This is the third installment in the “Suicide by truck” series, examining the largely undocumented incidents of pedestrians and four-wheelers who choose speeding trucks as an instrument of suicide. It also looks at how these suicides and suicide attempts affect innocent truckers, many of whom struggle with guilt or horrific memories. Click here to see other stories from the series.
Adam Lowry’s story
Adam Lowry remembers the morning of April 18, 2014, the start of Easter weekend.
The Kitchener, Ontario-based trucker who drives for Celadon did his usual thorough pre-trip inspection before picking up a load headed to Alabama, the beginning of an expected four to six weeks on the road. About 5 p.m., Lowry was still in Canada amid heavy holiday traffic. “I was in the center lane, listening to the radio, both hands were on the wheel, all the while scanning traffic,” he recalls.
“The Ritson exit was in sight, and that’s when I saw the man standing on the shoulder of the road. I thought it odd, but not necessarily alarming. Suddenly, to my horror, the man darted toward the traffic and then tucked his head down and hurtled his body deliberately into my grille. I was the first truck to come along, and he chose me.”
Lowry heard the thump of the impact, then blood splattered across his windshield. He parked on the shoulder and called for emergency help. He was told not to exit the truck until first responders could secure the gruesome scene.
When he finally got out, he only could sit on the curb and sob as police tried to shield him from the gore and camera-snapping gawkers. Police commended him for not swerving, saying that by keeping control of his rig, he prevented more carnage on the crowded highway.
He was taken to a hospital, where he was screened for drugs and alcohol, and assigned a victim counselor. He was given a teddy bear, a small kindness that meant the world to him.
“The whole team treated me like I was the victim,” he says, his voice trembling. His fleet made sure he had the time off and the psychological counseling he needed. But haunted by the lack of control he had over the accident, he was not certain he could return to the road.
“I thought that if I made sure I did everything by the book – perfect pretrip inspection, never use my phone, always alert and proactively aware – I could prevent something like this,” Lowry says. “As it turned out, I learned that my best is not enough to ward off random acts such as what happened to me. Now I have a more realistic view of the dangers and an acceptance that some things we can’t control.
“My confidence in my driving was not shaken. Most truckers will go their whole career and never be tested to such a severe level. I now know that if I can pass that test, I should not doubt myself.”
He doesn’t blame the anonymous man for what he did, even though Lowry was angry at first. He was able to forgive with the help of his church and family, but the trauma to him and his family lasted for months. He couldn’t even drive his own car and was treated for PTSD. Gradually, he grew stronger and eventually began driving professionally again.
“Even though it was not my fault and there were plenty of eyewitnesses, my log books and equipment were gone over with a fine-tooth comb. My phone was examined, and I was drug tested. There are plenty of reasons to run safely and follow all the rules, but this is an area that you can control. Always start every trip as if anything can happen.”
To swerve — or not
While there is driver trainer consensus about what to do if a deer darts in front of your truck – hit the deer – policy for handling a pedestrian or four-wheeler intent on committing suicide by truck is less concrete.
The concern in both cases is the same: Swerving or severe braking could cause a serious, even fatal accident.
“If forced to make a choice, maintain control of your truck,” says Lori Blackburn, trainer for CRS Transportation. Maintain your lane, keep your hands on the wheel and don’t oversteer, so as to avoid turning over the truck or hitting other cars.
Trainers say drivers who are alert, proactively scanning the road and traveling at a safe speed with no distractions have the best chance of reflexively doing everything possible to maintain control of their truck.
Scott Burke, a driver/trainer for Pottle’s Transportation, would advise a driver in such a scenario to brake safely and change lanes if it can be done safely.
[gtblockquote type=”center”]“This has to be the worst situation a driver could face.”
— Scott Burke, Pottle’s Transportation driver/trainer
“Be aware of your surroundings and constantly check your mirrors, so if something unexpected happens, you already know the traffic situation and can make a split-second decision to move over or brake based on that information,” Burke says.
“You have to go through your days always expecting the unexpected,” he says. “This has to be the worst situation a driver could face because an aggressive maneuver can potentially cause more casualties. If a suicidal pedestrian jumps out in front of you, you have zero-second reaction time, and all you can do is brake safely until you come to a stop.”
Dale Byrne, a driver/ trainer from Australia who has firsthand experience with a suicide, offers similar advice. Six years ago, he was hauling three trailers full of bulls when a pedestrian stepped in front of his truck. He couldn’t move over quickly enough and was forced to hit him head-on.
Byrne later found out the 17-year-old victim committed suicide because his girlfriend broke up with him that day. Byrne says the traffic situation and cargo affect what evasive action is possible.
“If you are traveling on a two-lane highway, I would say to brake and try to move to the other lane if possible and bring the truck to a safe stop,” he says. “Ride the brakes as safely as you can to maintain control.”
If you need help in locating counseling services in your home area, call the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration help line: 877-726-4727. Another resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
See the fourth installment of the “Suicide by truck” series Thursday, Aug. 13.