TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida Highway Patrol is defending its response to the deadly I-75 crashes that left 11 people dead and 46 injured in January.
The pileup south of Gainesville involved 24 vehicles in six crashes on both sides of the interstate around 4 a.m. on January 29. Troopers had closed the highway earlier in the evening due to heavy smoke and fog but reopened the road shortly before the crashes happened.
The Highway Patrol's report concludes officers acted reasonably and it places some of the blame for the crashes on drivers.
Two drivers in the northbound lanes had blood alcohol levels higher than the legal limit of 0.08. They both lived. Another driver in the southbound lanes tested positive for marijuana and died in the crash.
The Patrol says some drivers failed to take proper precautions and slow down, while others stopped their cars on the highway in the smoke and fog.
An earlier investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded the Highway Patrol made a variety of mistakes leading up to the crashes, including failing to communicate critical information about a wildfire in the area, not having a protocol for reopening a highway when it's been closed and not dedicating enough personnel to the scene.
The Highway Patrol disputes many of FDLE's findings, including the level of staffing on I-75 scene. The Patrol says it increased the number of troopers there from two to eight.
The report concludes drivers' actions contributed to the crashes. Lt. Col. Ernie Duarte says another driver tested positive for marijuana and one had a revoked license.
"On the southbound side, there was one individual who tested positive for a substance related to marijuana. The person is deceased. That's in the southbound report. In addition to that, there was a driver that was driving with a revoked license. That's also happened in the southbound."
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Duarte says the Highway Patrol wants to take lessons from the incident to improve its policies and training for low visibility situations.
"We're taking this very, very seriously. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families. But our response to the FDLE report is very clear and transparent. It addresses all of the issues that were brought up. It covers what our analysis and our findings are and I will refer you to the report because it is transparent and comprehensive and it speaks for itself."
The agency also plans to launch a public awareness campaign about how to respond in such cases.
About a dozen people have filed notices that they intend to pursue lawsuits as a result of the crashes.
First Coast News