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Hidden Highway Danger

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Imagine heading down the highway during a rainstorm and hitting a wall of water. What would you do? 

WCAX went looking for answers after a crash on the Interstate nearly cost two troopers their lives.

Trooper Nader Hashim never thought his shift would end like this.

On the night of August 13 he was responding to a possible electrocution in Putney.

It was pouring. The interstate was dark and visibility was terrible.

His cruiser's camera caught the terrifying crash. Then five seconds later Trooper Gary Salvatore was going 70 to 80 miles per hour when he slammed into his partner's cruiser.

In August, WCAX reported that two Vermont State Troopers collided on Interstate 91 southbound Saturday night.

Why did both troopers lose control? Was it the weather? Speed? Or some other hidden highway hazard?

WCAX wanted to get more information because it's a stretch of highway hundreds of people use every day.

We paid $30 for the accident report and waited the required 30 days to get it. 

The report paints a picture of a flooded roadway. Both troopers hydroplaned on the bridge.

Evidence photos show what the crash investigator saw that night.

"A large pond of water" in the median he writes. Overflowing onto the road, burying the left lane under 6 to 8 inches of water.

But there was something else. The investigator noted "a large amount of mowed grass washing down the roadway."

The area was mowed just before the crash. Clippings plugged the drains along the bridge "ultimately causing the flood."

"This is the first time something like this has ever happened so it's very, very unusual," said Scott Rogers with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Rogers heads up maintenance and operations for VTrans. VTrans contracts mostly with independent mowers who bid on different parts of the state. Keeping grass low helps drivers see approaching animals.

"The biggest reason we mow is for safety," said Rogers. 

But it's mowing that contributed to the danger this time. Traveling too fast for conditions also played a role.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: Lots of people use interstate 91 and it was really unsafe that night. 

Rogers: Yeah, It's very, very unfortunate. 

WCAX asked VTrans about the rules for picking up grass clippings. There are none. Rogers says each maintenance district sets its own expectations. It's still unclear to us if it's even feasible to clean up cut grass. After this crash, AOT workers were sent to clear the clogged hurricane grates, or bigger drains that supposedly withstand debris blockages.

"They didn't know there was a problem until it rained hard and the crash happened," said Rogers. 

More than a month after the crash, you can still very clearly see where that first trooper slammed into the guardrail. And then down on the ground, right in the same area there are lots of debris as well as a ton of mowed dried grass just left over. 

VTrans is blaming the flood on extra-long clippings from late season mowing. It calls this event unprecedented. So rare and dangerous you would expect changes, right?

"As we always remind folks we aren't 24/7 all eyes on all roads, all the time. So we really can only address issues as we become aware of them," said Rogers.

In a follow-up email Rogers writes: 

"VTrans was well aware of the crash. Our Highway Safety office was well aware and our Secretary's office was well aware."

Why if everyone was so aware did we find these median drains completely covered with clippings?

"I took some pictures. I just want to get your thoughts on this," asked Costa 

Six weeks after the crash, 60 miles away?

Costa: Is it acceptable if they are covered with clippings?

Rogers: As I said, this is the first time it's ever happened that we're aware of. 

Could this perfect storm of hazardous circumstances happen again? Next time could it be you behind the wheel?

Costa: Will this change anything that VTrans does, now that we've brought this to your attention? 

Rogers: We're definitely going to ask the districts to keep an eye open after mowing operations for spots like that.

After our interview with VTrans we found out they have taken some steps to prevent this from happening again. They met with all the districts to warn them to watch out for clogged drains. And in the area where the crash happened, VTrans is going to mow earlier so the clippings are shorter and less likely to block the grates again.

WCAX wanted to know if the state police were concerned about the safety hazard and if they took any steps to prevent another accident. They declined multiple requests for an on camera interview.

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