By James Girards
Two North Richland Hills, Texas, teens were killed in Oklahoma when the rear wheels of an 18-wheeler traveling the opposite direction broke loose and crashed through their windshield. Abigail Key, age 15, and Chance Clifton, age 17, died on Interstate 40 east of Weatherford. This crash has been reported so far as a "freak accident." But, that is far from the truth. Metallurgical fatigue and decay or damage to trailer components do not happen overnight. Signs of wear, fractures, and other types of danger to these very components are supposed to be looked for carefully as part of the pre-trip inspection that the driver is required to perform every time he is about to take to the road. Typically, fatigue and fracturing of metal components are seen weeks to months before a catastrophic failure. Missing or broken nuts or bolts are more easily seen and are typically evident days to months before a failure like this. Importantly, the trucking company is expected to maintain the trucks and trailers and subject them to detailed inspections and repairs to look specifically for this kind of thing. Instead of a freak accident, this was simply an accident waiting to happen as a result of an egregious failure to inspect and maintain the trailer. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations cover these types of issues. For example, here is section 397 of the regulations:
"Subpart A - General
§ 392.7 Equipment, inspection and use. (a) No commercial motor vehicle shall be driven unless the driver is satisfied that the following parts and accessories are in good working order, nor shall any driver fail to use or make use of such parts and accessories when and as needed: Service brakes, including trailer brake connections. Parking (hand) brake. Steering mechanism. Lighting devices and reflectors. Tires. Horn. Windshield wiper or wipers. Rear-vision mirror or mirrors. Coupling devices. (b) Drivers preparing to transport intermodal equipment must make an inspection of the following components, and must be satisfied they are in good working order before the equipment is operated over the road. Drivers who operate the equipment over the road shall be deemed to have confirmed the following components were in good working order when the driver accepted the equipment: Service brake components that are readily visible to a driver performing as thorough a visual inspection as possible without physically going under the vehicle, and trailer brake connections. —Lighting devices, lamps, markers, and conspicuity marking material —Wheels, rims, lugs, tires —Air line connections, hoses, and couplers —King pin upper coupling device —Rails or support frames —Tie down bolsters —Locking pins, clevises, clamps, or hooks —Sliders or sliding frame lock[33 FR 19732, Dec. 25, 1968, as amended at 60 FR 38746, July 28, 1995; 73 FR 76823, Dec. 17, 2008; 74 FR 68708, Dec. 29, 2009]
In addition, the regulations require the driver to refrain from taking the truck on the road if he cannot make it safely to his intended destination for any reason, including the condition of the truck:
"Inspection, repair, and maintenance
§ 396.7 Unsafe operations forbidden. (a) General. A motor vehicle shall not be operated in such a condition as to likely cause an accident or a breakdown of the vehicle. (b) Exemption. Any motor vehicle discovered to be in an unsafe condition while being operated on the highway may be continued in operation only to the nearest place where repairs can safely be effected. Such operation shall be conducted only if it is less hazardous to the public than to permit the vehicle to remain on the highway.
The trucking company must comply with this regulation as well, which would have prevented this tragedy:
"Inspection, repair, and maintenance
§ 396.3 Inspection, repair, and maintenance. (a) General. Every motor carrier and intermodal equipment provider must systematically inspect, repair, and maintain, or cause to be systematically inspected, repaired, and maintained, all motor vehicles and intermodal equipment subject to its control. (1) Parts and accessories shall be in safe and proper operating condition at all times. These include those specified in part 393 of this subchapter and any additional parts and accessories which may affect safety of operation, including but not limited to, frame and frame assemblies, suspension systems, axles and attaching parts, wheels and rims, and steering systems.(2) Pushout windows, emergency doors, and emergency door marking lights in buses shall be inspected at least every 90 days. (b) Required records. Motor carriers, except for a private motor carrier of passengers (nonbusiness), must maintain, or cause to be maintained, records for each motor vehicle they control for 30 consecutive days. Intermodal equipment providers must maintain or cause to be maintained, records for each unit of intermodal equipment they tender or intend to tender to a motor carrier. These records must include: (1) An identification of the vehicle including company number, if so marked, make, serial number, year, and tire size. In addition, if the motor vehicle is not owned by the motor carrier, the record shall identify the name of the person furnishing the vehicle;(2) A means to indicate the nature and due date of the various inspection and maintenance operations to be performed;(3) A record of inspection, repairs, and maintenance indicating their date and nature; and (4) A record of tests conducted on pushout windows, emergency doors, and emergency door marking lights on buses. (c) Record retention. The records required by this section shall be retained where the vehicle is either housed or maintained for a period of 1 year and for 6 months after the motor vehicle leaves the motor carrier's control. [44 FR 38526, July 2, 1979, as amended at 48 FR 55868, Dec. 16, 1983; 53 FR 18058, May 19, 1988; 59 FR 8753, Feb. 23, 1994; 59 FR 60324, Nov. 23, 1994; 73 FR 75824, Dec. 17, 2008]
This tragedy is all the more poignant because it ocurred just days after completion of the nationwide 2013 RoadCheck truck safety event. In 2012 more than one out of every five 18-wheelers were determined to be unsafe and taken off the road. The results of the 2013 inspections have not been released yet. The current tragedy was far from a freak accident. It is a foreseeable result of trucking companies taking shortcuts and ignoring the rules because they can get away with it due to infrequency of roadside inspections by a short-staffed public safety commuinity. We'd be willing to bet that the truck involved with this crash took a vacation for a few days during the 2013 RoadChek program so he wouldn't be inspected. We've seen a lot of trucking companies do that.
In the coming days, more information will become evident as law enforcement and government inspectors complete their investigations of this crash. They are not likely to be as forgiving as the press.
If you or a loved one have been injured by a dangerous 18-wheeler, do not hesitate to contact an experienced trucking collision specialist. For more information on trucking collisions, contact the Girards Law Firm at 888-897-2762.