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U.S. JOINS PROBE OF NIAGARA THRUWAY CRASH

The National Transportation Safety Board -- the same government agency that investigates major air crashes -- is joining the probe of the March 11 crash that killed six people on the Niagara Thruway's elevated section in downtown Buffalo.

Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., R-Hamburg, Monday announced that his inquiries have prompted the board to help determine what measures could be adopted to prevent similar tragedies.

While he and Thruway Authority officials seemed to discount the possibility of adding a shoulder lane to that stretch of roadway, they did emphasize that the safety board can bring a wealth of accident investigation experience to the situation.

"There are some things we can do with video or even with education," Quinn said. "We're just trying to coordinate this to make sure everybody is talking to each other."

The accident occurred when a truck plowed into stopped traffic at the beginning of the rush hour, killing six travelers in a fiery explosion.

Because traffic had stopped for a previous minor accident, most questions have centered on the vehicles stopped on the road because of the lack of a shoulder lane.

But Leonard J. DePrima, the Thruway Authority's deputy executive director, said the Niagara Thruway and most of New York State's other major highways were built decades ago without the modern specifications that require such features as wider shoulders.

And although the Thruway Authority this week begins a $26 million reconstruction of that stretch, DePrima said the costs of widening the support structures, acquiring land and even relocating some major downtown buildings would prove prohibitive.

"It's of great concern to us," DePrima said. "But to draw a direct correlation between this accident and the shoulder width is unfortunate. I think it's premature."

Still, he said other avenues and remedies exist.

Ronald Weber, the safety board's senior highway engineer, said his agency will become involved in this accident because of its "catastrophic nature."

His investigators will spend the next several days in Buffalo examining the accident scene, questioning survivors and interviewing the Canadian truck driver involved.

They also will examine the driver's records and activities for the 72 hours before the accident, study police reports and photographs, and scrutinize the highway's design, accident history and ramp structures.

The team then will issue a report sometime late in the year that could focus on high-technology innovations like video surveillance or sensors in the roadway to warn approaching motorists of stopped vehicles.

Quinn said he asked for the federal probe because 10 people have now lost their lives in that short stretch of the Thruway since 1992.

He also said he is seeking $400,000 in federal funding for highway safety improvements under the new Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act.

"The task now is to prevent future accidents of this nature," he said.

Also participating in this week's investigation will be the Federal Highway Administration, state Department of Transportation and State Police.

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