A federal investigation into the three-vehicle crash on the Capital Beltway that killed five people Friday night is focusing on the use of a cellular phone by the driver of a Ford Explorer that jumped a guardrail into opposing traffic, and why that safety barrier failed to prevent the crossover, the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.
The accident occurred shortly after 8 p.m., when the northbound Explorer, driven by Dawn Richardson, 20, of Arlington, Va., jumped the guardrail near Central Avenue and landed on a Ford Windstar minivan traveling in the opposite direction. The minivan was then hit from behind by a Jeep.
The 33-year-old driver of the Jeep and her two young children -- ages 3 years and 11 weeks, both in safety seats -- were the only survivors. They suffered minor injuries.
Richardson and the four occupants of the minivan -- two men and two women from Quebec -- died in the crash.
Yesterday, the Canadians were identified as Julien Laliberte, 67, Laurent Laliberte, 66, Yolande Rodgers, 62, and Huguette Laliberte, 62. The relationship of the victims was not reported by police.
NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said yesterday that Richardson was talking on a cell phone with her boyfriend when she apparently lost control of the vehicle. Richardson had purchased the 1998 Explorer the day of the crash and was using the phone to find her boyfriend, who apparently accompanied her to the sale but had become separated from her in traffic, he said.
Investigators recovered the cell phone from the wreckage.
Official also plan to study the failure of the guardrail to stop Richardson's car.
"Median guardrails aren't supposed to allow that to happen," Lopatkiewicz said.
Lopatkiewicz said that under federal guidelines, no median barrier is required at the crash site because of the distance between traffic lanes on each side of the Beltway. "We'll be finding out what prompted the placement of the barrier there and why that type and not another type was used."
The NTSB, which makes national safety recommendations, is investigating the crash because it could have national implications -- especially, Lopatkiewicz said, because the guardrail design is used elsewhere in the country and many drivers use cell phones while driving.
A bill in the Maryland legislature that would have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving was killed last year by a House committee. Advocates had hoped lawmakers would be swayed toward passage by a 1999 collision in which a car driven by a Naval Academy midshipman using a cell phone swerved off the Capital Beltway and killed a New York couple whose sedan was parked at the roadside.
A similar measure seeking to ban cell phone use while driving is before the legislature this session. House Bill 31 is scheduled for a hearing Feb. 12. Under the measure, use of a hand-held phone while driving would be a misdemeanor subject to a $500 fine.
In June, New York become the first state in the nation to pass statewide legislation banning the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers. It took effect Nov. 1.