RAYMOND — A semi-truck driver faces a $250 fine after a Washington State Patrol investigation alleged his actions resulted in a fatal collision on U.S. Highway 101 north of Raymond on Jan. 18.
Vicky L. Johnson, 64, of Hoquiam was on her way to work in Pacific County, where she was the Coastal Community Action Program’s senior nutrition coordinator, when her 2015 Nissan Rogue was struck in her lane by the second of two empty flatbed trailers being hauled north by Keith Reitz, 62, of Toledo, Oregon. Johnson died at the scene.
The 2000 Peterbilt semi-truck with two flatbed trailers operated by Leitz was on one of hundreds of such round trips made by a fleet of similar rigs delivering multi-ton boulders from a North Cascades quarry in Skagit County to rebuild North Jetty in Cape Disappointment State Park at the southwestern tip of Washington.
On Feb. 2, Washington State Trooper Michael Canham said he was referring a charge of negligent driving second-degree against Reitz to the Pacific County Prosecutor’s Office. After a lengthy investigation, WSP Sgt. Brad Moon signed off on Canham’s Primary Officer’s Narrative on July 27. The Chinook Observer recently obtained the investigation file via a public records request.
However, as of last week it remained unclear whether a traffic citation has been issued and pursued. Second-degree negligent driving is an infraction, not a crime, Pacific County Prosecuting Attorney Mark McClain said in a Sept. 10 email.
He was unsure whether an infraction had been filed with North District Court. Moon of WSP said Sept. 11 that his office did not issue a citation to Leitz and that finalizing the matter is up to the prosecutor’s office.
Based on evidence and interviews at the accident scene, Canham initially concluded, “It appeared the Leitz had drifted onto the northbound shoulder and corrected this by turning toward the left/center line, which caused his second trailer to ‘whip’ into oncoming traffic.”
With much added detail, the followup investigation by Trooper J. Mullins, certified technical specialist, came to the same result. This dangerous “crack the whip” effect is well understood and commercial drivers are trained how to avoid and control it, the investigator wrote.
On Jan. 18, Leitz left the Beaver Lake Quarry in Mount Vernon at 1 a.m. and dropped the load in Ilwaco at about 8 a.m. The wreck happened at 10:10 a.m. after he made a stop in South Bend.
He told Mullins he had gotten about six hours sleep the night before. He also told the trooper he had about 10 years experience driving trucks but normally drove a 48-foot trailer and had only recently started driving the double trailers for hauling boulders.
“Leitz entered the area of the collision and conducted a sharp correction to the left and then back to the right after driving onto the shoulder. The sharp correction introduced trailer whip causing the end of the rear trailer to cross over the centerline,” Mullins wrote. He later went on to say, “Leitz has an Oregon Commercial driver’s license with double and triple trailers endorsement. This means he has knowledge of the cause of trailer whip.”
The investigation found Leitz wasn’t speeding. Voluntary blood testing at Willapa Harbor Hospital found he had no alcohol or illicit drugs in his system. The roadway was in good repair at the site, though wet conditions at the time might have made it somewhat easier for the rear trailer to whip across the pavement, WSP said.
Johnson wasn’t speeding either, according to the investigation, but might have been cutting close into the curving highway’s centerline — not a traffic violation, but a minor contributing factor in the wreck. A co-worker following her south on US101 toward Raymond said Johnson was a safe driver and was appropriately operating her car on the morning of the accident.
Johnson was wearing her shoulder strap under her left arm, a habit later confirmed by her husband. “An autopsy was not performed,” according to the investigator. “However, based on my observations, it appeared the collision was more likely than not, survivable had Johnson been properly wearing her seatbelt.”
The bottom line, according to Mullins: “The rear of the second trailer crossing the centerline was the cause of the collision. The semi-truck entered a left to right curve which means the trailers will track to the inside of the curve. There was no evidence to suggest Leitz drove across the centerline.”
With the North Jetty project nearing completion, rocks are now barged to a receiving yard in Warrenton and trucked across the Astoria-Megler Bridge to Ilwaco.
The semi-truck was registered to Central Freight Inc. of Ellensburg and the trailers were owned by J.W. Stone Trucking, according to WSP.
A comprehensive inspection of the equipment after the wreck alleged “several pre-existing conditions, which placed the semi-truck and the first trailer out of service. The second trailer would have been if it hadn’t been damaged in the collision. However, [commercial vehicle inspector A. Stevens] advised those issues did not contribute to the collision.”
Pre-collision faults identified by the inspector included brakes out of adjustment on all three units, five of 14 brakes; brakes out of service-more than 20 percent out of adjustment; a flat tire on axle two of the semi; the semi’s auto airbrake adjustment system failing to compensate for wear.
The inspector issued an infraction to Central Freight for defective brakes.
Stevens said that Leitz would not have been able to make it back to Mt. Vernon before he ran out of hours. In general, federal rules limit commercial drivers to a maximum of 11 hours of driving, after 10 consecutive hours off duty.