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Data show danger of truck-related wrecks

Data show danger of truck-related wrecks

Tulsa World
by: GAVIN OFF World Data Editor
Sunday, July 05, 2009
7/5/2009 3:41:52 AM

Even after 21 years on the road, truck driver George Coots is still amazed at what he sees.

He's watched minivans suddenly brake in front of him and wheelie-popping motorcycles whip by like his big rig was stuck on the shoulder.

He's seen cars drift so close that they disappear behind him and others that seemingly attach themselves to the side of his double-wide sleeper and refuse to either pass or fall behind.

He accidentally sideswiped a woman in Texas when her small Kia was tucked in a blind spot, and he nearly shot another car off the road when a tire blew.

"I put racing stripes on that car like you never saw before," Coots said.

But blown tires and close calls don't compare to the massive June 26 pileup that killed 10 people on the Will Rogers Turnpike.

Nor do they compare to the more than 5,000 deaths that occur in truck-related wrecks each year, according to a database of truck accidents compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The database details more than a million accidents since 2000 involving commercial trucks or buses that weighed at least 10,000 pounds. By comparison, a fully loaded tractor trailer could weigh up to 80,000 pounds.

The database doesn't list who was at fault and even includes wrecks in which trucks were involved but had little to do with the accident.

For example, it includes the May 2002 collapse of the Interstate 40 bridge in Muskogee County. Fourteen people died after the bridge was struck by a barge.

Oklahoma fatalities

The 59-year-old Coots, his wife, Patricia, and their dog, Coco, stopped in Tulsa on their return to Minnesota from California.

The trip to pick up and deliver commercial airline parts would stretch more than a week and cover some 5,000 miles.

Coots said he hadn't heard about the Will Rogers Turnpike wreck, but he wasn't surprised about the result.

"An 80,000-pound truck versus a 3,000-pound vehicle the vehicle's going to lose," Coots said.

Sometimes those losses are deadly. More than 1,000 people have died in some 14,000 truck-related accidents in Oklahoma since 2000, a Tulsa World analysis found.

That includes 118 deaths in 2008 and 39 so far this year, said Capt. Craig Medcalf of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

It also includes 66 deaths on I-40 and at least 36 on I-44.

Oklahoma County typically leads the state in the number of truck-related crashes, fatalities and injuries each year, with Tulsa County usually placing second in all three categories.

One reason for the high number of trucking accidents in the state is the high number of trucks, Medcalf said.

"Oklahoma has got the three largest corridors for crossing the United States," said Medcalf of I-40, I-44 and Interstate 35. "We are the crossroads for the East and West coasts."

Company wrecks

Coots said he'll drive for another three years and retire when he reaches 62.

It simply becomes too dangerous to drive much older than that, he said.

The truck driver in the Will Rogers Turnpike wreck was 76-year-old Donald Creed, who drove for Associated Wholesale Grocers out of Kansas City.

The company employs 316 drivers and operates 219 trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Since 2000, Associated Wholesale Grocer drivers have been in at least 50 wrecks, including two fatal accidents in 2000, data show.

Both of those wrecks happened in Missouri and involved a collision with another vehicle.

But the truck company has a good safety record. In 92 inspections since late 2006, officials found 34 violations, none critical. Most were minor, such as a broken tail light or turn signal.

Twenty-four-year-old truck driver Bryan Kinner, who drove through Tulsa on his way from Kentucky to Arizona, said it's how you react on the road, and not the inspections, that often matters most.

Along with driving a 70-foot-long machine comes greater responsibility, he said.

"I'll look at least 10 cars ahead of me and see whether they're braking, what they're doing," Kinner said. "You're not looking out only for yourself, you're looking out for everybody else."

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