Highway roulette

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

In addition to California's 36 permanent weigh stations, the state has 18 fixed, full-blown inspection sites--two of them state-of-the-art facilities located at ports of entry to the state. These are manned full-time. The state also has a large mobile unit, in which officers travel the back roads where there are no inspection facilities.

The difference comes down to one thing: money. Both California and Texas receive about $4 million from the federal government for truck safety programs. But in Texas, the Legislature appropriates about $18 million additional funds to the program, while California's legislators give the California Highway Patrol $85 million a year for truck safety.

California had 45 fewer truck-related fatalities than Texas last year. It doesn't seem like that many fewer until you consider that California has 20,000 more trucking companies. And saving lives is not the only goal of enforcing truck safety laws. The amount of money it is saving in infrastructure damage alone is incalculable.

"Texas does not have the support to do the job as effectively as we do," says Capt. Manny Padilla, head of the California Highway Patrol Commercial Vehicle Section. "You definitely need inspection facilities along the border. We're the first line of defense to make sure trucks are safe for the rest of the country. But you must have one hell of an infrastructure, because the money must be going somewhere."

Bill Webb, president of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, an industry trade group, says he believes truck safety enforcement needs to be improved in the state. To that end, his group wants the Legislature to pass a proposal to increase the number of DPS personnel conducting safety audits by making them non-commissioned officers, who earn less and are less expensive to train.

Even when a trucking company is audited by the DPS, it is no guarantee the company will make the necessary changes to bring it into compliance with safety regulations.

Take Redi-Mix, for example. In November 1994, the federal Department of Transportation conducted a compliance review of Redi-Mix, a Carrollton-based company with 11 satellite plants, including the one in Frisco. The inspector found 10 violations, including several drivers who had driven more than the allotted hours on a given day or in a seven-day period and instances in which the company had failed to investigate a driver's background. Drivers also had been involved in eight truck accidents, seven of which considered preventable. The company received a rating of conditional, which falls between a satisfactory and unsatisfactory. The inspector wrote up a list of recommendations, which included establishing a system to control drivers' hours.

The Texas DPS repeated the audit more than two years later, in January 1996, six months before the crash that killed Richard Haas. The inspector found the same pattern--drivers exceeding the numbers of hours allowed on the road, some by as many as eight hours, and failure to do background checks. Plus, in this audit, the company's preventable accident rate had doubled from the previous audit. Again, Redi-Mix received a conditional rating and the exact same list of recommendations.

In a deposition, the company admitted it did not change any of its policies or practices after the audits. "We were convinced we were doing a good job," Redi-Mix's safety director Tom Muscle told Judy Haas' lawyers.

The company was audited again in October after the crash, which is standard procedure. The inspector found that the company was still in violation and gave it another conditional rating.

Neither Redi-Mix officials nor the lawyer for driver Kenneth Ray Edwards responded to requests for interviews.

"What ought to scare you," says Rob Crain, Judy Haas' attorney, "is the DPS auditing office told us that the industry as a whole has a lot of problems, but this company is probably better than the whole."

The last two and a half years have been tough for the Haas family. Four months after Richard died, Judy was laid off from her job, and a few months later she found herself battling cancer. She has since recovered and has begun finding "a new niche" for herself, doing volunteer work at the local hospital.

Richard's Haas' death was particularly tough on his children, Judy says. "They're still having trouble dealing with it. Richard was my son's business partner, his mentor, and his best friend." Jeff's marriage crumbled after three months, and Judy believes it was because he was so broken up about his dad.

After the Haas family sued, Judy was shocked to hear the stories other drivers told about how frequently they drove fatigued. "These companies have to be more concerned with the welfare of their employees and the public," Judy says. "These truckers are worked to death. And even when a manager complained, he was told not to rock the boat. I think that's just inexcusable."

Judy Haas and her children won a $6.3 million settlement from Redi-Mix in October. Earlier, Edwards pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide and is serving a probated sentence with a suspended driver's license.

"I think someone needed some jail time," Rob Crain says. "Not necessarily the driver, but the company. They blatantly and intentionally violated the law. They essentially put a loaded gun behind the wheel. He was dead tired and they knew that. The laws are worthless unless you're punished for them.

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