Truck safety feature at issue

Widow of man killed in crash sues driver of rig, his employer

July 17, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Elizabeth Ashley says that her husband might still be alive if the government was tougher with truckers.

Robert Ashley was killed shortly after 5 a.m. September 23, 1998, when his Dodge van crashed into a tractor-trailer along U.S. 40 near Mountain Road. The truck had just pulled out of a truck stop, and its flatbed trailer blocked both eastbound lanes of the highway as the driver waited to make a left turn, police said.

Ashley, 72, hit his brakes, but struck the side of the truck, police said. He was pronounced dead that morning at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Elizabeth Ashley said her husband might have seen the tarp-covered trailer in the early morning darkness and stopped in time if the truck had had reflective tape along its sides. The tape -- which costs as little as $65 and can be applied in an hour or two -- should be required on all tractor-trailers, she said.

"I can't understand why they let trucks go out at night on the roads like that," she said in an interview at her lawyer's Towson office.

Ashley has filed a wrongful death suit in Baltimore County Circuit Court, alleging that the driver and the trucking firm that employed him were negligent because they had not attached reflective tape to the 12-year-old truck trailer.

The suit seeks $10 million from the driver, Norris L. Dishon Sr. of Edgewood, and the firm, Leo J. Umerley Inc., of White Marsh.

Dishon and Umerley did not return several telephone calls last week seeking comment.

Safety experts say that about 500 people die each year in accidents in which cars hit trucks at night. Stricter reflective tape requirements would save some of those lives, but federal regulators have been slow to react, they say.

"The government's movement on this has been too slow," said Stephen l. Oesch, senior vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Federal regulations require reflective tape on newer trucks. But they give trucks made before 1994 -- including Umerley's 1988 trailer -- until June 1, 2001, to apply it.

Safety experts say that the absence of reflective tape on as many as 815,000 older trucks continues to cost lives.

"It's rather wild that after 30 years of looking at this issue, there's still trucks out there without tape," said Byron Bloch, an auto safety expert from Potomac. "It's sort of insane."

Bloch, an industrial engineer who has testified before Congress about truck safety, said federal officials have been examining nighttime truck accidents since the mid-1960s. These accidents captured national attention in 1967, when actress Jayne Mansfield was killed when her car struck the rear of a truck.

Most European countries have required reflective tape on trucks since the mid-1980s, experts say.

"We've fallen behind Europe when it comes to truck safety," Oesch said.

Federal officials acknowledge that concerns about nighttime visibility of trucks have existed for decades. But they say they had to consider safety and costs before adopting new regulations that cover the nation's 2.7 million tractor trailers.

The tab for retrofitting trucks with reflective tape -- when the costs for taking them out of service is included -- is estimated at $285 million, federal officials said.

"There's a lot of trucking companies out there with hundreds, if not thousands, of trucks, and by law we're required to look at the overall costs vs. the benefits in terms of public safety," said David Longo, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the trucking industry.

Michael Russell, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations in Alexandria, Va., said that the trucking industry is as concerned as anyone about highway safety.

When studies showed the benefits of reflective tape, the industry supported it, he said. "Our members are retrofitting their trucks, or have already done it."

But safety experts say that federal regulators were slow to require reflective tape -- because of pressure from the trucking industry.

"There are a lot of big companies out there that have fought this hard," said Beth A. Hall, who began lobbying in Washington for reflective tape requirements after her father was killed when he hit a truck in 1993.

Carl Hall, a 62-year-old father of four, died when his tow truck hit a tractor-trailer without reflective tape that was backing into a driveway on a dark highway near Hall's home in Doylestown, Pa.

Hall said she remains convinced that reflective tape would have saved her father's life.

"There's no doubt in my mind," said Hall, 42, of Allentown, Pa.

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that tractor-trailers are involved in 11,000 nighttime accidents each year, in which cars strike them in the rear or the side. These accidents cause about 8,700 injuries and about 540 fatalities, according to NHTSA reports.

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