Truck Driver Pleads Guilty to Vehicular Homicide in 2012 Nebraska Crash

A truck driver who caused an accident that killed an entire family a year ago in Nebraska will plead guilty, according to an agreement with prosecutors that could result in his being sent to prison for 20 years.

According to court papers filed by Cheyenne County, Nebraska attorneys, Josef Slezak, 37, of Illinois, will plead guilty to four counts of motor vehicle homicide and one count of motor vehicle homicide of an unborn fetus. Prosecutors agreed in return to recommend a sentence of no more than 20 years.

In the early morning hours of September 9th, 2012, westbound traffic on Interstate 80 was at a standstill as a result of an earlier fatal accident. Diana Schmidt, 28, of Maryland, reached the traffic jam in her compact Toyota. Her two sons were passengers, and Diana was expecting a third child. Her husband, Christopher Schmidt, 30, was behind her in his Ford Mustang.

Just after the two vehicles stopped, Slezak crashed into the Ford at a speed witnesses estimated at 75 miles per hour. The impact drove the Ford into the Toyota, which was forced under the trailer of a truck in front of it. The Toyota burst into flames. All four of the Schmidts and the unborn child were killed.

A crash investigator found that Slezak had been on duty for nearly 15 hours – a breach of regulations. Police found no evidence he had attempted to slow down or avoid the accident. Slezak may well have been asleep at the wheel or, at the very least, too tired to be aware of his surroundings.

This accident obviously illustrates the importance of enforcing regulations limiting truck drivers’ duty hours. But is also shows the importance of underride guards – reinforced beams that project downward from the rear end of freight trailers. These bars are designed to impact with the body and engine compartment of passenger vehicles, sparing the more fragile roof and windshield – which offer less protection to the passenger compartment – from the brunt of the collision. When they function as intended, underride guards save lives, but in more severe crashes, they often buckle. Given the nature of the crash, it is likely that the trailer that Diana Schmidt crashed into had an underride guard that gave way or, worse yet, no underride guard at all.

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