WASHINGTON – The apparent heart attack that police said may have led to a deadly tanker truck crash on Interstate 95 near Elkridge in January is a still rare, but increasingly common, cause of accidents in the state.
An analysis of National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration data from 1994 to 2002 showed a sharp spike in the number of times police cited driver illness or blackout as the primary factor that contributed to a fatal crash in Maryland.
From 1994 to 2000, the number of such accidents ranged between five and two a year. But in 2001, the number jumped to 17 and in 2002, the last year for which numbers are available, there were 13 such crashes reported in Maryland.
Police and highway officials could not explain the jump, which most dismissed as too small to be statistically significant. But at least one official said it points up the need for drivers to remain vigilant behind the wheel.
“Realistically drivers’ don’t know what they’ll face each day,” said John White, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Motorists just have to use good judgment . . . to drive in a safe manner.”
Maryland Transportation Authority Police reported this week that Jackie M. Frost apparently suffered a heart attack just before his gasoline tanker truck plunged off an overpass and fell on to Interstate 95 near Elkridge on Jan. 13.
The truck burst into flame, killing Frost and three others who were on the interstate, which was shut down for hours.
Cpl. Gregory Prioleau, a spokesman for transportation authority police, said Thursday that an autopsy on Frost, 64, found “evidence of hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” That condition probably led to a cardiac episode and explains why Frost was unable to maintain control of his truck, Prioleau said.
But NHTSA spokeswoman Liz Neblett cautioned that the agency’s data is not as thorough as the autopsy that was performed in Frost’s case. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System only records what an officer on the scene of a fatal crash thought might have contributed to the accident, she said.
The majority of reports, she noted, are listed as no cause or unknown cause if police on the scene were unable to figure out what might have contributed to the accident.
To determine with absolute certainty that a driver suffered a heart attack or had some other medical event that caused a crash, investigators would have to have a medical examiners report, said Kellie Boulware, a Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman. And not all accidents go to that route, she said.
Whatever the cause, Neblett said that any rise in accidents is “grim.”
AAA’s White agreed. While the motorists’ organization does not track all causes of accidents, it is aware that driving can be a dangerous proposition, he said.
“We have to think before we turn that key,” White said. “Driving cannot be an activity we take for granted. It has to be an activity we take seriously.
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