The driver of a garbage truck that slammed into the back of a work convoy on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway on Nov. 3, pushing a work truck into the lake and killing its driver, has been booked in St. Tammany Parish on negligent homicide and other counts, officials said.
Darrell Benjamin, 56, of Harvey, was booked Thursday on counts of negligent injuring and reckless operation in addition to negligent homicide. He was released the same day on a $75,000 bond.
Causeway General Manager Carlton Dufrechou said Benjamin told investigators at the scene of the wreck that an aerosol can rolling around on the floor of his truck prevented him from pressing the brake pedal as he approached the slow-moving convoy on the Causeway’s southbound span. Benjamin’s truck hit an attenuator truck driven by 57-year-old Edward Burton, of New Orleans, with enough force to push it over the railing and off the bridge.
No aerosol can was found at the scene, but there was a lot of debris, Dufrechou said.
An attenuator truck, also called a crash cushion truck, is built to withstand an impact and protect other vehicles in a work convoy. But the garbage truck was too big and going too fast — perhaps 61 mph, 4 mph below the posted limit, Dufrechou said — for the attenuator to absorb the impact. No skid marks were found at the site, although investigators believe that Benjamin did swerve slightly before hitting the truck, Dufrechou said.
After hitting the attenuator truck, the garbage truck hit a police car and came to rest on its side. Benjamin was pinned inside the truck and had to be extracted but was not taken to a hospital. The officer inside the police car escaped relatively unscathed.
Two of Burton’s co-workers jumped into the lake to assist him, but they couldn’t find him and had to be rescued themselves, Dufrechou said. Divers recovered Burton’s body later that afternoon.
The wreck led to the closure of the span for several hours on Nov. 3 and another two hours Nov. 4 while crews pulled the attenuator truck out of the lake.
The wreck highlighted concerns Causeway officials have about the low concrete barriers on the bridge’s older, southbound span, where there have been 13 overboard crashes since 1994, involving 10 fatalities. The barriers on the southbound span are 25 inches high, 6 inches lower than on the newer northbound span, where no vehicles have gone overboard since 1994.
The handrail mounted on top of the southbound span’s railing does little to prevent cars from going over the side of the bridge, Dufrechou has said.
Causeway officials have commissioned a study by engineers from Texas A&M on ways to bolster the railings on the southbound span. Three new designs were tested on an unused turnaround on the Causeway in July, and the two best designs will be crash-tested in Texas beginning Dec. 8. The new rails could be mounted on top of the concrete barrier and raise its height to either 37 or 46 inches.
Once the crash tests are completed, Dufrechou said, he hopes to have a realistic expectation of what it would cost to install the new rails. Some officials have floated the idea of raising tolls on the bridge as a way to pay for the new railings.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.