Collision on I-75

A new book just published by the American Public Health Association takes a rather well-known disaster — the 1990 pile-up of over 100 vehicles in a dense fog bank on Interstate 75, near Chattanooga, Tenn., which left 12 people dead and dozens seriously injured — and dissects it so that everyone can benefit via regulatory action.

“Collision on I-75,” written by public health professional Dr. Lawrence Weiss, is a dramatic exposé of the social consequences of industrial pollution in the tradition of works like “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brockovich.”

The fog, you see, was created by the operations of the Bowater pulp mill a couple of miles away, and Bowater was, at the time, the largest employer and landowner in Tennessee.

In the book’s introduction, Weiss describes how he was moved to revise his life’s plans, conduct on-the-ground research and write this book. “It was from a television documentary that I first learned of the catastrophe on Interstate 75 in Tennessee in December 1990. The circumstances surrounding the collision intrigued me both as a public health professional and as a citizen who frequently drives on highways.”

The ingredients in the tragedy further enticed his interest: a large, modernized paper factory, a new interstate highway, high-speed cars, powerful trucks and buses, allegations of dense killer-fogs due to industrial air pollution, and the resulting unnecessary deaths and injuries to motorists.

Weiss’ interest did not stop there. “I placed a call to the office of Doug Fees, the plaintiffs’ attorney, and expressed my interest in writing a book about the event. He invited me to come to Huntsville, Ala. [all the way from Alaska where Weiss is a research professor in public health at the University of Alaska], and to take a look at his records. I did, and shortly thereafter my wife and I moved to Huntsville for 14 months to work on the project.”

The book, a very manageable 100 pages, is divided with sequential headings that make the case easy to follow. For high school teachers and university instructors, this book is a perfect tool to introduce students to investigative research that combines the best of public health oversight, epidemiology of highway fatalities, and the importance of government regulation. It will also motivate students to take what they learn and apply it for the general good.

The book is also a good lesson to all academics who are interested in the everyday events and problems in our society and who want to apply their skills to setting the record straight and affecting public policy.

“To me,” Weiss writes, “it is a story about the practice of public health in real life.” This experience has contributed to Weiss’ efforts to establish the Alaska Center for Public Policy, “Alaska’s first progressive, private sector think tank.”

The historical section of the book takes the reader back in history to December 1973 when the road first opened and the car wrecks in unusually dense fogs started. That is a full 17 years before the big one. Then, on the morning of Nov. 5, 1978, 62 vehicles piled up in the dense fog on I-75. Forty-six people were injured but no one died. Maybe that is why no action was taken.

The families of the 12 dead and the severely injured in the 1990 collision did, fortunately, have legal redress. And the next section of the book shows the value that public health law can be in attaining some measure of justice.

This book takes on another level of importance as the Bush administration and its corporate supporters are trying to cut back on the ability of the injured and relatives of the deceased to win damages against corporations who abuse the public trust.

Read this book and make it part of your school’s environmental library. To purchase a copy, which sells for $26.95 in softcover, please go to the web site of the American Public Health Association, www.apha.org. This is one publisher who deserves the profit from the sale.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.