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This news story originally provided by The Lexington Herald-Leader
January 16, 2005

Coal-hauling roads: twice as deadly

By Brandon Ortiz


PIKEVILLEAs officer Kevin Belcher rounded a curve on U.S. 23, he could see the outline of a white pickup crushed beneath the bed of a Mack coal truck. He drove over debris and strewn auto parts as he approached the scene on the dark evening of Dec. 6, 2000.

Belcher, of the Kentucky Department of Vehicle Enforcement, ran to check on Larry A. Childers, the driver of the 1992 Ford Ranger. He couldn't get to him. Most of the passenger compartment had collapsed beneath the weight of the 10-wheel truck's bed.

The underride guard, designed to prevent vehicles from going beneath the bed, had collapsed, according to court documents.

Childers, 24, did not survive. A state trooper noted in an accident report that there were no skid marks; Childers, apparently, never attempted to avoid rear-ending the black coal truck.

He probably never saw it until it was too late, accident reconstructionists said later.

Six weeks later, Leo Slone of Raccoon died in a collision under similar circumstances, on the same road, with a coal truck from the same trucking company. It hauled for the same coal operator.

The total number of Kentucky roadway deaths has increased in each of the last five years. Although coal truck deaths were only a small part of that increase, safety advocates say more could have been done to prevent the three dozen fatalities that resulted from rear-end collisions with coal trucks in the past decade.

Safety advocates are calling for tougher penalties and regulations on coal trucking, which they partly blame for traffic fatality rates -- a ratio of roadway deaths to miles driven -- that are twice as high on coal-hauling roads.

"The safety factor is non-existent with the coal industry," said Joey Stidham, an accident reconstructionist and former state trooper.

But industry backers sharply dispute that assertion, noting that studies have consistently shown commercial truckers are rarely at fault in fatal accidents. Researchers and state police say that poor seat-belt use is the major factor and that most truckers obey the law.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association in Lexington, said truckers can take steps, such as improving rear lighting. But he said motorists are mostly at fault when they rear-end coal trucks.

"We had record numbers of fatalities last year," Caylor said. "You don't point your finger at somebody else. You got to figure out how to get these people to drive safer."

Little public reaction

After Childers and Slone died, there was little reaction in Pike County or southeastern Kentucky, said Drema Stanley, Slone's daughter.

"I think a lot of people are used to it," said Stanley, who lives in Jackson but grew up in Pike County. "There was no uprising or anything like that. I would like to believe the cases we had make a difference, but I'm not sure that they do. I'd like to think they do. It makes you feel better."

She added that coal truck wrecks seem to occur weekly.

Since 2000, at least 53 people have died and 536 have been injured in accidents with trucks licensed to haul coal, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of federal Department of Transportation data. The data analyzed records from January 2000 through August 2004.

During that time, there were 704 accidents involving trucks licensed to haul coal. What isn't known is whether the trucks were full, empty or hauling something besides coal at the times of the accidents.

Rear-end collisions probably accounted for only a fraction of those -- exactly how many is unclear -- but advocates say they are the most easily prevented.

"The most tragic thing to me is they are all preventable if the trucks were just legal," said Roy Crawford, a Whitesburg engineer whose son died after rear-ending a coal truck.

After the Childers and Slone wrecks, accident reconstructionists said that the lack of state-required rear lighting on the trucks caused both victims to misjudge distances, according to depositions for two lawsuits that were settled out of court.

Both accidents happened at night on unlit areas of U.S. 23.

Days before Slone's wreck, the coal truck he ran into had been cited for missing rear lights.

Despite a 2001 law setting a $250 ticket from police or Vehicle Enforcement for inadequate or inoperable lighting, Crawford said many truckers fail to clean grime off lights and reflectors. At night, that makes it hard for some drivers to judge a truck's distance.

Sometimes, motorists even mistake a truck for a distant car, experts say.

It's "just like your rear-view mirror on the right side (that) says objects are closer than they appear," said Michael Lewis, an attorney who represented Stanley. "It creates an optical illusion."

Industry backers acknowledge that some truckers don't maintain their vehicles well, but they say most abide by the law.

Greg Higgins, who owns a trucking company in Pike County, said more drivers are compliant because newer rigs come with required lighting.

"The trucks of today are way ahead of where they were at 10 years ago," he said.

Regulating guards

Crawford has studied coal trucking accidents since his 16-year-old son, Guy, died in 1994 after running his car beneath a coal truck that had no metal rear guard.

Crawford said trucks have underride guards more now than a decade ago, but "the underrides they have now are a farce."

Critics say that the guards are typically homemade out of tubular steel and welded onto the bed; that the bars are frequently too far back; and that they are not close enough to the ground to keep cars from going under them.

Rather than stop a car, the guards often peel back the hood "like a guillotine effect," Crawford said.

Safety advocates say there are too few regulations specifying placement of the guards.

State Sen. Ray Jones II, D-Pikeville, has pushed for tougher penalties for trucks without the guards. Current law allows judges to set fines of $25 to $200.

But Jones has not pushed for stricter regulations on construction of the guards. He says the Constitution's interstate commerce clause limits the state's ability to regulate trucking standards.

"Congress is ultimately responsible for the failure to have a well-defined standard," he said.

It would help even more if the state lowered its 120,000-pound weight limit for coal trucks, Crawford said.

Commercial trucks can weigh no more than 80,000 pounds on interstates. But Kentucky allows coal trucks to buy licenses to haul as much as 40,000 pounds more on designated coal-hauling roads.

Crawford and Stidham, the accident reconstructionist, say that's more than trucks' engines, suspensions and brakes can handle.

It is not uncommon, critics say, for trucks to travel as slowly as 20 mph on Eastern Kentucky hills. That causes drivers to misjudge the speed of trucks and run into them, Crawford said.

Officials say they have seen some improvement in the past year, after Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration started strictly enforcing trucking regulations.

From January to November last year, Vehicle Enforcement ticketed 1,439 overweight commercial trucks, said Greg Howard, the agency's commissioner. Compare that with 2000, when officers wrote only 111 tickets.

The low number of tickets led some to question whether the state was ignoring coal hauling regulations.

Expense for the industry

Caylor, of the Kentucky Coal Association, said many of the regulations critics want to impose would bankrupt companies and prove counterproductive.

Lower weight limits would probably lead to an increase in the number of trucks on the road and more accidents, Caylor said.

He said the coal industry has adapted to the recent crackdown on overweight trucks. But that's possible only because coal prices have reached historic highs, he said. That has allowed operators to pay trucking companies more per ton.

Nonetheless, those in the industry say the public is usually at fault in trucking accidents. A 1999 study by the Kentucky Transportation Center found that commercial drivers were to blame in a third of fatal trucking accidents. The most frequent type of trucking accident between 1994 to 1997, it found, was vehicles pulling in front of trucks.

Crawford, an engineer, sharply criticized the study, saying police officers are not adequately trained in accident reconstruction. He said authorities routinely blame victims when they rear-end coal trucks, without regard for the truck's lighting or slow speed.

"In many cases, the victim is dead. There is no way to ask their side of the story," Crawford said.

Cycle arrives after wreck

Larry A. Childers' first Harley-Davidson motorcycle arrived at his parents' house on Valentine's Day, two months after his death. It was a pearl white 2001 Fat Boy.

The lady who sold it to him was so upset she couldn't stand to be there when it was delivered, his father, Larry R. Childers said.

The younger Childers' friends still buy him Harley-Davidson gift certificates, and his parents buy him birthday and Christmas presents: chrome for the bike. Occasionally, they ride it and take it to bike shows.

"To finish the life he didn't get the chance to live," said his mother, Kathy.

The Childerses and Stanley both settled with the trucking and coal companies for an undisclosed sum. Their attorneys, coincidentally, worked for the same firm. Their cases were consolidated for discovery purposes, but they would have been tried separately.

Stanley spent her childhood growing up in the hollows. Slone, Stanley's father, mined coal most of his adult life, and he was active in the United Mine Workers of America.

"I don't think anybody here is totally against running coal," Stanley said. "It is just a matter of simply having a little interest in the people around them and, you know, human life."

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