV, which erupted in flames. The occupants of the Trailblazer – five young women from nearby Perinton, all of whom had graduated from Fairpoint High School only five days before – were killed instantly. The trucker was unhurt.

After his investigation, Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said the trucker had done all that anyone in his position could do to avoid the crash.

Many owner-operators can’t imagine what that trucker must be going through. Others understand all too well. Nearly one in 10 readers responding to an eTrucker.com survey say they, too, have been involved in a big-rig fatality that was not their fault.

About 70 percent of car-truck fatalities, studies show, are not the fault of the truckers, a statistic frequently cited by trucking advocates in response to those who would demonize the industry. But being blameless doesn’t spare all those truckers the consequences of a fatal accident. Even those who emerge physically unhurt may pay a steep price emotionally or financially. Small wonder that 11 percent of eTrucker.com responders say their greatest fear is “a wreck that kills me or someone else.”

Whatever the cause of trauma – a highway accident, a battlefield experience, a workplace shooting – the reactions of the traumatized don’t vary much: flashbacks, anxiety attacks, sleeplessness and nightmares, says Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s not a sign of weakness, mental illness or craziness,” he says. Trauma specialist Mark Lerner sums it up in a book title: It’s OK Not To Be OK Right Now.

However, when post-traumatic effects persist with intensity longer than a couple of months, Miller says, remember that getting help is normal, too.

Getting help hasn’t always been a given, says veteran trucker Mike Pompura, recalling his own long-ago trauma. “The rule of thumb was, you got in a wreck and either kept on going or stopped completely, usually due to a disability. Counseling was unheard of.”

Pompura was a 20-year-old owner-operator – on the road only six months, leased to Mayflower – when a drunk driver speeding the wrong way down an Interstate exit ramp in Louisville, Ky., smashed head-on into Pompura’s 1969 White cabover and was killed instantly.

Bad as the experience was, the veteran trucker says he never stopped driving. “I went overseas to Europe, where my father was stationed at the time, and drove for the 92nd Transportation Company, V Corps, and the Army Corps of Engineers all throughout Germany and Holland.”

Pompura says he did suffer “aches and pains” afterward, and he recalls one unnerving experience while driving a car, as he came up behind a wrecker towing a tractor by its rear tandems.

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