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SLC 2020: A Dream for Safer Roads and Safer Trucks

Oct. 9, 2020
In this Safety Leadership Conference 2020 Keynote preview, learn how a tragic accident led one family to turn from pursuing dreams to advocating for commercial fleet safety.

Brian Kuebler and Ed Slattery will deliver a keynote presentation — "The Long Blink: The True Story of Trauma, Forgiveness and One Man's Fight for Safer Roads" -- at the Safer Safety Leadership Conference, on November 11, 2020. Register now to attend this virtual event dedicated to developing and sustaining a culture of workplace safety.

At 12, Matthew was a voracious reader, something he inherited from his mother. Like most pre-teens, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he got older.

His father Ed Slattery tells EHS Today, “He had 12-year-old dreams.”

Matthew was a social butterfly, a dedicated Boy Scout who looked up to his older brother Peter, who was four years his senior. He was “enamored” by Peter’s artwork, which intrigued him to begin exploring his creative side.

Those 12-year-old dreams never came to fruition. In 2010, a trip to Northeast Ohio to visit family turned tragic.

The Impact

It was Monday, Aug. 16, 2010. Slattery was back at home in Baltimore, Md., just starting the work week as an economist for the United States Department of Agriculture.

His wife Susan, along with Matthew and Peter, had just set out on the trek back home. They had spent the last ten days in Cleveland catching up with her parents and other relatives. Susan and the kids were on track to return later that evening.

Shortly after getting off the phone with Susan, Slattery received and made a barrage of calls that would signal a deviation from his current life plans. That call with his wife would be his last.

Susan was on Interstate 80, the Ohio Turnpike, 45 minutes into the journey home. Like others on the same road, she was in stop-and-go traffic due to construction that forced vehicles to condense to one lane.

Meanwhile, 48-year-old Douglas Bouch, a commercial truck driver for Estes Express Lanes, was hauling a triple tractor-trailer load across state lines on a route he knew by heart.

Bouch was operating on just over three hours of sleep as a result of a “first night back” shift, something with which he and many other commerical truck drivers are familiar. Long hours. Little rest.

Interviews with state troopers post-accident gave a glimpse into what happened. Bouch claims he “dozed off” as he approached the motorists. He hit several cars as he attempted to stop, crushing the Ford Focus that contained Susan, Matthew and Peter.

Slattery recalls, “I got a call at about 12 o’clock that my boys were at Akron Children’s Hospital. That was my former employer that called me with that information. That must have been what was in Susan’s phone.”

Goucher College, Slattery’s former employer, told him that Matthew and Peter were admitted to Akron Children’s Hospital with serious injuries. He quickly dialed his mother-in-law and told her to rush to the children.

The world abruptly shifted at that moment, “And at that time, I got a call from the Portage County Coroner,” he describes. “All I said was, ‘I guess she’s dead?’ which seems like a bizarre thing to say. But it answered the question as to where Susan was. I unfortunately, at that point, called my mother-in-law who was driving to Akron and had to tell her that her daughter was dead.”

Twelve hours later, with the assistance of his colleagues, Slattery arrived in Ohio. He ran straight to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, then to Matthew’s room.

In his own words, “[Matthew] looked incredibly tiny in that bed. He had hoses and electrodes coming out of every place and looked absolutely terrible. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever see in your life.”

Matthew, a physically active 12-year-old who loved to read Harry Potter, would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He suffered traumatic brain injuries that would limit his potential and also his ability to speak.

“The hardest part for me really is that he can’t talk to me,” Slattery says. “He can’t communicate what it is that he wants. So, a lot of times he’ll say, ‘Can I have...’ and then he can’t find the noun for what it is that he wants. He splits time between color and black and white and that refers to television and movies.”

He continues, “Communication is the hardest part for me. He can’t really tell me what he wants, but he can be an absolute hoot. His spontaneity sometimes is just incredible.”

Peter made a “quite miraculous” recovery after suffering several broken bones. He graduated from high school on time, as an Eagle Scout. After attending Rhode Island School of Design, Peter began a career as a computer programmer. He now works for a top design firm in San Francisco.

“He’s an incredible human being. I’m just incredibly proud of him. He has recovered physically, although he’s got metal in his hips and pelvis, and his eye socket I think is fully repaired. But I have concerns for him orthopedically when he’s my age.”

Douglas Bouch was sentenced to five years in prison. On Aug. 16, 2014, four years to the date of the accident that killed his wife, Slattery and Bouch met for the first time at Bouch's home in Pennsylvania after serving less than half of his term. Bouch has never accepted full responsibility for the crash.

Preventing Further Loss 

There is no positive outcome, and the ripple effects of this accident continue to be felt for the Slattery family. Matthew requires in-home caregivers 16 hours per day. He can never be left alone. Ed has become an advocate for safety in the trucking industry. And a decade later, nothing much has changed when it comes to regulations or technology.

“I don’t think a whole lot has helped,” he says. “In fact, we’ve done some backsliding.”

One major change has been the move from paper entries to electronic logging devices (ELDs). Paper logs gave commercial drivers an opportunity to keep two separate entries—one for the company and one for the authorities. This allowed them to alter data regarding their actual hours of service.

While ELDs have reduced the ability to cheat, it’s opened up the possibility of unintended consequences.

“My fear is that’s going to give truckers an incentive to drive faster and more recklessly to make up for the fact that they get stuck in traffic,” Slattery explains. “Because we know that most truckers only get paid by the mile. If they’re not moving, they don’t get paid. The incentive clearly is to drive faster and to perhaps be a little more reckless—lane changes, trailing too close to other vehicles, all of those things become more probable.”

He now advocates for speed limiters to prevent commercial drivers to make up time via speeding.

When it comes to safety equipment, Slattery points to mandatory underride guard protection. The technology prevents cars from going underneath the trailer:

“In Susan’s case she was pushed up underneath another tractor trailer,” he says. “Now with the newer standards, would the newer models that exist have saved her life? Who knows? Would they have reduced Matthew’s injuries? I don’t know. But we’ll never know because they don’t exist on current trailers.”

Slattery says that the current political environment is prohibiting new safety regulations from being passed, even if legislators are aware of what needs to be done to save lives.

When asked what message should be relayed to those whose jobs require ensuring others stay safe, Slattery says, “I’ve thought about this a lot over the last 10 years. What I think I understand about the world is that we live in a probabilistic universe. A certain number of people are going to get cancer and a certain number of people are going to get hit by lightning, and some people are going to get killed in crashes with commercial motor vehicles.”

He continues, “That said, it is our job as individuals and especially for safety people to mitigate against those risks. A certain number of people are going to get hit by lightning, but you don’t stand in a field holding a six-iron straight up in the air. You may die of cancer, but you don’t go running around drinking dioxin. You may die in a truck crash. But there are specific safety measures that can be taken to reduce the risks of dying in a truck crash. And those are the things that I advocate for in Washington.” 

More information about the Slattery family's fight for safer roads is available in The Long Blink by Brian Kuebler.

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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