8,043 heavy truck crashes claim 218 lives on region roads over nine years

2011-11-27T00:00:00Z 2011-11-27T23:55:09Z 8,043 heavy truck crashes claim 218 lives on region roads over nine yearsBy Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
November 27, 2011 12:00 am  • 

A Crown Point man, likely distracted by commotion on the highway, slams his SUV into the back of a semitrailer more than 13 times heavier than his vehicle.

The man dies in the accident, leaving behind a wife and two teenage daughters.

A trucker on a nighttime cargo haul nods off at the wheel, and his semitrailer careens off the road. No one is killed or injured — this time.

Distracted and fatigued drivers of semis and passenger vehicles are main culprits of accidents involving heavy trucks in the region, according to state police investigators.

Thousands of trucks per day pass through Northwest Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs, crowding one of the busiest commercial trucking corridors in the country.

A Times investigation of federal transportation data for Lake and Porter counties and 10 south suburban Illinois municipalities shows the consequence of driving on such heavily traveled commercial trucking routes.

With the glut of heavy truck traffic came the crashes of 8,043 heavy trucks on region roads involving the deaths of 218 people during a nearly nine-year period, a Times analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation records shows.

The most recently available federal data show an average of more than two heavy trucks — including semis, buses and other heavy commercial vehicles — crashed per day from 2000 to 2008.

Indiana State Police heavy truck inspectors say the numbers are a reminder to all drivers to be mindful of the massive weights with which they share the roads during holidays, when there are more drivers.

Families of those who died in crashes involving heavy trucks hope the message resonates.

The human impact

Just a few days before Thanksgiving, Laurie Dal Corobbo, of Crown Point, reflected on the life of her husband of 18 years, Rick.

A devoted father and auto racing enthusiast, Rick Dal Corobbo spent many weekends traveling to tracks and covering races for a local newspaper, Laurie said.

He was returning from a race in August 2004 when his SUV slammed into the back of a stopped semitrailer on Interstate 65 near the U.S. 231 exit.

Rick Dal Corobbo, who also was working as Merrillville's town manager, died, leaving behind his wife and two teenage daughters.

Laurie Dal Corobbo believes her husband was distracted by a psychiatric patient who was threatening to jump off a nearby overpass.

"Rick was only a couple of miles from home when it happened," she said.

"He touched a lot of folks in his life, and hundreds of people came to his funeral, which was just heartwarming for my children to see."

Tired, distracted, reckless

Indiana State Police heavy truck inspectors and troopers say the stories of Dal Corobbo and more than 200 other people who have died in heavy truck crashes in the past decade should motivate drivers to be aware of what it takes to avoid these accidents.

"It all comes down to physics," said Scott Fleming, supervisor of Indiana State Police heavy truck inspectors in Northwest Indiana. "A car weighing a few tons is not going to win against a semi weighing 80,000 pounds."

The Times data analysis showed about 77 percent of crashes involving heavy trucks occurred on dry pavement, free of ice, snow or rain. Most of the crashes also occurred on clear days during daylight hours.

Indiana State Trooper Thomas Quinn, of the region's commercial vehicle enforcement division, said a number of the accidents involving heavy trucks he has investigated were caused by distracted or reckless drivers in passenger vehicles, weaving in traffic or crossing into the paths of semis.

Throughout Indiana in January 2011, five of the 13 heavy truck crashes that involved fatalities were determined to be the fault of the commercial vehicle drivers, Quinn said, quoting state accident data. The other eight accidents were attributed to errors of drivers of smaller passenger vehicles.

"People think these heavy trucks can stop on a dime," Quinn said. "They're absolutely wrong about that."

Quinn said an 80,000-pound semi operating at 55 mph requires about 230 feet to stop after braking. The distance is about twice what average cars require, he said.

Quinn believes fatigue of heavy truck drivers traversing long distances without taking breaks to save money and time is a major factor in region crashes.

Fleming said his officers try to fight fatigued driving by checking truckers' log books at weigh stations on I-65 near Lowell and Interstate 94 in Chesterton.

Commercial vehicle drivers are restricted to 11 hours within a 24-hour period before they must take a 10-hour break, Fleming said. Failure to follow the guidelines can result in fines or criminal recklessness charges if an accident results.

But fatigue levels can be difficult to gauge if drivers' logs aren't properly kept, Fleming said.

And even if truck drivers were nodding off just prior to accidents, they're usually wide awake from adrenaline when police arrive, Quinn said.

Targeted enforcement

In addition to checking log books, heavy truck brakes and other equipment at region weigh stations, Indiana State Police target patrols to stretches of roads with historically high numbers of heavy truck accidents.

That often means more policing of the Interstate 80/94 section running through Hammond and Gary, Quinn said.

The Times review showed 1,691 heavy trucks were involved in crashes on the section of I-80/94 running through Gary, leading to 40 fatalities in the nine-year period.

The Gary section of the interstate accounted for the most heavy truck crashes and related fatalities of any stretch of road in any region municipality.

The section of I-80/94 running through Hammond came in second, with 1,627 heavy truck crashes and 26 deaths.

Quinn believes targeted state police patrols on the Lake County stretch of Interstate 80/94 have helped reduce crashes there.

State police figures show heavy truck crashes on that stretch are down about 20 percent this year from 2010 totals.

The Times review of federal heavy truck crash data for the entire region showed such crashes peaked in 2004 with 1,177 heavy truck crashes that year but fell to 853 crashes by 2007, a decline of more than 27 percent. Data for 2008 ran only through September of that year, when heavy truck crashes totaled 606.

Too late for some

Even with the strides in curtailing heavy truck crashes and safer equipment aboard heavy trucks and passenger vehicles, the human toll of such crashes remains too high, state police and family members of crash victims agree.

The improvements in crash statistics came too late for Emily McGrath, of Crete.

McGrath remembers her son Keith as the man who brought her relatives together for family gatherings.

Keith McGrath died in May 2003 when his minivan, which was eastbound on Exchange Street, was struck by a semitrailer traveling northbound on Ill. 394.

Since his death, the family gatherings have ceased, and Emily McGrath no longer sees her grandchildren, she said.

"It was a heartbreak when he passed away," Emily McGrath said of her son. "It took everything out of me, and it's still missing."

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