Highway roulette

In Texas, more people die in truck crashes than any state in the country. It's not an accident.

Frequently overworked and forced to drive poorly maintained vehicles, truckers, the only category of worker exempted from the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, travail under conditions tantamount to sweatshops on wheels. That forces them to play the transit equivalent of Russian roulette, a dangerous game from which no one on the road is safe.

Richard and Judy Haas were in that sweet stretch of life when all the tough work seemed to be behind them. They had navigated their two children through the turbulent teen years, made the necessary financial sacrifices to put them through college, and patiently counseled them as they got their footing in careers.

Now 26, daughter Kelly worked as an accountant, and 27-year-old son Jeffrey recently decided to join his father as a national sales representative for lingerie companies--a decision that made his father exceedingly happy and proud.

Married for 32 years, the Haases finally were looking forward to reaping the rewards they had duly earned--spending time together on the golf course behind the new house they had just built in McKinney and dancing at their children's weddings.

On a weekend in June two years ago, scores of friends and family from around the country descended on the Haas home for Kelly's wedding. Resplendent in a black tuxedo with a perfect red rose affixed to his lapel, the tall, lanky Richard beamed as he guided his beautiful blonde daughter down the aisle of the First United Methodist Church in Richardson. Later, as he danced with Kelly during the reception at the Eldorado Country Club in McKinney, he whispered--only half-jokingly--that he hoped she wouldn't make him wait long for grandchildren.

The wedding weekend was over in an instant, and friends and family soon dispersed. Kelly and her new husband, Bryan, flew off to their honeymoon in San Francisco. Jeff, a reservist, took off for San Antonio to teach a two-week Army course. Except for Judy's parents, who had decided to stay on a few extra days before heading back to Florida, the rest of the company left for home. But Judy and Richard's spirits were buoyed by the knowledge that everyone would be coming together again in just three months for Jeff's wedding in September.

Richard, too, had to head out shortly after the wedding. On Tuesday, he flew to the West Coast for a two-day business trip where he was establishing new territory for an intimate apparel company. He was not scheduled to fly home until late Thursday night, but he finished earlier than expected. He called Judy at her office at Rockwell International to tell her he was going to try to catch an earlier flight. It should get him home before six and they perhaps could get in a few holes of golf, he said hopefully.

When 6 o'clock came and went and Richard had not yet arrived home, Judy thought nothing of it. She figured that he had missed the earlier flight. She expected him home shortly when she said goodnight to her folks and headed up to bed at 10 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, the telephone rang.

"Is this Mrs. Haas?" a man identifying himself as a Plano police officer asked.

"It is."
"We'll be there shortly."
Judy asked him what this was all about, and he would only repeat that he would be over shortly.

"My heart stopped," Judy recalls. "I sat on the steps and waited for the police officer to arrive. I knew I would never see my husband again. I just knew it."

Kenneth Ray Edwards had begun his shift hauling cement at 2:15 a.m. that Thursday. But in truth, his day had begun much earlier. He lived in Sherman, more than an hour from the Redi-Mix Frisco plant on Texas 121, where he retrieved his white, 64,000-pound cement mixer each day. The day before, his shift hadn't ended until almost 6:30 p.m., so the most sleep he could have gotten is five hours and that's only if he went right home and straight to bed without eating, showering, watching TV, or talking to his wife.

Never an easy job, the cement trucker's lot at Redi-Mix had been particularly grueling in recent weeks. The weather was warm, and the construction business was booming. Those two facts translated into long, hot hours for the truckers. Twelve- to 15-hour days weren't uncommon--sometimes even longer than that, even though it meant breaking the law. But as one trucker would later put it in court documents for a lawsuit the Haas family filed: "If there was mud to be thrown, we had to throw, no matter what."

Plant Manager Keith Tilton was concerned about the ragged condition of his drivers. That very day, he complained to the dispatcher that the truckers were driving too many hours, but she told him it was not his concern.

By the time Edwards headed back to the plant at the end of the day, he had logged 15 hours and 15 minutes working all over North Texas. One run took him to Denton, another to Plano. In the afternoon, he was dispatched to the Lewisville plant where he made four or five runs between the plant and a construction site nearby. By the time Edwards poured his last load and washed down the truck, he was beat. Severely overweight with a history of heart problems, the 42-year-old Edwards complained to his buddy Bobby Bristow how tired he was. Bristow, who was equally exhausted, suggested they stop to get something to drink.

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