Trooper: I-540 wreck could have been worse without steel bar
Posted December 2, 2013
Updated December 3, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — A steel bar hanging from the rear of a tractor-trailer stopped along westbound Interstate 540 might have meant the difference between life and death for a man injured in a collision that backed up traffic for more than 10 miles during the morning commute on Monday.
The wreck was part of a chain-reaction crash that happened about 6:30 a.m. near the Leesville Road exit when the driver of a pickup truck hit a Dodge Challenger, causing it to sideswipe the 18-wheeler.
A Toyota Prius, driven by Brandon McLain, 23, then hit the rear of the tractor-trailer, which had stopped in a right lane and had its hazard lights on.
First Sgt. Jeff Gordon with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol said that without the tractor-trailer's rear underride guard – a beam preventing cars from sliding completely under larger vehicles during a collision –the wreck could have been worse.
"We do have somebody who is, in fact, living and breathing today," Gordon said. "There's no doubt in my mind that that bar had a significant impact as far as preventing further injuries."
McLain, who was charged with failing to reduce speed, was taken to WakeMed, where he underwent surgery. Neither the extent of his injuries nor his condition was available Monday afternoon, but Gordon said the injuries weren't life-threatening.
With the Prius' front wedged beneath the tractor-trailer, the Challenger's driver, Tristan Richards, said he assumed McLain was dead, but when he went to check, he found him alive and talking.
"I heard a voice come from inside of the car, 'Yeah, I'm fine. My neck hurts, but I'm fine,'" Richards said. "I was amazed. I don't see how there's any way he didn't die."
"If it weren't for that bar, probably, the whole car would have been demolished," he added.
Both state and federal laws require the underride guard as a measure to help prevent deaths in such cases. Data from Florida and North Carolina have shown a substantial decrease in fatalities as a result, Gordon said.
State law dictates that semi-trailers larger than 48 feet must be equipped with the barrier and extend 4 inches from the semi-trailer and be at least 30 inches off the ground.
"If the vehicle does strike the back of the tractor-trailer, it prevents it from going as far under the trailer and sometimes lessens that impact," Gordon said. "But those type of bars can only do so much depending on the speed of the vehicle and some other factors that go into a collision."
The tractor-trailer's driver, Walter Gardner, of Goldsboro, was also taken to a local hospital but was later released.
Charged with failing to remove his vehicle from the lane of travel, Gardner told WRAL News that he was trying to get off the roadway but feared that he would cause another accident with the amount of traffic passing him on both sides.
A truck driver for 20 years, he said he was on his way to Durham with a delivery for Bojangles' when the wreck happened.
It was his first accident, Gardner said.