Highway roulette

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

Bristow did stop, but Edwards decided to drive straight back to the plant. It was 5:15 p.m. as Edwards neared the driveway to Redi-Mix on Texas 121. But he drove right past it, one of the reasons why police would eventually conclude he was asleep when he slammed into Richard Haas. Skid marks and gouges on the road indicated that he did not put on the brakes until after the moment of impact.

It took police four hours to learn Richard Haas' identity by tracing his license plate records. Judy Haas was relieved to learn that her husband probably died from the trauma of the crash, which ripped three tears in his heart, and not the inferno. She only hopes he died instantly, but no one can say for sure. What Judy Haas does know is that her family was the victim not just of one tired trucker, but of an industry that abuses its workforce and endangers the public with impunity.

The Haas family didn't immediately file suit against Redi-Mix, which offered to pay for Haas' funeral. Judy Haas asked a family friend who is a lawyer to investigate the company's practices, but after a year of ignoring the lawyer's repeated requests for company records, Judy realized the company was just playing games with her.

That's when she decided to find a top-notch personal injury lawyer and hired Frank Branson. "I wanted justice, I wanted them to pay," Haas says.

In 30 years of practicing law, Branson says, the cases he's handled that involved crashes with big trucks have been some of the most horrific, in terms of both the damage inflicted and the arrogance and negligence on the part of the trucking companies.

"It's always the same. Either the driver was over hours or on marijuana or driving a truck that should have been in the junkyard," Branson says. "The mindset in the trucking industry is truly horrifying. The pattern is always the same--putting profits above safety."

Branson's office recently settled a multi-million-dollar case involving a Fort Worth trucking company whose driver, after a night of delivering fuel to gas stations in Northeast Texas, decapitated the driver of a pickup truck as he crashed into a tollbooth at DFW airport. The driver told the police he did not know where he was or why he was on Airport Freeway when he was supposed to be on Texas 121. Police cited fatigue as a contributing factor to the crash. The driver had been fired from a previous job for causing an accident after falling asleep on the road and from another company in Fort Worth after failing a drug test.

In another case Branson handled, a driver was speeding on Interstate 30 and skidded into a man on his way to church. When Branson quizzed the truck driver on the rules in the Department of Transportation manual, "he didn't know come here from sic 'em," Branson says. "When we checked his log book, where he is supposed to write safety notes, on the day of the accident it said 'Dallas is the 10-point favorite against San Francisco.' We discovered that the driver had been fired by an employer for getting too many tickets and walked down the street and was hired by the same employer at a different terminal.

"If the American people ever realized who was behind the wheel of those 18-wheel monsters," Branson adds, "they'd be more afraid of truck drivers than they are of AIDS."

What Branson's office uncovered in the Haas case further convinced him to be distrustful of the trucking industry. By the time Judy Haas hired Branson, all of the company's records from the time of the accident had been destroyed. Federal law only requires trucking companies to keep logbooks and time cards for six months. If a driver has been in an accident, the company has to keep his records on file.

But even without the records, problems at Redi-Mix still were readily apparent, even when the company abided by the letter of the law. Working 15-hour shifts with eight hours off doesn't leave a driver much time for a life, much less sleep. Redi-Mix compounded the problem by not taking into consideration how far away many of its drivers lived, which further cut into the amount of time they had to rest

In Kenneth Edwards' case, he commuted to work two hours a day. On the days he put in a full 15 hours and had to be back in eight hours, he was left with at most six hours to sleep. It was also difficult to develop regular sleep patterns, because one day his shift would start at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., other days at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.

Like most of the federal trucking laws, the eight-hour rest rule was written in the 1930s and primarily applied to interstate drivers. In 1982, when the Surface Transportation Assistance Act gave states federal funding, states were required to adopt federal rules. The eight-hour rule is one of a number of regulations designed for the long-haul driver, who drives from location to location and can sleep in the back of his truck. This rule obviously doesn't take commuting time into account. Federal law limits truckers to work no more than 60 hours in any seven-day period or 70 hours in an eight-day period. In 1996, the trucking industry tried to ease the regulations by pushing through legislation that would start the clock again after a driver had been off for a full 24 hours. The provision was defeated, except in instances in which drivers are working within a single state for the construction industry or servicing public utilities.

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