If you kill someone

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.

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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.

“All I had was this brief view of a truck cab facing me going down the highway, and talk about flashbacks,” Pompura says. “It took a few seconds to figure out it was a towed truck, but that sure made my heart skip for a few seconds there.”

Pompura feels he carries no undue psychological scars from the experience, but the financial impact is another story. “I simply got banged up a bit, lost my truck, my means of generating income, and nearly lost my life for pennies.”

By “pennies,” Pompura means the approximately $11,000 he got from the drunk driver’s insurance company, the equivalent of about $42,000 today. Faced with the choice of taking the settlement or going to court, Pompura took the settlement. He used it to pay off his totaled truck and his medical and legal bills; the lawyer alone “took about 30 percent of the total,” he recalls. That left him with about $2,000, which he characterizes as “a few dollars’ pocket change for the experience of going through a head-on wreck on the Interstate and nearly getting killed.”

It’s not uncommon for owner-operators to lose a great deal of money because of a wreck, even when they’re not at fault, says trucking attorney Paul Taylor of Burnsville, Minn. A well-maintained older truck, long since paid off, might have a book value of only $15,000. If so, that’s all an insurer will pay if it’s totaled, “even though the driver can’t replace it for that,” Taylor says.

Even more costly, Taylor says, can be revenue lost to downtime while the truck is being repaired or replaced, if the owner-operator doesn’t have the credit rating that would allow him to rent one.

Most financially frightening to many owner-operators in the wake of a highway fatality is the threat of a lawsuit. Not being cited or charged in an accident, Taylor points out, doesn’t necessarily spare you the threat of a civil suit. (Not even an unsuccessful prosecution that results in a “not guilty” verdict can assure that, as O.J. Simpson can tell you.)

Generally, plaintiff’s attorneys are looking for “good cases” – ones that will repay the effort by being relatively easy to prove before reasonable juries. A public exoneration by a police investigation certainly would make any follow-up lawsuit less tempting, Taylor says. But not all police investigations are created equal, he notes, and any missteps or debatable conclusions might be exploited later in a civil court.

Keep in mind, too, that in U.S. law, plaintiffs in civil cases need prove only a “preponderance of evidence,” as opposed to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of a criminal case. That means civil liability is easier to prove than criminal wrongdoing.

The good news, Taylor says, is that any clean-running owner-operator’s liability insurer – which would prefer not paying a dime in accident claims – has a vested interest in defending its customer, even to the point of doing its own accident investigation, hiring its own experts, etc., should the need arise.

Pompura notes that his 1975 wreck could have been much worse had he evaded that car. “There was a family in a pickup truck pulling a boat directly behind me who would have been next in line to face the full force of that impact,” he says.

“After the inquest was over, and I was leaving, this guy driving the pickup truck behind me at the accident site came up to me out of nowhere, grabbed my hand and started to shake it, and I’ll never forget his words: ‘Thank you for saving my family.’

“So I prefer to look at that situation from a positive perspective. Not that I was nearly killed for pennies, but that I saved a mother, a father and children from death. I’m not bitter about what happened.”

If the worst happens: How to cope
A trucker involved in a fatal accident cannot help going over the event in his mind “a thousand times,” says clinical and forensic psychologist Laurence Miller. And even if he could, the prolonged questioning over months probably wouldn’t let him.

“There’s going to be a lot of investigation and picking over things with a fine-tooth comb,” Miller says. Beginning with the incessant refrain of bystanders at the accident scene – “What happened?” – the trucker will be asked the same questions, sometimes in a harsh or insinuating way, by police officers, insurance claims agents, lawyers, fleet supervisors, reporters, family members, friends and co-workers.

Under such scrutiny, even the most confident individual can begin to doubt himself. Keep these points in mind as you process your feelings and memories after a fatality.

STICK TO THE FACTS. “When people treat you like you’re guilty, it’s hard not to feel as if maybe you did do something wrong,” Miller says. But grilling yourself with unanswerable “What if?” questions can be dangerous: “Gee, I was kind of tired, even though I was within my hours, so what if I had pulled off one exit sooner?” Such second-guessing can make anybody feel responsible for anything, even though he was guilty of nothing, Miller says.

To combat this tendency, Miller advises, “Use the facts to your advantage.” Collect copies of news reports, police reports, insurance reports, witness testimony – anything that attests to the facts exonerating you. Use them to remind yourself that you aren’t the bad guy.

SEPARATE REGRET FROM GUILT. Distinguish your understandable feelings of regret from your unreasonable feelings of guilt, Miller says. Guilt becomes self-destructive; regret can be turned into something positive, “lessons for next time.”

For example, the experience of being hit by a Honda that suddenly veered across five lanes of traffic, rather than leaving you with a pathological fear of driving, could strengthen your safety reflexes. “If you see someone driving erratically out of the corner of your eye, maybe you slow down a little bit,” Miller says. In his work with police departments, he has come up with a formula: “20/20 hindsight equals 20/20 insight which equals 20/20 foresight.”

AIR YOUR FEELINGS. Don’t be reluctant to talk to friends, family and clergy about your feelings. They want to help you work through this, so let them. Also talk to your fellow truckers, especially those “who have been down that road,” Miller says.

Keep in mind, though, that such “peer counseling” can be both good and bad. On the one hand, no one understands a trucker’s experiences better than another trucker. Yet, in a can-do, male-dominated industry such as trucking, any question about an emotional problem might be met with knee-jerk denial, as in: “No, I never felt that way myself.”

CONSIDER FORMAL COUNSELING. If you feel you need more help than non-professionals can provide, you can find assistance that’s free or at a low cost. Just about every county has a mental-health association with a help line. Owner-operators leased to large fleets may find counseling available through the company.