News Briefs



Runaway trailers a highway menace
Published: December 15th, 2007 05:55 AM

RICHLAND TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Spencer Morrison was a stickler for safety. The middle school teacher had precious cargo to protect – his 4-year-old triplets, Ethan, Garret and Alaina. Only the best minivan and top-of-the-line car seats would do.

None of that mattered when a trailer – a 3-ton wood-chipper on wheels – broke loose from a truck and careened into oncoming traffic on April 13, 2006.

It smashed into the minivan and “just blew the vehicle apart,” the local police chief, T. Robert Amann, recalled. Morrison, 37, and two of the triplets died instantly. Ethan suffered a fractured skull and other injuries but survived.

The trucker, Bradley Demitras, hadn’t checked to make sure the chipper was securely hitched to his vehicle. He also failed to connect the safety chains, which are supposed to keep a trailer attached if the hookup fails. Demitras pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He’s serving nine to 18 months in jail.

Runaway trailers are a little-known but persistent cause of crashes, deaths and injuries across the United States.

The government doesn’t keep nationwide statistics on accidents caused by trailer decouplings. But a Los Angeles Times review of news reports and court files identified about 540 such crashes since 2000. They resulted in at least 164 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Because some accidents aren’t reported by news media or captured in electronic archives, the numbers likely are low.

Shortly before Demitras’ sentencing this past May, a runaway trailer triggered a chain-reaction wreck on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland that killed three people and snarled traffic for nearly eight hours.

In August, a Montana man died when a loose trailer struck his pickup head-on.

In September, a woman died in Spring Hill, Fla., when a trailer broke free and hit her car.

The accidents reviewed by the Times involved trailers of varying kinds – for hauling boats, horses, gardening equipment, household goods and autos. A large majority were light- and medium-duty trailers, as opposed to big rigs. Most were owned by individuals or businesses, a small proportion by equipment-rental companies such as U-Haul International Inc.

Many of the crashes stemmed from elementary mistakes, such as failing to engage a locking device when hitching a trailer. Rarely was just one blunder responsible. More often, drivers neglected a series of precautions, any one of which might have prevented a tragedy.

“People are either ignorant of the way to properly connect a trailer, or they’re in a hurry and they don’t want to take the time,” said Amann, Northern Regional police chief in Allegheny County.

Master Lock Co., which makes hitches and other towing equipment, surveyed more than 300 trailer owners in 2006 and found that most were “lacking in knowledge of basic safety and proper towing procedures, and few have had any real training or instruction.” Fewer than half properly attached their trailer’s safety chains, the survey found.

Adding to the risk is the growing number of trailers on the road. The number of light-duty trailers registered in the United States rose from 10.6 million in 1990 to 15.9 million in 2005, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Some of those responsible for runaway-trailer crashes wind up in prison, often with deep remorse. But enforcement rarely takes the form of preventive action, such as citing drivers for towing substandard trailers or failing to connect them properly. Police say it’s not practical to make routine vehicle stops to check trailer hookups.

In all 50 states, a basic driver’s license is all that’s needed to tow a small to medium-size trailer.

“There’s no law enforcement program that requires a person towing a trailer to have any special training,” said Thomas Shelton, a former accident investigations supervisor for the California Highway Patrol.

The result, he said, is “a lot of ignorance and carelessness.”

There is often no significant help at the point of sale, said Shelton, now a private accident investigator. Citing his own experience buying three trailers, Shelton said he was offered “no instruction whatsoever” on safety matters.

“A lot of it is common sense. A lot of it is not,” he said. “You are on your own.”

Andy Ackerman, president of the North American Trailer Dealers Association, acknowledged that “all too often a trailer is sold and the customer backs up and the dealer hooks him up and away he goes, with no training or guidance.” He said his organization wanted to change that.

But even if dealers improved safety education, it would go only so far. Most trailers are purchased used, often in sales between individuals.

Under federal and state regulations, commercial truck-trailer combinations that surpass a certain weight limitation must get periodic safety checks, and stop at highway inspection stations. Drivers need a commercial license and are required to check essential components such as lights and couplers before every trip.

But violations of the rules are widespread.

“There are many companies out there that fly under the radar,” said CHP officer Chris Sahagun, a spokesman for California’s commercial-vehicle program.

There is almost no federal regulation of smaller trailers. In the late 1960s, U.S. transportation officials proposed federal standards governing hitches and requiring safety instructions for drivers. But manufacturers and rental companies fought the proposal, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dropped it in 1972.

In Pennsylvania last year, Demitras felt the trailer jerk as he hit a dip on the William Flynn Highway north of Pittsburgh. Then he heard the squeal of tires and the sound of the wood-chipper plowing into the Morrison family’s Honda Odyssey.

Pieces of wreckage, including one of the minivan’s doors, were strewn as far as 150 feet from the point of impact.

Demitras worked for O’Connor Enterprises, a tree-trimming company. Another employee had hitched the chipper to the truck that day. Had Demitras checked the trailer as required by state commercial-vehicle regulations, he would have realized that a locking device wasn’t engaged, leaving the coupler sitting unsecured atop the truck’s hitch ball. The safety chains weren’t hooked up either. And Demitras was going about 70 in a 45-mph zone.

Charged with vehicular homicide and involuntary manslaughter, Demitras, 35, pleaded guilty in May to the lesser offense.

“I would gladly lay down my own life to make this not have happened,” he told a packed courtroom at his sentencing. “I wake up every day knowing that three beautiful people aren’t here, and that is my responsibility.”



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