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A TIMES INVESTIGATION

Hauling Danger, Courting Disaster

Common trailers in untrained or careless hands can become unguided missiles, hurtling toward the defenseless. Rules are rarely enforced.

December 09, 2007|Myron Levin and Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writers

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 like an unguided missile 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 truck driver, 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 and is serving nine to 18 months in jail.

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

The government does not keep nationwide statistics on accidents caused by trailer decouplings. But a 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 understate the frequency of such incidents.

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 perished when a loose trailer struck his pickup head-on.

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

Runaway-trailer crashes are notable for the cruel coincidences of place and time that put the victim in the path of a rolling projectile. Most of the victims are helpless motorists, but pedestrians have also been injured or killed -- including children waiting for a bus or walking home from school. Runaway trailers have even crashed into living rooms and bedrooms.

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, Pa.

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 U.S. 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 motorists 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 Assn., 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.

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