In his three decades attending auto auctions, Ed Coolbrith estimates he’s witnessed cars abruptly accelerate and crash into people or barriers approximately seven or eight times.
Coolbrith, co-owner of Walpole Mitsubishi, was at the auto auction in Framingham in 2015 when a BMW SUV accelerated across the warehouse floor and injured eight people. On Wednesday, one of his buyers was at the Lynnway Auto Auction in Billerica, just 20 feet from where a Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerated toward the crowd, striking a dozen bystanders and killing three.
“It’s an awful thing,” Coolbrith said. “And typically it’s human error; it’s not usually the vehicle, especially the newer vehicles.”
Despite the incidents he has witnessed, Coolbrith said auto auctions have gotten safer over the past five years or so with features like clearly marked lanes and sturdy posts. At an auction in Connecticut a few years ago, Coolbrith said he saw an out-of-control car careen into a post and stop, likely preventing injury to the people there.
After the Billerica accident, Coolbrith said, “You’d expect that there’ll be a more thorough review of how they operate and how they can improve safety. It will be good for everybody — the drivers, auctioneers, and employees. You want it to be as safe as possible.”
On Thursday the Lynnway Auto owners said they would install safety barriers at the Billerica facility.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates worker safety and health at Lynnway Auto Auction, has opened an investigation into Wednesday’s incident. OSHA investigations have to be completed within six months, but a spokesman for the agency’s New England region said it is too early to say how long the investigation will take. Several other state and federal agencies are also investigating aspects of Wednesday’s incident.
Transportation incidents were the leading cause of deaths from workplace injuries in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
This is the third investigation by OSHA in Massachusetts related to incidents involving moving vehicles in auto auction facilities, spokesman Ted Fitzgerald said. The National Auto Auction Association lists eight auction houses in Massachusetts that are members of its organization, including Lynnway Auto.
OSHA investigated the Framingham incident as well as a separate incident at Lynnway Auto Auction in 2014 involving “serious” workplace safety violations that led to a fine $6,300, which was later reduced to $2,200 after the company agreed to make safety improvements.
That incident led to a lawsuit against Lynnway Auto by a worker for one of its subcontractors, an auto-detailing company. The man’s attorney, Gary Orlacchio, said his client suffered serious injuries when he was allegedly struck by a vehicle while working overnight prepping cars for auction.
“I’m shocked that it happened again, quite frankly,” Orlacchio said. “It’s a terrible tragedy.”
A spokeswoman for Lynnway Auto said the incident in the lawsuit occurred in a building adjacent to the auction house that the auto-detailing company subleases from Lynnway. The driver, she added, also worked for a subcontractor. She said Lynnway Auto could not comment further on the lawsuit.
Auto auctions are the backbone of the used vehicle industry, with 2016 the sixth straight year of increased sales, according to Manheim, a global automobile auction company that runs a facility in Dighton.
Auction houses can range from small operations with three lanes to huge warehouses with up to 35 lanes, said Matt Trapp, Manheim’s regional vice president for the Northeast. Each lane has an auctioneer and there is typically a walkway or space between lanes with brightly painted lines that buyers stand behind as the cars come up the auction block.
An auction can attract hundreds of dealers, so the spaces between the lanes can become crowded, said people in the industry.
Trapp said there is a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit on cars moving through lanes at Manheim facilities. The bidding process, though, is lightning fast, an average of 30 to 60 seconds, Trapp said.
“It’s not uncommon to have 12 to 16 lanes each with bids,” Trapp said. “We have protocols in place; it’s not open to the general public, the buyers are experts in what they do. We’re very concerned about vehicles moving through the buildings, the lanes are clearly delineated, it’s a carefully orchestrated operation that moves through the auction.”
Auctions last between three to four hours and, depending on the size of the operation, can move upward of 4,000 cars.
Manheim belongs to the NAAA, whose members have to be certified in the group’s safety rules. The association also has a 48-point guideline for drivers, which says to “pay attention at all times,” put the car in park or neutral when stopped, among other safety points.
Because of the part-time hours at auctions, Coolbrith said most drivers are older retirees.
“I don’t think it’s an easy position to fill; it’s very temporary, one or two days a week,” he said, adding that not all the incidents he witnessed involved an elderly driver.
“I’ve been in auctions in Jersey and they have younger drivers there,” Coolbrith said. “The younger drivers scare me more than the older drivers [because] they’re listening to music when they shouldn’t be, or they’re on their cell phones when they shouldn’t be.”