Longform

Highway roulette

Page 5 of 9

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.

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Ann Zimmerman