PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Barreling down a highway last spring with a load of coal 16 tons over the legal limit, Larry Castle suddenly lost control of his tractor-trailer and veered into oncoming traffic.
The crash left an Ohio man dead, his wife seriously injured, and earned Castle 1 1/2 years behind bars for reckless homicide and assault.
It was a worst-case scenario in a state that has become a haven for lawbreaking truckers. An Associated Press investigation found that hundreds of trucking companies and their drivers are flouting weight laws in Kentucky.
Kentucky's top fine of $500 is the same for trucks that are 10,000 or 100,000 pounds over the limit. There is no cumulative penalty for repeat offenders while nearby states don't limit fines and can jail scofflaws.
"Kentucky's weight laws are terrible," said Maj. Steve Maffett, the head of field operations for the state's Division of Motor Vehicle Enforcement. "It's embarrassing, it really is, when I talk to law enforcement officers in these other states."
Inspectors have cited 22,887 truckers for breaking the weight limit in the past three years. The AP reviewed 7,719 of those citations and found hundreds of repeat offenders, including one driver for a grocery store chain who had at least 26 violations since 1993.
Eighteen trucks were cited for carrying loads more than 50 tons too heavy, according to the review of citations issued between January 1993 and May 1996 in 74 of the state's 120 counties.
Other counties do not regularly report the citations, so the review covered about one-third of the state total.
Most trucks are limited to 80,000 pounds, but Kentucky allows coal trucks to carry up to 126,000 pounds, or 23 tons more than the others.
Despite the break, the AP review found that trucks busted in the state's 36 coal-producing counties were over the limit by an average of 42,307 pounds--more than 21 tons.
One driver caught in a coal truck 116,500 pounds over the limit pleaded guilty and paid $60, the state's minimum fine.
In Kentucky, the industry mantra is: "Load it and roll it," said coal hauler Clinard Williams, who has been caught at least seven times behind the wheel of an overweight truck since 1993.
The power to punish the truckers is up to hundreds of judges, some of whom appear sympathetic.
"I love coal-truck drivers," said Howard Keith Hall, a former district judge in eastern Kentucky's Pike County who dismissed half the overweight truck cases before him in the last two years.
"They are the last of the independent small businessmen in Pike County, and I will do everything I can to help them and encourage them not to violate the law," Hall said.
Castle's attorney, C.K. Belhasen, said his client and accident victims Wilbur Hamilton and Shelby Hamilton of Lorain, Ohio, are victims of a system that allows truckers to trade safety for profit.
"This is the biggest joke," Belhasen said. "We see these officers out on the highway . . . attempting to enforce these laws that the state of Kentucky has no intention of enforcing."