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DANGER IN TOW

Upkeep lags in U-Haul's aging fleet

Many trucks have high mileage, and The Times found safety checks were often overdue. Customers describe breakdowns and accidents.

June 25, 2007|Myron Levin and Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writers

THE U-HAUL TRUCK was 19 years old, with nearly 234,000 miles on its odometer. It had a history of problems with its emergency brake and was overdue for a safety inspection.

Talmadge Waldrip, 73, of Forney, Texas, was using it to help his daughter move some belongings in September. He drove to a warehouse and killed the engine. Then he put the manual transmission in gear, set the emergency brake and stepped down from the cab, he told family members later.

Instantly, the truck rolled backward. Waldrip tried to climb back in, but the door knocked him to the pavement. The 6-ton truck rolled over his midsection and dragged him, crushing his pelvis.

Nine months and 14 surgeries later, the once-vigorous Waldrip cannot walk and needs round-the-clock care.

U-Haul International Inc. has denied responsibility and says it's still investigating the cause. Whatever the outcome, the accident shows how the company tries to squeeze the last mile from its vehicles, and how it often fails to meet its own standards for inspecting and maintaining them.

During a yearlong investigation, Times journalists surveyed more than 200 U-Haul trucks and trailers in California and other states and found that more than half were overdue for a company-mandated "safety certification," a check of brakes, tires and other parts typically required every 30 days.

Some safety checks were more than a year overdue.

In response, U-Haul said its fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles is safe and well-maintained. It said it is investing heavily to modernize the fleet and spends about $350 million a year -- about 20% of its rental revenue -- on maintenance and repairs.

U-Haul, the nation's largest do-it-yourself moving company, said its trucks are involved in fewer than four accidents per million miles -- about the same as a federal estimate of the accident rate for all passenger vehicles. The company said the rate for its trailers is even lower.

U-Haul's figures could not be independently verified. No government agency keeps track of accidents involving rental equipment.

The company said its "performance record on the highways of North America says that we are succeeding."

AN OLDER FLEET

AMONG U-HAUL'S 100,000 trucks are many aging, high-mileage vehicles. Many have logged more than 100,000 miles. A recent court filing by U-Haul underscored the fleet's age: A company executive, referring only to the type of truck rented to Waldrip, said 4,595 of them were still on the road with 200,000 miles or more.

U-Haul has purchased about 38,000 new trucks over the last two years and has sold nearly as many older ones. But the company says it does not automatically retire vehicles at a fixed mileage or age.

Penske Truck Leasing, one of U-Haul's two major competitors, says that it replaces up to half its consumer rental fleet every year and that its oldest trucks are about 3 1/2 years old. Budget Truck Rental says the average age of its trucks is 2 to 2 1/2 years.

U-Haul relies on a far-flung network of independent dealers to supplement its 1,450 company-owned rental centers. This has added to maintenance problems.

Most of the 14,500 dealers have no auto service background. They include storage sites, mini-marts, postal supply shops, even liquor stores and laundromats.

Further complicating matters is U-Haul's practice of booking reservations without knowing if it will have trucks and trailers when and where renters want them. The policy leads to long lines of overwrought customers, creating pressure to get equipment back on the road quickly.

Twenty-four former U-Haul employees, including some who collectively oversaw hundreds of rental locations in California and other states, said in separate interviews that basic safety checks were often skipped because of thin staffing and the need to keep trucks and trailers rolling.

U-Haul mechanics on occasion have falsified repair records, listing work they did not perform -- a practice known as "hanging paper," court records and interviews show. U-Haul says this is rare and never tolerated.

The company faces little regulatory scrutiny in the U.S., but Canadian officials have sharply criticized its maintenance practices.

From July 2005 through August 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation inspected about 800 U-Haul trucks and removed 20% from service because of such problems as defective lights, steering and brakes.

The inspectors idled only about 4% of the trucks of other rental firms.

U-Haul said that some vehicles were sidelined for reasons unrelated to their condition, such as a driver lacking a proper license, and that its Canadian operation is safe. The company said it is improving its performance in Canada by adding new trucks, retraining employees and dropping errant dealers.

Ontario Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield said in an interview that U-Haul has a long way to go.

"The bottom line is, people are renting U-Hauls and they're not safe," she said.

TRUCK FAILURES

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