Behind the Badge

Directing an accident

As Sheriff's Deputies we did not investigate traffic accidents. The Highway Patrol did that. We did however respond to the scenes. We did this for several reasons, to assist with traffic control, to help injured persons, and to just help the Patrolman anyway we could. I received the distinction one evening of being one of the only if not the only Police Officer in Beaufort County to ever direct an automobile accident.

It was about four p.m. on a weekday. There was a light rain falling. A tractor trailer and a car had an accident on highway 21 at the intersection of highway 16 and the entrance to the Marine Corps Air Station. There was a traffic light at the intersection but because of the accident, which was blocking both south bound lanes on highway 21, the Highway Patrolman was requesting assistance directing traffic.

Because of the time of day the traffic was very heavy. The people from the Air Station were getting out of work. The traffic on highway 21 is almost always heavy. I arrived to help and got out into the middle of the intersection to start getting traffic moving. I had cars wanting to turn left from the south bound lanes of highway 21 onto the Air Station. I also had cars on the Air Station wanting to come off. I started by letting some of the cars on highway 21 onto the Air Station. To do this, I had to stop traffic on highway 21 going north bound. When I stopped the north bound traffic there was a slight lull. I had only two cars stopped and both of them were in the left-hand lane which left the right lane completely empty.

The traffic light above my head was still working going through its regular cycle, but I was directing traffic without using it. I was facing north so that the south-bound traffic was facing me, and the two stopped north bound cars were to my back. As I let traffic go, I glanced over my shoulder every so often. I saw a cab of a tractor trailer rig come up a rise in the north bound lane on highway 21 to my back about a quarter of a mile away. I continued because I felt sure he would see the accident and the two stopped cars in the left lane and he would stop.

I now had quite a few cars lined up waiting to come off the Air Station so I stopped the south bound traffic and started the Air Station traffic moving. Two cars went through, then the third one started into the intersection then just stopped. The driver just sat there looking south to his left at the north bound lane. I looked also and saw the tractor trailer cab, coming at him full speed. I glanced up at the traffic light and saw it was on green for the north bound traffic.

With one arm I waved for the truck to stop, and with the other I waved at the car stopped in the intersection trying to get him out of the way. The driver of the car in the intersection was frozen with fear. I could not get him to do anything, except sit there and watch the truck come at him.

Time seemed to slow down as I stood there, waving my arms screaming at the top of my lungs for either of them to do something, yet knowing it was too late. Finally about fifty feet from the car the truck driver realized something was wrong. He hit his brakes and locked them up but he just kept coming straight at the driver's door of the stopped car. At the last second the truck driver released his brakes so he could steer and he made a hard left turn missing the stopped car. He then tried to turn back hard right, but he couldn't make it. He hit the stopped traffic waiting to turn left onto the Air Station, head on. The Highway Patrolman and I ran over and found that no one was hurt. I looked at the Trooper and tried to sound calm when I said, "Well, I've done everything I can, it's all yours." I walked over to my patrol car and left.

I saw the Trooper later that night and he told me he had charged the driver of the truck for failure to obey an Officer while directing traffic. He told me it was not my fault, that I had done everything I could. That made me feel better, but it was still a long time before I felt comfortable directing traffic.

by R.L. Dettwiler


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