Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University
As an Aggie and as a former member of the A&M basketball team, I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Polo Manukainiu. Polo was to start this fall as a redshirt defensive lineman. He was on his way back from a trip to Utah with former high school teammates and friends.
Their 2002 Toyota Sequoia rolled over on Monday evening. They were driving on U.S. 550 in New Mexico, about 85 miles north of Albuquerque, when the accident happened. According to New Mexico State Police, the SUV veered off the road, the driver attempted to correct the steering wheel and overcorrected, causing the SUV to flip several times. Polo and Andrew Uhatafe were ejected from the vehicle, dying on impact.
Gaisu Vauenuku, who was to be a defensive tackle for the University of Utah, was pronounced dead in an ambulance while enroute to the hospital.
The driver, Salesi Uhatafe Jr., and his father, Salesi Uhatafe, survived the accident.
Manukainu, Vaenuku, and Uhatafe Jr. all played football together in high school. A&M coach, Kevin Sumlin, said, "We lost a terrific young man... Polo was loved by his teammates and coaches. Anyone who came in contact with him was struck by his sense of humor and smile. My heart aches for his mom and family members."
As far as cause of the accident, New Mexico State Police believe it to be fatigue-related, a potential cause that is supported by Polo's twitter account. Polo did tweet this the night before they left:
22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my 😳— Polo Manukainiu (@ManukainiuPolo) July 29, 2013
According to the NHTSA, young men under the age of 30 are more likely to drive while fatigued and are more likely to cause a rollover accident, and that drivers of rollover vehicles tend to be males under the age of 40.
While we don't know the cause of the accident, it isn't safe to assume that the accident was due to the above factors. Toyota has a long history of issues with its Electronic Stability Control system, the system that helps prevent rollovers. It even recalled some of its Sequoia models for problems with some of the sensors in that system. In the Sequoias, this anti-rollover system had a defect in the steering sensor, which, at high speeds, would cause the steering wheel to lock up and the ABS brake system to kick in. A 2002 Sequoia owner from Spotsylvania, VA, posted this complaint in May of 2012:
"Was driving on the interstate in the left hand lane. Tried to merge into the right hand lane and noticed a car in my blind spot so I went back into the left lane. However, my vsc [ESC]/ABS lights went on, the car beeped, made a heavy grinding noise, and then, with much force, veered hard to the right. I tried to steer it back to the left lane... the car became impossible to control and steer and braking did not help. Despite my best efforts to control the car, apply the brakes, steer our of the skidding and fishtailing, my car then went over into the right lane, over to the shoulder, and then the wheel sunk into the grass next to the shoulder where the vehicle rolled several times. My son and I were airlifted to the trauma unit... [we] were both unconscious at the accident scene. My two daughters had minor cuts, sprains, and bruises. We were fortunate to come out of this alive and not to have hit anyone else... Toyota needs to recall this model as soon as possible. We could have all been killed."
See more of the 73 complaints about this issue here.
So, while we don't know if the Uhatafes' Sequoia had the ESC issue as noted by the driver from Spotsylvania, or if it had been fixed at some point, or if it contributed to the accident, it is worth investigating.
I hope that New Mexico State Police are able to determine the cause of the accident, and that if a defective part in the Sequoia's steering sensors contributed to the deaths of three young men, their families seek justice from the manufacturers of that defective part.
I wish to offer my deepest condolences to the families, teammates, and friends of the deceased.