Posted on Thu, May. 24, 2007
UNDERCOVER OPERATION | Kansas troopers stationed in 18-wheeler
Stealth big-rig patrol finds safety surprises
Passenger-vehicle drivers get their share of tickets in enforcement tactic.
By BRAD COOPER
The Kansas City Star
CHUCK FRANCE | Special to The Star
Involved in some of the most notorious and fiery wrecks, these 18-wheel hulks of machinery dominate the roads, frightening drivers who don’t want to be flattened.
But law enforcement isn’t ready to fit large trucks with a black hat. Police say passenger cars share a lot of the blame for crashes.
“A lot of them don’t respect the 18-wheeler,” said Trooper Brian Grunder of the Kansas Highway Patrol.
It’s the reason Kansas troopers are working undercover from truck cabs.
Using a 60-foot-long gleaming white Volvo semitrailer, troopers this week have been patrolling Kansas City area highways watching how you drive.
It’s part of a seven-week statewide initiative that began last month in Wichita. Another seven-week enforcement wave will take place later this year.
Kansas is believed to be only the third state in the country to employ the tactic, first used in Washington state in 2005.
At least two other states — North Carolina and Georgia — are embarking on similar programs. Missouri has considered a similar initiative but has made no decisions.
The program is part of a new national strategy that Congress made possible in 2005 when it agreed — at the urging of the trucking industry — to let states spend up to 5 percent of their truck-enforcement money to crack down on cars.
That’s roughly $9.2 million nationwide.
The problem, safety experts say, is that other motorists contribute to truck wrecks by cutting in front or following too closely.
“The larger vehicle can’t stop quickly enough to avoid a crash in some instances, and it may not have been a crash that was caused initially by a commercial vehicle driver,” said John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
But that premise drew a rebuke from trucking industry watchdogs, who believe this kind of enforcement diverts scrutiny from large trucks.
“Next time a big rig comes barreling down on you and nearly runs your family off the road, you can thank the trucking industry for making sure that law enforcement is watching you and not the truck,” said Jennifer Mooney Tierney of the Truck Safety Coalition.
Studies give conflicting accounts of how much blame passenger car drivers share.
A 1998 Michigan study found that passenger car drivers were responsible for 70 percent of fatal crashes involving trucks.
A study of North Carolina crashes found trucks at fault 48 percent of the time compared with 40 percent for cars.
A five-year study of Kansas wrecks found trucks were at fault 28 percent of the time.
“It’s clear from the data and the accident analysis that the vehicles operating around the trucks are a problem,” said Capt. Dan Meyer, coordinator of the Kansas Highway Patrol’s motor carrier safety program.
Consider some of these examples from the news:
•A Spring Hill man died in 2005 when he crossed the center line and collided with a truck on U.S. 169 in Johnson County. His blood-alcohol level tested at .282, more than three times the legal limit.
•An 84-year-old Baldwin City driver was killed in Douglas County last August when she pulled out in front of a concrete truck.
•A Spring Hill woman was seriously injured on I-35 last August when she lost control of her minivan after rear-ending a semitrailer, police reports said. Witnesses reported her traveling at a high speed.
These are the kinds of incidents that troopers were trying to prevent when they climbed into a truck cab this week alongside a professional trucker.
With two patrol cars in front and two behind, the trooper would radio violations he saw from the truck as it rolled down the interstate.
The vehicle, on loan from a trucking company, is equipped with cameras — four in front and one in the rear. A radar is installed near the window.
The events are recorded and violations are saved on a hard drive for evidence.
Critics say the mere presence of troopers in trucks sets them up to ticket cars.
“There are a lot of aggressive acts that just aren’t going to be made by truck drivers against other trucks,” said Jeff Burns, a Kansas City lawyer who specializes in litigation involving large-truck crashes.
“The fact that they are in the truck makes it more likely that the kind of driving they’re going to catch is the driving of the four-wheeler.”
Hill, the motor carrier administrator, resents any implication that the government is letting truckers off easy.
“This is not just directed against anybody that’s driving a passenger car. It’s directed against anybody who’s committing a violation in and around the commercial vehicles,” Hill said.
“This is designed to save lives. How somebody could be critical of trying to save lives is beyond me.”
Kansas troopers say they are ticketing all violators and program results indicate that.
Statewide, troopers have handed out more than 300 tickets, most to passenger vehicles. A vast majority were for speeding or other moving violations.
Motorists “are a little surprised we have troopers up in the semi. It’s not something they’re used to,” said Trooper Grunder, who flagged down cars identified by a colleague in the truck.
“A lot of people take it (the ticket) and go,” he said. “Some people want to argue with us because we weren’t the ones who spotted the violation.”
Within the first hour of the operation this week in Johnson County, the enforcement effort led to a high-speed chase down Interstate 35 through Lenexa and Olathe.
A trooper from the truck had radioed out a tailgating violation on a gold Mercury Marquis. When troopers started to pull the car over, it suddenly bolted, cutting across three lanes of traffic down southbound I-35. The driver was eventually arrested on outstanding warrants, police said.
From high in the truck cab, troopers say, they can find violators they wouldn’t normally see. They also experience what truck drivers see.
“When I drive down the road in my marked Kansas Highway Patrol car, the public doesn’t pull out in front of me. They don’t cut me off,” Meyer said. “But when they see a semi, they’ll take those extra chances.”
A video camera mounted to an outside mirror by Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Chris Turner is one of five on the truck designed to catch reckless drivers. The rig also carries radar and is accompanied by four patrol cruisers.