Shutting it down: Making road closure decisions after an accident

By Kim Hilsenbeck

Accidents have the potential to stop traffic for hours and cause residual effects on the flow of travelers, particularly during afternoon rush hour.

 That happened last week when a Hays County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) deputy made the decision to shut down FM 1626 in both directions due to a multi-vehicle accident. The incident took place around 4 p.m. Sept. 24 just as many commuters were starting their journeys and students from Hays High School let out.

According to Buda Fire Department officials who were on scene, there were no fatalities or injuries requiring transport to a hospital and all of the cars involved were drivable.

But HCSO deputy Michael Kirkwood, the patrol officer and the first law enforcement personnel on the scene according to HCSO spokesperson Lt. Jeri Skrocki, made the decision to shut down the major artery while waiting for a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper to work the accident.

Traffic was diverted onto FM 2270 from the northbound side and onto RM 967 from the southbound side. The road remained closed until about 6 p.m.

But some local first responders say FM 1626 didn’t necessarily have to be closed.

Who gets to decide?

In an emailed statement about the incident, Skrocki said the officers on scene make decisions about how to proceed based on several factors.

 “Protocol for any road closing takes numerous factors into consideration.  Each accident is determined on a case-by-case basis. The factors are often related to seriousness of injuries, time of day, number of vehicles, location of the accident, responding officers and officer/community safety,” the statement said.

“There is no one ‘protocol’ that can be written to take every contingency into account. This is left to the officers’ assessment at the scene,” the statement continued.

Buda Fire Chief Clay Huckaby, who was on the accident scene, said he wasn’t clear on why Kirkwood shut down FM 1626.

“Minor wreck. No injuries,” he wrote in a text as he was on the scene.

Minutes later, he wrote, “All Fire and EMS units have cleared the scene.”

His final text said traffic in downtown Buda was heavy in all directions.

Hays County Commissioner Mark Jones received about six calls regarding the shutdown. He contacted Sheriff Gary Cutler requesting information about how Kirkwood made the decision to shut down a major artery during rush hour for a minor accident.

The Hays Free Press sent a similar request to HCSO the following day.

Skrocki wrote, “This accident was reported as a Major accident with unknown injuries, multiple vehicles and airbag deployment. This is classified as a major accident for our purposes. Often one of our traffic officers will work these accidents or the patrol division will use DPS.”

She said the HCSO traffic unit was deployed to Travis County for a law enforcement funeral during this incident and those deputies were not available.

“The patrol division (Kirkwood) requested a trooper to respond and he worked the accident as lead.  We assisted until he could get there. The vehicles are kept in position until the lead investigator (in this case DPS) approves their movement,” she said.

DPS Trooper Jacob Burlinson led the accident scene, according to Skrocki.

There was also some confusion about whether a HCSO deputy was involved in the accident. But Skrocki confirmed that Deputy Leigh Treat was involved in a separate incident with another driver approximately one-quarter mile from the original accident. No injuries resulted from that collision, which occurred as Treat was on his way to the multi-car incident.

Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett, whose department was not involved in last week’s accident on FM 1626, said when his department makes a decision to close down a major road, the first and foremost consideration is safety.

“Safety of the accident victims, the first responders and the public are our major concerns,” he said in a phone interview.

Barnett said if his department can safely keep a road open to keep traffic flowing, they will.

Buda Police Chief Bo Kidd said his officers saw the residual effects of the diverted traffic as commuters and other travelers headed into the downtown area in an effort to get around the closed road.

“You hate to close a road because it’s going to have ramifications,” he said. “Typically, we’re not going to close a road. As an example, the other day there was a minor accident on Main Street around 5 p.m. The sergeant on scene asked the drivers if they could move their cars out of the road.”

Kidd said accidents that involve major injuries or fatalities are another matter entirely.

“If it’s a fatality, that rises to another level of investigation,” he said. “You owe it to the person who lost their life to find out exactly how it happened.”

But for a minor accident, Kidd said his officers might mark all the vehicle locations and take photos then move all the vehicles out of the road if it can be done safely.

Skrocki said Hays County residents can check for information regarding accidents, road closures and other emergencies. However, she said no notification was done during last week’s accident.

“This has been addressed and there was a communication issue that needs to be researched and solved,” she said.

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