Road maintenance crews removed safety features before quadruple-fatal crash

Steve Garrison
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Highway maintenance workers hired to resurface a 120-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 550 in July removed a key safety measure less than a month before a Texas family of four was killed in a head-on collision.

Construction workers employed by Kansas City-based Vance Brothers Inc. filled in centerline rumble strips from mile marker 23.7 to mile marker 143, beginning on July 18, while performing routine maintenance on the highway, according to a price agreement contract.

On the night of Aug. 8, The Miller family — Michael Miller, 47, Leann Miller, 48, Zoey Miller, 12, and Miles Miller, 7 — were driving north on the highway near mile marker 130, about 20 miles south of Bloomfield, when their car was struck head-on by a pickup truck that had strayed across the centerline.

The entire family was killed on impact.

Brian Lee, a 24-year-old oil field employee from Aztec, was cited for inattentive driving for causing the crash, according to an accident report. Police indicated in the report that Lee was suspected of being fatigued or asleep when the crash occurred.

Lee told police he was talking to his father on a hands-free phone when he "suddenly felt pressure on his face," the report states. He managed to crawl out of the truck through a window, but had sustained injuries to his face and stomach.

Brian Lane of Mountain Home, Idaho, was travelling south on U.S. Highway 550 ahead of the Miller family's vehicle. He narrowly avoided a head-on collision with Lee's vehicle.

"He didn't swerve," Lane told The Daily Times. "It's like he just started coming across."

New Mexico Department of Transportation spokeswoman Melissa Dosher said Vance Brothers began replacing the rumble strips on Aug. 15, after the crash occurred.

Micro-surfacing involves laying down a thin new pavement surface, Dosher said via email, which "may result in overlaying rumble strips."

It is unclear whether the centerline was marked with reflective striping on the night of the crash. The accident report indicates that the road was unstriped, but Dosher said temporary striping may not have been noted in the report.

Vice President Rob Vance of Vance Brothers declined to comment on the matter when contacted by telephone.

The quadruple-fatal crash on U.S. Highway 550, one of the most deadly in recent memory, was the exact type of scenario that centerline rumble strips were created to address.

Centerline rumble strips have been employed in New Mexico since the early 2000s as a low-cost safety measure to prevent "lane-departure crashes" on rural highways.

According to a 2013 study conducted on behalf of the New Mexico State Highway & Transportation Department, lane-departure crashes cause 65 percent of all traffic-related fatalities in New Mexico and 44.5 percent of all serious injuries. A review of studies conducted across the country shows that centerline rumble strips can reduce crossover crashes by anywhere from 26.8 percent to 67.2 percent, according to the Highway Department document.

The Washington State Department of Transportation was one of the earliest adopters of centerline rumble strips. A 2011 report conducted by that department found that the rumble strips reduced fatal and serious injury crashes by 19.5 percent.

Despite their prevalence on New Mexico roadways, guidelines for the creation of rumble strips are limited to a single page in the state's 821-page "Specifications for Highway and Bridge Construction" manual.

Vance Brothers' price agreement contract also did not require that employees maintain the centerline rumble strips while the maintenance project was underway.

The Miller family was returning to their home in Argyle, Texas, when the crash occurred. Kim Thomas, director of congregation care and adult discipleship at Argyle United Methodist Church, said the Millers' dedication to their hometown was "extraordinary."

Both parents volunteered with the local girls and boys scouting troops and were actively involved in the local school districts. Michael Miller served as a trustee at the church.

"He was very kind," Thomas said. "He had a way with people that most people don't have."

Zoey Miller was expected to begin the sixth grade this year; Miles Miller, the second grade.

Donations continue to trickle into a memorial fund created in the Miller Family's name, Thomas said. The money will go toward purchasing a new school playground for the Argyle Independent School District.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.