HIGHWAY HORROR SHOW
On the nation’s freeways, defective trucks menace life and commerce
At 11:45 a.m. on Sept. 29, Donald Obee was driving home for lunch, enjoying southern Ontario’s warm, early autumn sunshine, when a pair of dual wheels broke off a passing truck and obliterated the front half of his 12-yearold Chevette. “One minute I was doing 50 miles an hour,” Obee said later, “and the next minute I wasn’t moving.” Die 44-year-old unemployed machinist was taken to hospital in his home town of St. Catharines, treated for bruises and a sore neck and discharged the following day. Die truck, which had been travelling in the opposite direction on the divided, four-lane highway, did not stop and has not been located. Police say it was probably a tractor trailer and the driver was unaware that he had lost the wheels.
Obee’s too-close encounter with 200 lb. of flying steel and rubber was a first-hand experience with a frightening phenomenon: the apparent increase in the number of spectacular and often fatal accidents caused by poorly maintained trucks on congested, high-speed multilaned freeways. No national agency keeps comprehensive statistics on truck-related accidents. But so far this year, in southern Ontario alone, several people have been killed and scores injured by flying wheels, rollovers and runaways. “This year has been the worst yet for accidents caused by me chanical factors in trucks,” says Ontario Provincial Police Senior Const. Cam Woolley, a truck-accident investigation specialist. The Canadian Automobile Association (CM) believes the hazard* is continent-wide and has urged Transport Canada to investigate areas such as vehicle design. ‘We feel pretty strongly that there are lives at stake here,” says CM President Brian Hunt.
Nowhere in Canada are there more lives at stake than in the asphalt network that slices across southern Ontario from the Quebec border to Windsor. That is partly because of the sheer volume of traffic. ‘You guys in Ontario have got more motor vehicles on Highway 401 in two days than we’ve got in the whole of Nova Scotia,” says Aubrey Martell, the director of motor vehicle inspection in Nova Scotia. But the trouble with trucks is not just their numbers but their condition—and the result is often sudden death.
At 11:10 a.m. last Jan. 31, Angela Worona, 31, was killed on westbound Highway 401 near Whitby, Ont., when a set of dual wheels broke loose from an eastbound tractor trailer, caromed off the median guardrail and crushed her Pontiac Grand Am. A po-
liceman at the scene said he initially thought from the state of the car that it was a convertible. At the inquest into that incident and a similar fatal accident in Mississauga, Ont., on April 3, investigators testified that, in the Whitby case, eight of the 10 fasteners holding the truck wheels together on the axle were so loose they could be turned by hand. Last week, after a month-long inquiry, the coroner’s jury recommended higher standards for licensing drivers and truck maintenance and stiffer fines for those found guilty of abusing them; current fines for failing to maintain a vehicle average about $250. Last week, provincial transportation minister AÍ
Palladini said he would crack down on the industry within six months, introducing reforms such as mandatory training for wheel installers and graduated licensing for truck drivers.
Unsafe trucks not only threaten life and limb; they cause economic losses as well. Lawsuits arising from death or injury, the insurance claims of truck owners and shippers, and the losses experienced by businesses when highways are blocked (on a freeway, « three to five hours is not I uncommon) add up to tens of millions of dollars every year. Shippers miss flights and cargo is left £ sitting at airports. Some factories are forced to slow or suspend production because they have run out of parts. Employers have to pay overtime because relief shifts are stuck in traffic. Passengers miss their planes and many wind up stranded in airports. “If a truck accident blocks an expressway,” says Woolley, “it absolutely cripples the local economy.” In an attempt to get unfit trucks and ill-trained drivers off the road and to punish their operators, Canada, the United States and Mexico each year conduct a co-ordinated three-day highway blitz. During the 1995 campaign last June, police and government inspectors in the three countries examined more than 54,000 trucks. Even though the operation had been well publicized in advance, more than one-fifth of the vehicles showed up at inspection stations with bad brakes, insecure loads, loose wheel fasteners or dangerously bald tires or in general disrepair. They were grounded on the spot. In some cases, drivers were either unlicensed, unqualified or fatigued. “In the back of my mind, I’m thinking what if they didn’t know these inspections were going on?” says John Meed of the Saskatchewan highway transportation department compliance branch. “The results would probably have been worse.”
Although the three-nation average of trucks ordered out of service during this year’s crackdown was down slightly from last year’s, several participating provinces reported increases. British
Columbia’s rate rose to 26 from 23 per cent, Saskatchewan’s almost doubled to 23 from 12 per cent, Quebec went to 13 from nine per cent, and Ontario led with more than 43 per cent, roughly the same as last year but up sharply from 1993’s 33 per cent. “The fact that we have seen no change between 1994 and 1995 makes me think there has been no change in the industry’s commitment to safety—up or down,” says Rudi Wycliffe, director of the Ontario ministry of transportation’s compliance branch. Adds Hans Jons, the ministry’s Kitchener-based enforcement co-ordinator: “The industry is still not taking inspections seriously.” The CAA’s Hunt echoes that view. Last year, he says, there were 2,500 reports across North America of wheels coming off trucks. “That’s what was reported,” he says. “We think it’s much higher than that.”
• At 9:30 p.m. last April 3, James Tyrrell, 31, a Scotiabank credit manager, was driving along the eastbound Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) in Mississauga, Ont., on his way to a ball hockey game when two wheels flew off a westbound tractor trailer. Police found one of them a kilometre away. The other crashed onto the roof of Tyrrell’s Toyota, killing him, then bounded down the highway while motorists swerved frantically to avoid it.
Police (testifying at the same inquest that investigated Worona’s death near Whitby) said rust prevented the truck’s.dual wheels from fitting together properly.
But truck mishaps on the heavily travelled QEW sometimes go unexplained. On Sept. 19, a tanker truck westbound on the same highway between Hamilton and St. Catharines at 3 a.m. suddenly swung across the median and rolled over. Driver James Konieczny, 39, of Holland, N. Y, was killed. Investigators still have not figured out why the truck veered so wildly out of control.
What bothers police and provincial transportation enforcement authorities is the lack of nationally based information about how, and under what circumstances, trucks come to grief. For example, Transport Canada each year publishes statistics on the number of heavy trucks involved in collisions that killed or injured someone. There were more than 8,300 in 1992, the latest year for which figures are available, including 474 described as “fatal.” But no one knows what kind of collisions they were, how many people died in them or to what extent mechanical defects or driver competence played a role. Says Wycliffe: “There is a woeful lack of statistics about truck accidents.”
Nor is there any consensus as to why there are so many accidents, especially in Ontario. One theory is that high axle weights—the load limits permitted on the highway—are a factor. The limit in Ontario, which allows double trailers, is 140,000 lb., the highest in North America; the U.S. maximum on interstate highways is 80,000 lb. But Hunt wonders whether the answer lies elsewhere. “Is it a situation where people are fighting for freight, lowballing prices, and therefore can’t afford to maintain their vehicles?” he asks.
There is no lack of pressure to find and fix the
problem. The Ontario Trucking Association, which wants the province to close down carriers with poor safety records, has been urging the provincial government to introduce graduated driver licensing, a more exacting driving test for truckers and even tougher enforcement. In fact, there is much at stake for the industry, which is both enormous and essential to the Canadian economy. Threequarters of all the goods shipped in Canada is carried by trucks, and 150,000 people— two-fifths of all those employed in the transportation sector—work for trucking companies. More than 50,000 trucking firms operate 3.5 million vehicles, ranging in size from delivery vans to 18-wheelers, half of them registered in Ontario and Quebec. Most of them roll through the year without incident. Most, but not all.
• At 5:45 p.m. last Aug. 16, the driver of an earth-laden tractor trailer lost control on the long hilly eastbound approach to the Second Narrows Bridge in North Vancouver. The truck crashed into the car of a vacationing Ontario couple, Ronald and Marcia Brennan of Cambridge, Ont., and hurled it across the median into a car driven by Wayde Police, 34. Police was killed and the Brennans were seriously injured.
The truck continued down the hill, bounced off a bridge abutment and came to rest at right angles to the road. The driver, Baljinder Singh, 36, was also killed. A British Columbia government transport inspector said later the truck’s brakes were so maladjusted as to make them “virtually useless in stopping this vehicle. ”
The OPP’s Woolley is a member of the Greater Toronto Region traffic unit. Its main focus: commercial vehicle accidents and periodic, unannounced truck-safety blitzes on provincial highways from Hamilton east to Port Hope. Woolley has been patrolling those roads for 16 years and is an acknowledged truck expert.
At headquarters in the Toronto suburb of Downsview, he shows a video of smashed, overturned, burning and broken trucks and he recites the findings of investigators: defective brakes; no insurance; expired, stolen or bootlegged provincial inspection certificates; tankers leaking corrosive liquids; missing axles; headlights held on with coat hangers and fuel tank caps held on with bungee cords; loose steering; holes in exhaust systems; room-size overseas shipping containers anchored only by gravity because the retaining latches were broken. “The yearby-year experience has suggested that up to a third of truck accidents are caused by mechanical defects,” says Woolley. “But this
The experts blame driver fatigue and inadequate safety checks
year defects and insecure loads have figured in just over half of serious accidents. Mechanical defects are a factor in only about five per cent, if that, of car accidents.” Acknowledges Wycliffe: “There may be a lot of cars out there that aren’t in very good shape—but they’re not carrying 50 tons of fertilizer.” There are two other parts of the problem—the people who drive the trucks and the mechanics who service them. In Canada, truckers are forbidden to drive more than 13 hours in every 24 (it is 10 hours in the United States) to reduce the perils created by fatigue. But in a tough economy and amid ever-increasing competition, some drivers ignore the restriction. Early last August, a tractor trailer from Pembroke, Ont., went through a red light just north of Toronto, hit a car broadside and crashed through the wall of a restaurant. Police found the driver had faked the entries in the logbook the law requires him to carry, and had been driving as much as 16 hours a day because he is paid by the mile. “I’ve seen them kill people doing that,” says Woolley.
Fatigue is not the only menace. Every province and U.S. state requires drivers to inspect as many as 27 points on their rigs—brakes, air hoses, lights, tires and so forth—before they move onto a highway. But many drivers don’t do it. “A lot of them will openly argue that if they checked their vehicles the way they were supposed to, they couldn’t make any money because it’s too much trouble,” says Woolley. Saskatchewan’s Meed puts it even more strongly. “There are truck drivers,” he says, “who are not interested in complying and have left their morality behind when they jump behind the wheel.” None of the provinces regulates driver training, subjects drivers to retesting or requires training or licensing for the people who install and service truck wheels. “It’s critical that they be put on properly and that the fasteners be tightened properly,” says Woolley. “There’s a whole bunch of things you have to know and any one mistake will result in the wheel flying off.” The only tasks reserved by law for mechanics: repairing and servicing brakes and steering.
• At lunchtime last Aug. 10, Abbey Morris, 5, and her 8-year-old brother Aaron were sitting in a car parked outside a store on Mountain Road, the steep main street in Beamsville, Ont. A runaway gravel truck hurtled down the street and rammed the car, killing Abbey and seriously injuring her brother, who spent three weeks in hospital with broken legs, arms and ribs.
Police charged the driver—who had jumped from the truck when he found he could not stop it—with operating an unsafe vehicle and fail-
ing to carry out a pre-trip inspection. The maximum penalty for each offence: $500 and six months in jail. One OPP sergeant says the usual fine is around $250, and he has never heard of anyone going to jail for either infraction.
It is approaching 11 p.m. on an unseasonably chill September night, and Woolley is extracting trucks from the roaring, unceasing traffic flow with the skill of a cowhand cutting steers out of a stampede. He charges back and forth on the 16-lane Toronto by-
pass stretch of Highway 401—which carries 360,000 vehicles a day—looking for malefactors. But a lot of truckers quickly recognize Woolley and his police station wagon, and his CB radio crackles with their warnings that Smokey is in their midst.
Still, he does pretty well, pulling over a dozen trucks in seven hours. He escorts them one by one to a big unpaved yard just off the highway where government inspectors in orange overalls emblazoned with yellow X’s wait in the glare of floodlights to ex-
amine his prizes. The first is a dump truck with six potentially disastrous cracks in a rear wheel and a phony inspection sticker on the windshield. The inspectors remove the licence plates, and if the owner wants his truck back, he will have to tow it away. The driver of one tractor trailer has only an ordinary automobile driver’s licence. His windshield wipers do not work, his brakes are out of adjustment, his air-brake hoses are defective, and his inspection sticker has expired.
In the unannounced two-day blitz, part of a larger border-to-border operation that reached from Quebec to Windsor, Ont., Woolley and several other OPP officers shepherded 176 trucks into the off-highway inspection yard. One was a tractor trailer loaded with scrap metal whose driver tried vainly to elude inspection and went through a red light. Ninety-four—or 53 per cent— were not allowed to leave without repairs, servicing or qualified drivers, and police distributed 113 fines. “It’s worthwhile for a shipper to make sure the guy he hires to haul his trailer has a good safety record,” says Woolley. ‘These trailers are like billboards and you don’t want to see your advertisement on the six o’clock news upside down.” As far as the public is concerned, he adds, “this situation is reminiscent of where impaired driving was 20 years ago. What we had then and what we have now is a wake-up call.” To the families of those killed by trucks out of control or falling apart, it is a wake-up call tragically long overdue. □