Fatal accident brings new policy


In a change ordered after two teenagers were killed at a nonfunctioning traffic light in Columbia last month, Howard County police will require officers to stay at nonfunctioning signals until they are fixed or until a stop sign or another temporary device is taken to the scene.

The county also is moving ahead with plans to test its first battery backup system for traffic lights, which can keep a signal running for up to eight hours after it loses electrical power.

County Police Chief Wayne Livesay described changes in police procedures yesterday in briefings on the department's investigation into what went wrong the night of Jan. 6, when a tractor-trailer struck a Volvo at a darkened intersection, killing Scott E. Caplan, 19, of Columbia and Theresa E. Howard, 18, of Eldersburg.

The driver of the Volvo, Meghan E. St. Martin, 18, of Marriottsville, survived.

An internal affairs investigation continues into whether anyone should be disciplined for failing to secure the intersection or warn motorists.

Livesay said he owed the public and the victims' families a description of what happened. He detailed communications failures before the 10:30 p.m. crash, including one officer responding to the wrong intersection and another leaving the darkened intersection before a warning device arrived.

Scott Caplan's father, Roger, would not comment on Livesay's description yesterday. Theresa Howard's parents did not return phone calls. A spokesman for the Maryland State Police, who are handling the accident investigation and conducting an internal inquiry, would not comment on Howard County's findings.

Livesay said at least six people called Howard County's 911 center reporting a power outage during the hour and 12 minutes leading up to the crash.

At 9:24 p.m., a caller reported that the light at eastbound Route 175 and southbound Interstate 95 was out. An officer responded seven minutes later but went to an intersection about a half-mile away, at Route 108 and eastbound 175. She reported that the light there was working.

At 9:41 p.m., a driver placed the second call reporting a nonfunctioning light, this time at the correct intersection, westbound Route 175 at southbound I-95. The same officer heard that dispatch but returned to the incorrect light. Two more calls came in as the officer monitored the intersection with the working signal for almost four minutes.

"She didn't pick up on the westbound inference," Livesay said.

At 9:52 p.m., a county canine officer who was driving through the darkened intersection told dispatch that the light was out.

Meanwhile, Howard County dispatchers recorded a state trooper telling his commanders that the light was out. He requested a repair crew and a few minutes later called Howard County.

Livesay said the county canine officer contacted dispatchers again and said: "It doesn't seem to be too big of a problem if you just have someone come out and bring a stop sign to the ramp."

After checking nearby lights, which were working, the canine officer left the scene but did not tell dispatchers.

As the fifth and sixth calls arrived, dispatchers thought the canine officer was still at the scene. It was 10:07 p.m. before they learned that the officer had left the intersection.

At 10:36 p.m., the driver of the tractor-trailer, Gary L. Dicks, who did not stop as he left the interstate, slammed into the Volvo.

Livesay also pushed for battery backups at lights. "I assume the county will move quickly" to install the batteries, he said. "It's the best answer out of all of the solutions that I've heard."


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