The semitrailer truck rumbled south down Houston County Road 9, a two-lane highway that rolls across the fertile farmland of southeast Minnesota, on an overcast Saturday morning in March. The roads were clear of ice and snow, and the truck's trailer was loaded with giant bales of hay.
Dale and Teresa Erickson, married for 26 years, were cruising north in their pickup.
Both vehicles were headed for a curve.
When the semi driver felt the hay shift, he slammed on the brakes. But it was too late. Ten bales, each weighing an estimated 1,200 pounds, flew off. One crushed the pickup's cab. Passers-by dragged Teresa out, but the pickup caught fire with Dale pinned inside. Both died within days.
The truck's owner and driver, Randall Hongerholt, now faces four misdemeanor charges, including failing to secure the load — the kind of violation that would have been caught during a roadside safety inspection. But federal records show that Hongerholt, who put on about 5,000 miles a year transporting grain, feed and hay, hadn't undergone such a check from a certified inspector since October of 2000, after a crash in which someone was injured.
Millions of large trucks crisscross state and federal highways every day, hauling billions of tons of goods between factories and fields and warehouses and stores. Federal and state regulations govern truckers' driving hours, equipment maintenance and load sizes, but enforcement of those rules through surprise roadside inspections has been falling nationally and in Minnesota.
Even the weigh stations that dot the highway system are equipped to inspect just a fraction of the trucks that pass through. Last year, for instance, 433,078 vehicles went through the Minnesota weigh station on Interstate 94 near Moorhead while it was open. About 3,800 were inspected.
The trucking industry argues that inspections take time and cut into productivity, especially for carriers already investing heavily in training and safety. Inspections should target carriers with a history of problems, they argue. Over the long haul, they say, the rate of fatal truck crashes has declined (despite a recent uptick), and most collisions involving trucks are caused by the driver of a car or other passenger vehicle.
But of the trucks inspected on Minnesota's highways last year, 24 percent of vehicles and 7 percent of drivers should not have been on the road, with safety violations so dangerous that they were temporarily declared out of service. Nationally, about 21 percent of inspected trucks were placed out of service.
"Think of that: One in every five trucks … shouldn't be on the road," said Kansas City attorney Jeff Burns, known nationally for specializing in truck crash litigation. "What would you do if the FAA said … 20 percent of these suckers shouldn't have been flying?"
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At the weigh station
The steady stream of giant trucks lumbering through the St. Croix weigh station on Interstate 94 near the Wisconsin border is daunting. It's the state's busiest scale. Finding the dangerous trucks can seem like a needle-in-haystack exercise.
Commercial vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds slowly roll onto a scale one after another without stopping. Inside the scale house, inspectors study the weights as they flash on a computer screen.
The vast majority of vehicles are electronically signaled to pass right back onto the freeway. Those with questionable weights — and some randomly selected by computer — are signaled to roll in front of the station's two large windows, one on each side of the scale house. There, they are weighed again and inspectors conduct a quick visual check including lights, tires, straps holding down loads and the presence of a sticker signaling it passed the annual inspection required of most trucks.
It was an exercise in concentration, with inspectors looking over truck after truck, bouncing attention between the screen and the window, trying to find something amiss.
"Law enforcement is doing the best they can with what they've got," said Matthew Meyerhoff, a driver turned trucking safety consultant who works with companies and testifies as an expert witness in court cases. Inspectors simply don't have the time to do more, he said. "It's minuscule, what's really being inspected compared to the number of trucks."
Truck traffic is surging across the country, and so too are truck crashes. In Minnesota, by one measure, there were more than 5,000 crashes involving commercial trucks in 2014, an increase of 32 percent since 2012. Even factoring in vehicle miles traveled, the national rate of fatal truck crashes has been rising in recent years.
"As a consumer country … we've come to expect things instantly," said Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which sets inspection protocols across North America. "A large portion of the country has no idea what it takes … to get it there."
Each state has its own roadside inspection program, partly funded through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is charged with reducing crashes involving large trucks and buses. In Minnesota, that task falls mostly to the State Patrol's commercial vehicle division, which conducted most of the state's nearly 31,000 inspections last year on the roads and at weigh stations. It employs about 100 inspectors; about 15 local law enforcement officers around the state are also certified inspectors.
In Minnesota, nearly two-thirds to three-quarters of inspections in recent years have been done on vehicles that law enforcement pulls over in traffic, sometimes for probable cause, sometimes randomly and sometimes during enforcement campaigns, officials said. It's a strategy used to catch problem vehicles avoiding weigh stations by using back roads, as well as inspect more that travel only inside state borders. Those stops typically result in more out-of-service violations for either the truck, the driver, or both, State Patrol spokeswoman Tiffani Nielson said.
"That tells us that these trucks are actually probably the ones that are more problematic," she said.
The number of inspections in Minnesota has fallen in recent years. Nielson said that is due to staff turnover and a 2014 state appeals court ruling that said an inspector had to be a peace officer in order to pull over trucks on the highway.
While any state trooper can stop a truck or bus for traffic infractions or basic industry violations, the State Patrol recently increased the number who are certified inspectors by 19, to 44 not including supervisors. Inspectors go through extensive training and have to stay current on a long list of often-changing federal regulations for trucks, drivers and hazardous materials, as well as state laws.
"Overall we'd always like to inspect more trucks and have contact with more drivers," Nielson said. "I think we do a very good job of being efficient with the staffing that we do have."
Pulled from the road
When a semi with a flatbed trailer pulled in front of inspector Tammy Hafermann's window at the St. Croix weigh station and hit the brakes, a tarp-covered load strapped to the trailer flung forward.
"Whoa!" Hafermann said, springing into action.
She directed the driver to a parking lot for a level 2 inspection, which included walking around the rig, checking various equipment as well as the driver's work hours logbook and other documents.
The driver, Glenn Sayers, had just started logging his hours on a smartphone app instead of writing them in a book, he told her.
"I don't know why it shows Madison, Wisconsin. I was over here in Hudson," Sayers said, shaking his head while Hafermann looked at his phone. "I'm not sure exactly how that dang thing works, honestly."
Hafermann couldn't reconcile his claimed working hours with his fuel receipts, either, so she issued him a neon orange placard — Sayers was out of service and had to sit for a 10-hour rest break.
All told, Hafermann found seven violations, three serious enough to put Sayers or his truck out of service until they were addressed.
Sayers wasn't happy, he said, but he felt there was nothing to be done. He was fined $380, he said.
Public records show the truck had been inspected earlier that month in Missouri, where it also was deemed too dangerous to be on the road because of inadequate brake tubing and hose and failure to secure equipment. The company, KM Transportation of Sun Prairie, Wis., after six such inspections in less than a year, had a 60 percent out-of-service violation rate for vehicles, federal records show. The company was issued a federal warning letter about its vehicle violations and its problems are highlighted on a federal website.
Owner Mike Sanchez said the company started in 2013, and has just a handful of trucks and drivers. Company leaders have been learning the business, trying to make sure their drivers inspect trucks every day before taking off, as they're supposed to under federal rules, he said.
"It's a process," he said. "You learn new stuff every day."
Carriers with a history of violations are the ones inspectors should be targeting, safety advocates and trucking associations say.
Giant trucking companies, which typically have more money to invest in equipment and safety, are over-inspected because they have so many trucks running everywhere, said Brenda Lantz, associate director of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University. Companies with just a few trucks and drivers who own their rigs are more apt to cut safety corners to keep costs down, experts said.
"I don't know if we could ever have enough enforcement officers," Lantz said. "You'll never get enough funding."
Many states already use software allowing carriers with good safety records to bypass weigh stations altogether.
In Minnesota, truckers paying $15.75 a month can subscribe to Drivewyze, an Internet-based service that uses a smartphone or other web device to check safety records and sometimes allows them to bypass a couple of Minnesota weigh stations if their records are satisfactory. Most states use such programs giving historically safe carriers the possibility — but not a guarantee — of forgoing a time-consuming stop.
"It helps the traffic flow … helps us not to focus on the good carriers," Nielson said.
Also, trucks that pass a full inspection with no critical violations get a decal good for up to three months, signaling that they don't need to be inspected unless there is a reason.
Conversely, carriers with too many poor inspections can be subject to more thorough investigations with federal or state compliance reviews at their place of business.
Despite those requirements, nationally, about 21 percent of vehicles stopped for a roadside inspection are immediately pulled out of service along with about 5 percent of drivers. Some industry officials argue that since inspectors are looking for problem vehicles, those figures are inflated. But they are similar to rates found in a study last year of random truck inspections: 22 percent of vehicles and 5 percent of drivers were pulled from the road.
While the violations are concerning, they aren't typically causing crashes, said American Trucking Associations engineering director Ted Scott.
"I would rather see people enforcing the speed limits on trucks than worrying about whether it's got all its lights running or working and all its mirrors attached," Scott said. "That can be handled. … Focus on traffic law enforcement and those things that actually cause crashes."
Scott Grenerth, director of regulatory affairs for the trade group that represents small carriers and individuals, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said owner-operators have better safety performance than large companies because they have more at stake.
Studies vary on who is typically at fault when trucks and other vehicles collide. Trucking industry leaders point to studies showing that passenger vehicles are overwhelmingly responsible for crashes. But in a national Large Truck Crash Causation study, looking at fatal and injury crashes in the early 2000s, trucks were assigned the "critical reason" — why something happened to make a crash inevitable — in 44 percent of such collisions. And in those crashes, 87 percent were attributed to driver error and 10 percent to a vehicle defect.
Thomas Cody was slowly driving his street sweeper back to Mankato from a job in St. James. He was in the right lane of a four-lane divided highway when an empty semi, which had been traveling at 65 miles an hour, rammed into him from behind.
The sweeper flipped onto the grassy median. Authorities found Cody, 53, unconscious and bleeding from his head. He died a week later.
The primary contributing factor in the Sept. 2013 crash was the semi driver's "failure to drive with due care," according to the crash investigation.
An inspector found the truck should not have been on the road that day, with too many brakes out of adjustment.
The owner and driver, 25-year-old Justin D. Grimmius, had undergone a surprise driver-only inspection nine days earlier where he was cited for failing to have a medical card with him and violating a traffic law. He'd been put out of service in mid-2012 for brake problems in Iowa, according to federal records.
Prosecutors charged Grimmius with careless driving. He instead pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of failing to maintain the truck's brakes and was sentenced to a year of probation.
It was a difficult sentence for Cody's family to hear.
"I think there should have been a more severe punishment," said his wife, Ruth Laabs-Cody. "Because he knew his brakes were an issue … he should have known, right?"
Grimmius said in an interview that he had been braking hard earlier on the day of the crash and believes that wore some brakes down so they were just outside acceptable limits. He has since upgraded to more modern brakes that automatically tighten as they wear, he said. He is careful during his own daily inspections of his equipment, he said, and voluntarily took his truck to mechanics for inspection three times within a year to make extra sure he was safe on the road.
"It was all a split second and it was over," he said. "It was definitely a life-changing thing that happened … It sticks with you."
Brakes are among the most common commercial vehicle violations nationally and in Minnesota. Last year, brake problems made up 41 percent of out-of-service truck violations issued in the state.
Even with fully functioning brakes, it can take the length of a football field for a semi to stop from highway speeds. The laws of physics weigh heavily against people in passenger vehicles colliding with large trucks; 97 percent of those killed in such crashes were occupants of the passenger vehicle in 2013, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Websites and smartphone apps are dedicated to letting truckers know whether weigh stations are open.
"The ones that actually drive into the weigh stations, those are the ones we probably don't need to be looking at," said Wes Pemble, a former Minnesota inspector who now works as a safety consultant with trucking companies. "Some have reason to make a good effort to get around those weigh stations."
Thomas Gilpin had a reason one early December morning a few years ago.
He couldn't get a load of road salt distributed properly across his trailer, which would have been a problem at weigh stations. He called his Iowa trucking company, and was told he'd have to "take a two-lane" instead of bigger roads, Gilpin said later in a deposition. A company dispatcher, in another deposition, did not recall telling Gilpin to take two-lane roads.
That route added hours to his trip from Kansas to southwest Minnesota, and pushed Gilpin far beyond the number of hours he was legally allowed to drive.
His wife and co-driver, Laura, lay in the sleeper berth behind him, unable to help drive because she was sick. The clock ticked toward 3 a.m. Gilpin gulped coffee and opened his window, hoping the sting of 7-degree air would keep him awake. He was hellbent on delivering the load on time.
He remembered feeling a bump, then careening toward a utility pole.
"I tried to bring it out," he told an insurance investigator. "It's just that fast."
When Gilpin came to, the truck was on its side and he saw blood in the cab. He screamed for Laura, but she never answered. At a hospital, a nun told Gilpin that Laura hadn't survived.
Months later, the trucking company fired Gilpin. Three-and-a-half years after the crash, he disappeared. Mushroom hunters found his body near a lake. He had shot himself.
One of the couple's two sons, Lucas Gilpin, said the pressure on truck drivers leads to tragedies like the one his family faced.
Companies won't explicitly tell drivers to ignore federal rules, he said, but if a load is late because of a traffic jam or long lines at a loading dock, the driver is the one in trouble.
"You can't just say, 'Yeah, I'm gonna be a day late on that delivery.' You don't do that," Lucas Gilpin said. "You won't have a job if you don't push it."
'40 tons of death'
The pressures of truck driving are worn on the haggard faces of the drivers.
Nebraska trucker Brian Knott plopped down at the counter of a South St. Paul truck stop, his scraggly beard and orange T-shirt smudged with grease. It had been a tough week.
Knott, 43, had to deliver a crane part to Minnesota by 8 that morning or get docked $100 for every hour he was late, he said. But the water pump on his 2000 Freightliner broke as he drove from Texas, costing him hours. He managed to make the delivery on time, but then a dispatcher scheduled him for a pick-up at the same time.
When he finally got there that afternoon, he saw the load of heavy-gauge wire mesh with sharp edges that would have ripped his tarps to shreds. The cost of new tarps would have negated the $1,000 or so that he'd be paid for the haul. He turned down the job.
He parked his rig overnight, ordered a dinner of chicken-fried steak and eggs, and hoped for a better load in the morning.
Besides delivery deadlines and demanding dispatchers, he and other drivers at the truck stop said they have to deal with poor weather and a constant barrage of drivers cutting them off or tailgating.
Maintaining equipment is expensive and time consuming, too, and many drivers are paid by the mile, an incentive to cover as much ground as quickly as possible.
While most drivers are careful about safety, some cut corners, the truckers acknowledged.
Knott recalled helping a new flatbed driver at an Iowa truck stop who had strapped down a tall load of metal pipes incorrectly. After helping the man, Knott said he called the company to chew out the bosses for not training the driver.
"I said, 'My kid drives on the highway, you know?' "
Knott said his father, also a driver, offered the best description of the giant trucks that they maneuver around the country: "40 tons of death."
And yet, Knott said, he avoids weigh stations. "I know how to get around almost all of them."
Knott was confident his truck would pass muster, but inspections are time-consuming and inspectors sometimes overzealous: He's been cited for inoperable windshield wipers even though they worked, and he's been dinged for a grease leak that he said was from a load of pig hides, not equipment.
Florida truck driver Paul DeMars, eating pasta nearby, shook his head as he listened. "We've got too many truck drivers out here that don't want to take care of their crap, going up and down the road because they want to put that extra money in their pocket," he said finally. "Got a light out? Fix the damn thing."
"But does a light burn out in the yard?" another driver interjected. "You can leave with everything working … what are you gonna do, stop every five miles, run around and make sure all your lights are working?"
With nearly 4,000 people killed each year in large truck crashes, safety advocates are frustrated there isn't more attention to safety.
Keppler, of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, agrees. If that many people died in commercial air crashes, he said, "we'd shut down the airspace."
Developing better systems and increasing inspections overall is a matter of resources, he said: "Inspection level is commensurate with funding levels."
Federal funding has remained about the same in recent years, Keppler said, but increased regulations have given inspectors more responsibilities.
While federal regulators look to technology and changing regulations to increase safety, those changes are often met with opposition. Late last year, Congress rolled back a rule about truckers' mandated time off. Now, Congress is considering allowing longer semitrailers on the road.
Trucking advocates argue the changes reduce truck traffic and ease congestion during the busiest times.
In general, safety advocates say, commercial vehicles deserve a high level of scrutiny.
"These carriers are allowed to perform their business on publicly funded roads that are paid for by the American people," said Shaun Kildare, director of research for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "I think we should hold them to a good standard."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102