Highway roulette

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

"It's a huge loophole, one you can literally drive a concrete truck through," says David Stopper, a national truck safety expert based in Virginia and the head of the commercial vehicle accident reconstruction department at the Texas Engineering Extension Service at Texas A&M.

Stopper teaches all over the world and investigates 50 to 60 crashes a year. "Statistically trucks do well, given how many miles they drive each year. The sad part is, most crashes are preventable. I've seen a little too much. It's scary what's going on out there."

An expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Haas case, Stopper believes that this loophole is what allowed Kenneth Edwards to work past the point of exhaustion. Before the accident, Edwards had put in more than 90 hours in the preceding eight days. If he had been working in any other industry, say hauling vegetables instead of concrete, Stopper explains, he would have been out of compliance by 20 hours.

In every other state, truckers are exempt from keeping a logbook on board if they stay within a 100-mile radius; in Texas the radius is 150 miles. "If you have no records of how long you've been driving on board, it makes enforcement almost impossible."

Truckers also are allowed to drive two hours longer in Texas than in any other state. Two hours doesn't sound like much, but it can make a difference, especially if you're doing it every day, Stopper says.

"Driving a truck is hard work," says Stopper, who drives a 62-foot camper back and forth from Virginia to Texas twice a year. "There's physically more to do and more thought processes involved in operating a tractor trailer than flying a 747. In flying a commercial plane, you have a control tower keeping you from hitting another plane, and once you get it in the air, you're on autopilot and kick back. Physically, there's a lot more to do in driving a truck and you have to think all the time."

There's no guarantee that truckers will abide by even Texas' more lenient laws. Edwards' time sheets show he was over the legally allotted work time by 8 minutes the day of the accident. The day before the accident he had returned to his shift earlier than the eight hours he was supposed to be off. On other occasions, records show he sometimes worked 16 hours--an hour longer than he was allowed legally.

Branson believed what his firm learned about Edwards was the tip of the iceberg, but without the other drivers' records, proving it was part of a pattern was going to be difficult.

After much digging, which included checking DPS traffic violations, Rob Crain, lead lawyer on the case from Branson's office, located several former drivers for Redi-Mix, who confirmed Branson's suspicions. In taped interviews they tell alarming accounts of being driven to exhaustion, particularly in the spring and summer months when the workload was the heaviest. In one interview, Bristow, the driver who was working a similar shift to Kenneth Edwards the day he killed Richard Haas, told about having to work so many hours, he would have his fiancee drive him to work because he was too tired. "Several times I would nod off behind the wheel and would wake up when the truck hit the shoulder of the road," Bristow said, in a taped interview he gave Crain.

One time, when Bristow was asked to deliver a load after he had driven the legal limit, he explained to the "batch man" loading cement in his truck that he was out of hours. The man made a call and told Bristow that the company said it would pay the ticket--a $500 fine--if he were caught. "Many of these companies have figured out that it's cheaper to them to pay the fine than play it safe," Branson says.

John Jackson, another former Redi-Mix driver, said it wasn't uncommon for him to work 17 1/2-hour days back to back for days on end during the busy season. He, too, frequently fell asleep on the job. During a week when he managed to sleep only 20 hours in five days, he complained to his boss. "I told him, 'You're killing us.' He said if I couldn't hack it, he could find plenty of other drivers who could. He said, when business is here, we're going to roll. We're going to do what it takes."

With no records to prove the truckers' accusations, lawyer Rob Crain feared they would be dismissed as the exaggerations of disgruntled former employees. He hit pay dirt, however, when he got an anonymous tip that the day of the accident, plant manager Keith Tilton was so concerned about how tired his drivers were, he called the dispatcher to complain. Under oath, Tilton confirmed that he had made the call and that the dispatcher told him it was not his concern.

Fatigue is often a difficult factor to track in crashes, but a 1995 study conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that 35 to 40 percent of truck crash fatalities are fatigue-related. Recent studies have proven that the effects of fatigue are similar to those of alcohol consumption, slowing reaction time and clouding perception and judgment.

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