Under pressure from the trucking industry, the state's Public Safety commissioner made changes four years ago that left Georgia's roadways even more treacherous.
Whenever she’s trapped between two tractor trailers on the highway, Melissa Thomas’ heart pounds, and she breaks into a nervous sweat.
She’s been that way for two years, since she watched a car in front of her get trapped under a Freightliner and dragged for about a quarter of a mile on I-85.
The car lit up in flames. Hafiz Ilyas, a Pakistani man, burned alive. “I was shaking so hard and crying so hard, I couldn’t talk to 911,” Thomas said.
The risk of colliding with the biggest trucks on the road, with potential to cause the most carnage, has been rising sharply in Georgia, an analysis of crash data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
The improving economy has put more trucks on the road, yet Georgia has been checking fewer of them for mechanical problems and unfit drivers. The rise in serious crashes follows a 2011 change in state law that significantly reduced the number of inspectors checking truck safety.
Made at the urging of the trucking industry, the change barred local police departments from conducting their own safety inspections. In a shift in strategy, state officers also cut back on inspections to spend more time looking for unsafe drivers on the highways.
Georgia did 20 percent fewer truck inspections from 2011 to 2014, and removed 30 percent fewer trucks and drivers from the road for violations, according to the AJC’s analysis of federal data.
Meanwhile, the rate of commercial vehicle crashes in Georgia spiked 38 percent between 2011 and 2013, the last year available, according to the AJC’s analysis. The measurement, crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, takes into account fluctuations in the amount of travel on the roads.
“Now I see unsafe trucks all the time,” said Roswell Police Capt. Ken McRae, who supervised the department’s now-defunct commercial motor vehicle division, “but I can’t touch them.”
The state’s public safety commissioner, Col. Mark McDonough, provided a spreadsheet compiled by his officers, showing local enforcement units such as McRae’s were sometimes citing truckers multiple times for the same underlying infraction, an improper practice known as “stacking.” The state’s former chief of motor carrier safety, Wayne Beck, said some smaller departments, which he wouldn’t identify, used inspections to generate revenue and even to search trucks’ cargo for contraband.
But the AJC found no evidence of any formal complaints prior to the change, nor any efforts by the state to correct problems before wiping out the ability of 19 cities and counties to enforce trucking regulations.
Under pressure from Savannah-area politicians, Gov. Nathan Deal announced that he would set aside $10 million to hire 60 new highway safety officers. The additional manpower was still 20 short of what Deal’s Public Safety commissioner eliminated four years ago, when fewer trucks were on the road because of the recession.
Motorists such as Thomas, still traumatized from watching the man die on I-85, have ample cause to be wary.
Trucking lobbyists are asking Congress this year to lower interstate drivers’ minimum age from 21 to 18, allow truckers’ 8-day work weeks to expand to 82 hours, and allow rigs hauling double trailers to extend beyond the size of an eight-story building.
Truck traffic is also expected to grow once the Savannah Port is deepened and more container ships dispatch their cargo to metro Atlanta and beyond.
Truck driver Ken Palmer, cited for a minor oil leak last month on I-16, said inspections make him feel safer, even if they are an inconvenience, because of the volume of younger, inexperienced truck drivers coming out of truck-driving schools.
“But truck drivers aren’t really the problem out here,” Palmer, a 40-year driver, said. “The cars out here with the cell phones, texting, that’s the problem …
The horrific crash Thomas witnessed two years ago was caused when a truck hauling frozen chicken changed into the lane of Ilyas without signaling. Ilyas, 40, was the imam of a nearby mosque in Sugar Hill, and he had a wife and four children.
“A lot of people relied on him for counseling,” said Zubair Faridi, a close friend and congregant at Al-Quba mosque. “It was a devastating effect on the community.”
The trucker, Raymond Hatt, told police he had mild cerebral palsy, but said it did not effect his driving, according to a police report. He had a valid commercial license and a current medical card clearing him to drive.
Thomas tapped her brakes to keep Hatt from hitting her, too. A few weeks later, she was still shaken, and took her son to get his learner’s permit.
“I’ve told my son, if you get next to a tractor trailer, you pull back,” she said, “and if you can’t pull back, you jam on the gas and get away from it.”
Syble Cooper, a retired telephone operator, died in April on a Gainesville highway, a few miles from her home, because an oncoming dump truck blew a front tire and veered into her lane, a police report said. Cooper’s sister was ill and Cooper was taking her a meal when she was killed.
Had a trained inspector checked the truck driver’s papers beforehand, he would have been pulled off the road, according to Capt. Jeremy Vickery of state Motor Carrier Compliance. Lawrence Swikard lacked a license to drive a truck with air brakes and was physically unqualified, requiring insulin for diabetes, a post-crash inspection revealed.
Swikard was not criminally charged, but was cited for regulatory violations. Gainesville-based Simpson Trucking and Grading, which put him behind the wheel, did not return calls from the AJC.
The state used to have more eyes watching for drivers like Swikard.
Cobb County once had the state’s largest force of local inspectors, with 19. Truckers knew not to pass through if they couldn’t pass an inspection, ex-Cobb inspector Officer Pete Jones said.
“Human nature is that, if you’re not checked up on, the more likely you are to slide,” Jones said. “It seemed like the word got out pretty quickly when we stopped doing it.”
Garden City, which butts against the Savannah Port, had four inspectors. Their former supervisor, Police Sgt. Shawn Myers, can park at any major intersection now and spot federal violation after federal violation.
The so-called “relics,” older-model trucks designed for short-range deliveries from the port to temporary lots, stand out.
A truck hauling construction beams passed in front of Myers, with reflective tape along the sides of the flatbed worn out. Another went by that was missing a mud flap, an innocuous deficiency that reminded Myers of an incident. A rock a little bigger than a softball became wedged between the tires of a rig, and shot out the back and shattered a pickup’s window.
Another ex-Garden City inspector recalled finding a truck driver using a lawn chair for a seat, and another sitting on a wooden crate. He said finding violations was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Truck regulation is a complex interplay among federal, state and local enforcement.
The state government has handled ground-level truck safety inspection for decades, aided by annual grants from the federal government, which sets regulations.
While the feds have their own inspectors, a truck driver is far more likely to cross paths with a state lawman.
Since the 1980s, what is now the Motor Carrier Compliance Division has been split up and bounced around to and fro from administration to administration. At various times, it’s fallen under Public Service, the Department of Transportation, Motor Vehicle Safety and, finally, Public Safety.
Local police departments, known as “subgrantees,” stepped in because the federal government required speed detection as part of truck enforcement and state truck inspectors didn’t use radar guns back then.
By 2010, nearly two dozen city and county police departments, mostly around metro Atlanta and the Savannah port, had officers inspecting large trucks.
Bad inspection scores had the potential to affect a company’s insurance rates, dissuade a shipper from contracting with them, or prompt an audit that could lead to shutting down the company.
In Georgia, the trucking industry launched a campaign to halt local jurisdictions from citing truckers.
Truckers complained that local cops were pulling them over, inspecting their equipment, then hammering them with nit-picky, frivolous violations. McDonough says gripes came from lawmakers, truckers and lobbyists for truckers.
McDonough said he can’t recall which lawmakers or trucking companies voiced objections. “None of them were written-type complaints,” he said, “but we would get complaints across the board. Folks that felt that they were being too hard on them.”
Retired Maj. Beck, the former head of Motor Carrier Compliance, said some of his own officers saw local police writing overzealous tickets. He recommended to the commissioner that the subgrantees be shut down.
Edward Crowell, president and CEO of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, supported the move and told the AJC that the state’s old inspections system was “an absolute disastrous mess.” Truck drivers got cited for things that weren’t wrong, or for multiple violations that often contradicted each other, he said.
“There were a couple of cities that decided it was a great source of revenue,” Crowell said. On the other hand, state Public Safety officers are “honestly known as some of the best in the country.”
But the AJC found no evidence of any meaningful investigation into the accuracy of the inspections that truckers bemoaned or the truth of their complaints.
“This was a pure and simple lobbyist move to decrease motor carrier enforcement in Georgia,” Terry Jackson, an Atlanta attorney specializing in truck collision cases, said. “And obviously with disastrous consequences.”
In response to open records requests, Public Safety produced only a single spreadsheet of a month’s audit of local departments’ inspections. The chart shows about 1 of every 11 resulting in improperly stacked violations.
Some of the worst offenders in that month included a DeKalb officer with stacked violations in 117 out of 605 inspections. One in Paulding had 102 out of 163, the chart shows.
Departments contacted by the AJC said Public Safety never expressed disapproval with how they operated. Paulding County’s Cpl. Ashley Henson said their two truck inspectors went over their work every few months with a state motor carrier division lieutenant, to be sure they were doing the job right.
Beck, the retired major, said he spoke to some officers and their supervisors, but not to their chiefs.
The spreadsheet from Public Safety showing the audit of stacked violations was from March 2011.
"They weren't uniform in how things were being done," Powell said. "I may be courteous enough to say that, without saying something wasn't done right."
Up to that point, Powell had received $3,500 from the Georgia Truck Political Action Committee and Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who carried the bill in the Senate, had received close to $9,000. Powell said the bill was to accommodate Public Safety's wants, and he doesn't recall if any truck companies or truck interests contacted him. Mullis did not return calls for this story.
The Georgia Truck PAC and trucking companies had given Gov. Deal more than $10,000 in campaign donations. A Deal spokeswoman said in an email that he was aware of the changes McDonough was making, but she would not facilitate an interview with anyone on the governor's staff about the issue.
No extra manpower was added to replace the local police inspectors that McDonough benched under HB 112. To put more eyes on truck drivers, he shifted about 65 state inspectors from weigh stations to the roads.
The total number of inspectors in Georgia, including state troopers and local police, dropped from 350 in 2011 to 260 as of June 2015, when Deal announced his pledge to add 60.
McDonough disputed the impact of cutting local inspectors, noting that they accounted for only 8 percent of total truck inspections from 2008 to 2011. Total inspections did, in fact, drop about that much the first year after the local units were decommissioned, but the decline accelerated over the next two years.
McDonough said the priority for his motor carrier safety officers is to spend more time looking for dangerous drivers and spend less time looking for technical violations on trucks.
“If our emphasis is on inspection, inspection, inspection, inspection, then that’s what’s going to drive their behavior,” McDonough said. “And where we’ve had to come to a balance in our program is to say, what’s causing the accident? Speed. Following too closely. Aggressive driving behavior. Fatigue.”
Maj. Johnny Jones, head of motor carrier compliance, also said the state has to balance safety needs with the right of truckers to make a living.
“We owe it to them, we owe it to Georgia being a pro-business state, to be right in our decision-making.”
Public Safety officials argue that local police can still enforce traffic laws on big trucks, such as speeding, broken brake lights, driving without a commercial license and drunk driving. If they spot federal violations, they can summon state officers to write them up.
“We’re just a phone call away,” McDonough said.
Several former inspectors said it doesn’t work that way in practice. “The majority of the time we are told either there is no one available or they have a 1-2hr response,” Alpharetta Police Officer Robert Wessel told the AJC in an email.
The upshot, he explained in an interview: “We’re putting unsafe vehicles back on the road.”
Story presentation developed by Janay Kingsberry