Truckers and pedestrian suicide: "I can't stop screaming about dead people when I sleep"
Earlier this month, a 16-year-old girl died on Route 78 after she was struck by a tractor-trailer, less than a month after a young woman died in the same manner on that highway...
Trucker Bob Eason can't sleep at night. He's haunted by what happened in September on Route 287. "I can't stop having the nightmare," said Eason, of Sinking Spring, Pa. "I can't stop screaming about dead people when I sleep."
Truckers and pedestrian suicide: "I can't stop screaming about dead people when I sleep"
In the past eight months, at least four people died on New Jersey roads after they ran into the paths of tractor-trailers. Their deaths leave gaping holes in the lives of their families and friends, but the truckers have to live with that trauma as well. Eason was one of those truckers.
Unfortunately, he's not alone.
Earlier this month, a 16-year-old girl died on Route 78 after she was struck by a tractor-trailer, less than a month after a young woman died in the same manner on that highway.
Authorities haven't officially said these two recent deaths or the crash Eason was involved in were suicides. Barring evidence like a suicide note, investigators say, it's often hard to say definitively whether a crash involving a pedestrian was a suicide. But officials have confirmed that these individuals ran in front of tractor-trailers, which, experts say, is an extremely uncommon method of suicide.
In Eason's case, he was returning to Pennsylvania after making a delivery in northern New Jersey when, he said, a Denville man parked his vehicle on the shoulder of Route 287, hid in front of it and then jumped in front of his tractor-trailer.
He tried to go back to work after the crash, but by November he found he wasn't able to handle driving his rig. Eason, who still has flashbacks to the crash, said every car parked on the side of the road or person walking on the street near his vehicle reminds him of that day, which often forces him to pull over or slow down.
"I work very hard to put food on the table for my family, but I don't know why the guy chose my truck," he said. "It's tough for me. I can't trust anybody. I don't believe that they're not going to jump in front of me and take their own life."
It's not clear how many suicides should be attributed to crashes involving motor vehicles. What is known is that 2014 was the deadliest year for pedestrians in New Jersey in more than a decade. After a three-decade decline in fatal crashes overall, fatal pedestrian crashes spiked at 170 last year, about a 29-percent increase over 2013, according to State Police crash statistics.
"While not common, it's also not unheard of," that someone steps in front of a tractor-trailer to commit suicide, said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Association.
"We know these things happen," Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. "Thank goodness they don't happen very often. I hope it's not becoming a trend because it's very devastating for the drivers involved."
The 10th leading cause of death
Despite being the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2013, suicides are believed to be under reported, according to Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Research into the methods used by suicidal individuals is also lacking -- as fewer than 32 states currently contribute data to the National Violent Death Reporting System.
Part of the reason for the under reporting of suicide is that, without a note, some fatal events like car crashes or overdoses aren't labeled as such. Other reasons for the limited data, according to Harkavy-Friedman, is that religious or cultural beliefs among families, and, in some cases, among coroners leads to a person's death being incorrectly labeled.
"One of the problems is they're not thinking of mental health problems as health problems," Harkavy-Friedman said. "If we thought about it as health problems we'd be more accurate in labeling the cause of death. Suicide is a fatal consequence of a health condition."
Anthony Tasso, a clinical psychologist and chairman of psychology and counseling at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said truckers involved in these crashes are often wracked by guilt. Suicide is an area of study for Tasso, who teaches a graduate course in crisis intervention and provides suicide assessment training to various professionals.
"There's a harsh emotional impact on the driver who becomes the means of a person's suicide," Tasso said. "They're left feeling guilty, like they killed the individual and they're struggling with a lot of self-doubt, especially if their entire profession is devoted to driving. They ask, 'Did I make a mistake?'"
"But it's not something they did," he said. "They did not commit an act of murder. They were the method utilized."
'I cry for him every day'
That's little solace for Eason, who still wrestles with his conscience, with his anger over what happened on that day in September, and with questions for which he'll likely never have answers.
"I cry for him every day," Eason said of the man who jumped in front of his rig. "But I want to ask God why (that man) chose my truck. I just want to know. I keep on asking, why? Why? Why? Why? I want to know why he chose my truck."
"I don't know why I'm crying for him," he said. "He took his own life, but I don't know, I keep on crying for him. Why should I have to cry for him?"
Caleb Powers has a bit of understanding into Eason's turmoil. Powers was one of the witnesses to the 24-year-old woman's death on Route 78 last month, and he's still shaken by it.
He and two business colleagues were returning from dinner when they saw a vehicle parked on the right side of the highway. Traffic was traveling at about 75 miles per hour at the time when the woman "bolted with conviction and intention" into the highway from the shoulder of the road.
"We saw (the trucker) immediately begin to make his way to the break down lane," Powers said. "I said to my colleagues, 'I think we just saw a woman take her own life.' That was intuitively what struck me."
After the crash, Powers said, he wished he could have done something but there was no time for anyone to react.
"All I can see is her running in traffic," he said. "It's shocking and it takes a while for it to sink in. I can't stop thinking about the driver of the truck. I can't imagine when he closes his eyes what he sees. A desperate desire for it not to be real?"
What help is there for the truckers?
Powers said if he could speak to the driver in that crash he'd tell him there was nothing he could have done to change what happened.
"I'm sorry that that happened to you, because I can't imagine what you're going through," Powers said. "But I know that there's nothing you could have done. It's not his fault."
Powers, who said he's had three instances in his life when someone's he's known has committed or attempted suicide, said there's an intense helplessness experienced by those in the periphery of the suicidal individual's life.
"It wasn't him," Powers said. "It was the truck. He's a consequence and now he's going to live with that for the rest of his life."
The trucking industry experts -- Abbott and Toth -- said there isn't a uniform standard across the industry for how companies handle drivers who are involved in fatal crashes, but it's common for them to provide time-off, and, in some cases, counseling services.
In Eason's case, he's been receiving counseling and therapy for the past few months, but he still has nightmares and flashbacks. He, too, has experienced suicidal thoughts because of everything that's happened, but, he says, he has a support system comprised of his family and therapists who are helping him.
Truck drivers like officers involved in a "suicide by cop" incident -- in which a suicidal person creates a situation that compels police to use deadly force -- often suffer from the same psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, Tasso said. Truckers often also experience fear of driving and hyper-vigilance after a fatal crash.
"They're dealing with something that is quite difficult and the way in which any individual responds is quite unique," Tasso said. "They need to sit with a therapist and help them come to terms with this."
For victims of trauma, whether it's a driver in a fatal crash, someone who was assaulted or whose life was impacted by a murder or a national tragedy, Tasso said, the need for control in their everyday life can become a significant -- and even crippling -- motivator.
"It's instances like these where they say, 'I realize I am not as in control of my life and surroundings as I previously thought.' It's a stark reminder," he said. "There is a lot that we're not in control of, coming to terms with that, realizing that itself is not a problem can be comforting because it allows them to not exert the energy trying to control their environment."
Help is available
Harkavy-Friedman said there are also risks when a number of suicides are widely reported or discussed among people in a community. Studies have shown that when a cluster of three or more suicides occurs in a short period of time in a similar manner, it may be an example of "suicide contagion" -- also known as copycat suicides.
Providing more education and access to suicide prevention services can help prevent those people from taking their own lives, Harkavy-Friedman said.