Highway roulette

During afternoon rush hour on a sweltering mid-June day, five cars heading east on Texas 121 in Frisco line up at a red light at the intersection with Custer Road. As the drivers wait for the light to change, a 64,000-pound cement mixer barrels down the two-lane highway. The truck driver, who is at the end of a long shift, misses the entrance to Redi-Mix cement company where he is supposed to turn and heads instead for the line of cars stopped just 250 feet down the road.

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.