By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The cement truck driver is traveling about 50 mph. As he gets closer to the stopped cars, he does not slow, does not brake. Heading home from the airport after a business trip, Richard Haas, the driver in the last car, a four-door Lincoln, can do nothing as the truck bears down on him. He is trapped. With the full force of a battering ram, the cement truck plows into the Lincoln and crushes it like cardboard to half its original length. The crash sets off a chain reaction of real-life bumper cars. Most of the drivers, including the trucker, scramble to safety, except for Haas, who is pinned inside his car as it bursts into flames.
Once the fire subsides, it takes a while for the police to realize that a car is affixed to the cab of the cement truck, which has melted down to its metal chassis. The two vehicles are enmeshed, one tangled mess of twisted, crumpled metal. It takes even longer to realize that a body is inside, charred beyond recognition.
Truck driver Kenneth Ray Edwards will try to claim that he had a history of seizures, but police will ultimately conclude that driver fatigue caused the crash. The driver had worked 90 hours the previous eight days. The night before the crash, he was lucky if he had gotten four hours of sleep.
The automotive death dance involving large trucks happens with alarming regularity in this country. Last year, 5,355 people died in collisions involving heavy trucks. Another 133,000 were injured, many of them disabled, and there's no mystery behind the mayhem.
"The trucking industry has been out of control for 40 years," says Michael Scippa, head of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), a national grass-roots safety organization based in California. "Trucks have grown in size, weight, and number over the years and have made the roads toxic to all motorists. Imagine it as if sidewalks were designed for cars. You have an 80,000-pound, 70-foot rig hitting a 3,000-pound car. It's like a bowling bowl hitting an egg."
After a number of years in decline, the numbers of fatalities involving trucks has increased precipitously in the last five years. While the American Trucking Association admits the raw numbers of deaths are going up, the death rate per million miles driven has actually fallen. "Ten years ago, the fatal crash rate for trucks was 3.6 deaths per 100 million miles driven," says Rob Abbott, an ATA safety engineer. "Now it is 2.4 deaths per 100 million miles. Of course, our position is that even one death is one too many."
Nowhere is the death toll higher than in Texas, where 487 people died in truck-related crashes last year. This is, in part, the inevitable result of the state's size, but safety experts say it also has to do with the state's laissez-faire approach to regulating the industry.
In accidents in which truck drivers are at fault, fatigue, speed, and maintenance problems are the contributing factors. Many safety experts argue that federal and state laws governing how many hours truckers can work in a day and week do not adequately protect the truckers or the public. More significant, critics charge that the laws are routinely flouted by an industry that values profit over safety. There is little incentive to abide by the laws, because enforcement is shoddy at best, especially in Texas, which spends three-quarters less money on policing the trucking industry than California, the only other state comparable in size to our own.
Truck traffic on the state's busiest highways has increased three-fold since Congress passed the North America Free Trade Agreement five years ago, which eased trade restrictions with Mexico. But the state's efforts to regulate those trucks have not kept pace. The Department of Public Safety, the state agency responsible for ensuring truck safety, is so short-staffed troopers manage to inspect only one in every 1,000 trucks on the road. Of the trucks pulled over for inspection, one out of four is ordered out of service either because of safety defects--faulty brakes, unsecured loads, bald tires--or because the driver has been on the road too long. Federal law prohibits truckers driving interstate from traveling more than 10 consecutive hours; truckers operating within Texas can drive up to 12 consecutive hours and work up to 15 hours.
Although the federal government requires that truck companies have a safety rating, Texas performs a safety audit on only 2 percent of the state's trucking companies each year, according to DPS officials.
"Texas' numbers are downright scary," says CRASH's Scippa. "Can you imagine what's getting by?"
Even when trucking companies receive less than satisfactory safety ratings, little is done to ensure they make the necessary improvements. Such was the case with Redi-Mix, whose driver killed Haas on Texas 121 two years ago. Twice in two years, state inspectors found that Redi-Mix truckers worked more than the legal number of hours, but nothing was done.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
As with alcohol, everyone's tolerance of sleep deprivation is different. This has made the subject of restricted truck driving hours contentious. Compounding the problem, fatigue is difficult to detect; there is no scientific equivalent to a Breathalyzer or blood test to measure how sleep-deprived a trucker is. Checking a driver's logbooks is not always reliable; forgery is rampant in the industry.
Regardless of its controversial nature, trucker fatigue has become a pre-eminent truck safety issue, thanks to the efforts of Parents Against Tired Truckers, a national organization started in Maine in 1994. Similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the influential lobbying group begun more than a decade earlier, PATT was started by grief-stricken parents who began looking for answers after their teenage son was killed in a collision with a long-haul trucker in Maine in 1993.
"Fatigue is finally coming to the forefront, but we've had to pay one hell of a price," says Daphne Izer, who launched PATT with her husband, Stephen, from the kitchen of their Maine home.
Daphne Izer still cries when she talks about the night a Wal-Mart long-haul tractor trailer drove over the car driven by her 17-year-old son Jeff, killing him and three friends. "It's overwhelming at times, especially around the holidays," Izer says.
For four days, she and her husband had believed the trucker's version of events, which placed the blame on her son. The trucker claimed that Jeff, who had pulled off the road because of engine trouble, was parked partially in the travel lane. Police found, however, that there was no evidence the truck driver had taken any evasive measures to avoid hitting the car. Coupled with eyewitness accounts maintaining that Jeff was completely off the road with flashers on, and that the truck swerved into the car, police concluded the driver was either severely fatigued or asleep.
The driver also told several versions of when and where he had slept in the previous 36 hours. Toll receipts showed he was in New York at the time he claimed to have been in New Hampshire sleeping.
Izer will never know for certain how much--if any--sleep the driver had. "Fatigue as a whole is underreported as a cause in truck crashes," she says. "Drivers are not going to admit they fell asleep at the wheel. In 98 percent of truck-crash fatalities involving another vehicle, it is the person in the passenger car who dies, so who is left to dispute the trucker's story?"
The driver spent four months in jail and paid a $1,000 fine for falsifying his logbook, but there was no law to hold him criminally responsible for killing four people.
The Izers have been on a campaign ever since to raise awareness of the need for improved truck safety. One of their first victories was persuading the Maine legislature to pass a law making drivers subject to manslaughter charges if a truck driver violates hours of service laws and kills someone in a crash. The driver's supervisor would also face charges if the supervisor causes the driver to violate the rules.
PATT, which has a dozen chapters around the country--although none in Texas--has been less successful in getting the rest of its agenda adopted on a national level. Among the laws PATT would like to see changed is for truckers to be included on the Fair Labor Standards Act, so they would be paid by the hour and get overtime. As it stands now, most truckers are paid by the mile or the load--a practice Europe banned a long time ago--and they spend a lot of time loading and unloading or simply waiting around, for which they are not compensated.
"If truckers were paid by the hour, it would reduce the incentive to drive fatigued and to speed," Izer says. "Free labor is supposed to be gone in this country. The trucking industry makes a fortune off the backs of drivers who are killing people, and it's not always the driver's fault. But it doesn't change, and drivers shouldn't have to fear for their jobs if they refuse to violate the law or if they stop to rest."
It is for stands like this one that PATT ironically has found some of its strongest support within the ranks of truckers.
PATT and other safety groups would also like to see the federal government mandate that heavy trucks be equipped with on-board computers to track the amount of time drivers are on the road. Computer logs would be harder to falsify than a logbook kept by the driver, and it would be less work for the trucker. Europe has made on-board electronic recorders mandatory, but the Federal Highway Administration has consistently rejected proposals for a similar mandate during the last decade.
When PATT recently petitioned the administration once again to make them mandatory. The agency called for a study. "They study everything to death," Izer says.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is exactly how much time truckers should be on the road and how much time they should be allowed to rest. Both trucking groups and safety advocates agree that the rest period between shifts should be lengthened. PATT would like to see on-duty hours--which includes non-driving work hours--cut from 15 to 12 and the rest period lengthened from 8 to 12 hours. Trucking groups recently mounted a strong lobbying effort actually to increase the amount of time truckers are allowed to drive. The American Trucking Association suggested allowing truckers to drive up to 15 hours without sustained rest, which safety groups successfully opposed this fall.
The ATA argued its position with the help of a study it conducted with funds from the highway administration, which concluded that it was the time of day truckers worked, rather than the amount of time on the road, that caused driver fatigue. An independent panel of experts hired by the administration however, concluded that the study had several serious flaws.
The trucking industry does have a valid point when it claims that present laws may actually promote fatigue. Take, for example, the driver who puts in 10 hours on the road and finds himself at his next destination at 4 p.m. He is expected to sleep for the next eight hours, which many find difficult to do in daylight hours. So after a few fitful hours of sleep, he hits the road again at midnight. He has taken his obligatory eight hours off, but he is hardly rested.
The trucking industry's solution would be to allow truckers to drive more hours. Safety groups agree that truckers should not have to work at times that are odds with natural circadian rhythms--the body's natural tendency to be awake during the day and sleep at night. But driving longer hours is not the answer, they say, pointing to numerous studies that show truckers who drive more than eight or 10 hours increase their risk of a crash two-fold.
Izer is growing weary of trying to convince legislators and regulators to make the changes common sense and decades of science and statistics so obviously dictate.
"When 100 people die in a plane crash, changes are made immediately," Izer says. "Well, 5,000 people die each year in truck crashes, but they die one, two, three at a time and no one notices. There is no public outcry. Nothing gets changed. Who's to blame? The federal government. Congress needs to intervene. We are with the issue of fatigue where MADD was 10 to 15 years ago with drinking and driving, but it's an uphill battle. The trucking industry has multimillions of dollars to shove down the throats of congressmen."
Calling it his "waving the American flag speech," David Stopper makes a strong argument for the need to improve enforcement of truck safety laws nationwide.
"There are a lot of trucking companies that try to stay in compliance," he says. "But with so many others getting away with it, how can you compete? If you don't have strong enforcement, not only are you endangering the public, you're penalizing honest people."
Stopper spends much time in Texas, teaching at A&M, investigating truck crashes, and testifying in lawsuits, so he has first-hand knowledge when he says, "enforcement of trucking laws in Texas is a joke. You're understaffed and there are no facilities. It is one of the few states where you cross the line and there is no 24-hour weigh station to check paperwork and logs. It amazes me that there is no serious enforcement going on. Across this great state, the chances of running across a motor carrier inspector is very slim."
Strong words, but the facts bear them out.
In Texas, the license and weight division of the Department of Public Safety is responsible for enforcing the state and federal trucking laws, but the Texas Legislature does not provide the funds the department needs to do an adequate job. There are 323 troopers specifically assigned to inspect trucks traveling across the state's highways. Last year, they inspected almost 126,000 trucks to make sure they were not overweight and that the vehicles were properly maintained and the drivers in compliance with the laws governing how long they could be on the road. But for every truck they stopped, another 1,000 drove by unchecked, according to DPS officials.
Some of these inspections are done at the state's 40 permanent weigh stations, sheds with permanent in-ground scales. Troopers toting portable scales do the rest in parking lots or the proverbial wide spots in the road--a time-consuming process and one not conducive to doing a thorough inspection. In fact, of the inspections done last year, only 19 percent were what the DPS terms level one, the most complete inspections in which troopers crawl all over the truck checking for bad brakes and loose lug nuts, and look at the driver's log book and supporting paperwork. Less thorough inspections might include just weighing the vehicle or just checking the logbook.
In addition, none of the weigh stations in Texas is permanently manned, even those at the state's borders. The theory is that once truckers know where the permanent weigh stations are, they'll find a way around them.
"Clearly, we do not have enough people or facilities based on the number of commercial vehicles in the state," says Maj. Lester Mills, director of the DPS division responsible for truck safety. "But that's all the money allocated by the Legislature."
Forty-two troopers are assigned to audit the state's trucking companies, looking at logbooks, checking preventive maintenance records and employee histories. Last year, the DPS audited only 2 percent of the state's trucking companies, up from 1 percent the year before.
Compare these numbers with California, and the differences are staggering. California has three times the number of people inspecting trucks on the road, and all of the inspections are level one. Six times the number of people conduct audits of the state's truck carriers--enough to hit 50 percent of the truck terminals each year.
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.