It was almost midnight when Walter Price eased his 18-wheeler into the right lane on Interstate 75 near Atlanta. As he began to bank onto the exit ramp he’d been taking for the past 10 years, Price had no idea he was entering America’s most dangerous hot zone for truck drivers.
As Price rounded the curve onto Exit 238-B that cold night in February 2012, a small black car darted in front of him on an otherwise deserted highway. The car’s driver slammed on the brakes to negotiate the exit’s sharp curve. Price had to veer left and hit his brakes to avoid a collision. But the curve was too sharp and Price’s 36-ton rig carrying car parts began to roll.
“Once you hear the freight break loose and start sliding, there’s absolutely nothing you can do,” the veteran truck driver recalled. “You can kiss your ass goodbye.”
Price was lucky. He survived his rollover, every trucker’s worst nightmare. Many others do not. Each year, hundreds of truck drivers die across the country on congested roadways and antiquated exit ramps like the one where Price crashed, a national crisis in which a crumbling interstate highway system, designed in the mid-1950s, is bearing the ever more burdensome loads of a booming trucking industry.
When comedian Tracy Morgan suffered brain damage and his friend was killed in a crash with a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck in June, Americans were reminded how lethal a rolling 18-wheeler can be for car passengers. Far less noticed are the rollovers that are especially deadly for truck drivers.
Though they accounted for just 3.3 percent of all large- truck crashes, rollovers were responsible for more than half of the deaths to drivers and their occupants in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s 300 truck occupant deaths and 3,000 injuries every year. And among the 2.6 million workers in the U.S. who drive trucks that weigh more than 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilograms), crashes are the leading cause of on-the-job death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overworked, distracted and sleepy drivers are causes of rollovers. But so too are outdated highway engineering and growing gridlock as a booming trucking industry puts ever greater strain on the nation’s aging roadways. Truck tonnage hauled jumped to an all-time high in January, the American Trucking Associations reported. Truck freight may rise 5.3 percent this year from 4 percent in 2014, according to FTR Associates data compiled by Bloomberg, as job growth spurs U.S. consumer spending.
The almost 10 billion tons of freight carried annually is taking such a toll on the nation’s highways that politicians of all stripes are angling to raise the money needed to fix them. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, has endorsed a ballot proposal to raise the sales tax to repair what he called his state’s “rotten roads and bridges.” Iowa’s Republican governor is also considering higher taxes to cover road repairs.
“Because so many curves were made 40 years ago, they don’t have the banking needed for the trucks of today,” said Steve Niswander, vice president of safety policy at the Groendyke Transport trucking company in Enid, Oklahoma. “But to lengthen out and expand cloverleafs in probably 50 areas in the United States would take billions — and I mean with a B.”
Nowhere do mid-century roadways and 21st century congestion collide with such deadly force as in Atlanta, where a tangle of twisting roadways and densely packed moving traffic combine to create America’s extreme tipping point. More than 200 trucks have flipped around Atlanta since 2001, according to a study by the American Transportation Research Institute. And more than 200 people have died in truck rollovers in Georgia during that time.
The top 10 rollover hot spots in the Atlanta area all involve exit ramps that require a rapid reduction in speed and often have sightlines obscured by bridges or the curvature of the road. Many lack adequate signs and flashing lights to warn of impending rollover risk.
A four-hour drive in a tractor-trailer around Atlanta reveals the scars of past rollovers — black skid marks on concrete exit walls and tractor-trailer-shaped dents in the grass along the roadside.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Price, 61, who now refuses to return to the intersection where he rolled and, instead, takes the long way around Atlanta. “The whole time you’re driving through there, you have to be on defense.”
Rolling up on the No. 1 hot spot, where Price flipped his truck, Herschel Evans, a driver based out of Atlanta for USF Holland, slows his fully loaded rig to less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) per hour. More than three dozen trucks have rolled since 2001 on this ramp to westbound I-285 off I-75, just south of Atlanta, and they’ve left their marks all over the scored earth along the curve. Two lanes feed into the exit, which is partially obscured by a bridge overhead.
“We can’t afford a bad day or an off day,” Evans said. “We’ve got to bat 1,000 every day. When we don’t bat 1,000, we stand out.”
The only warning of rollover risk at Exit 238-B is a small yellow sign on the right shoulder of the road that displays an image of a tipping truck. Drivers in the left lane may never see that sign. Even if they do, the warning comes too late, Evans said.
“I’m not trying to excuse drivers,” he said. “But more warnings would help.”
Experiencing a rollover increases a truck driver’s risk of dying in a crash by 30 times, according to University of Michigan research. Not wearing a seat belt makes it even worse. More than a third of drivers who died in crashes in 2012 were unbelted, according to the CDC. That helped drive up deaths among truckers between 2009 and 2012, after reaching a 35-year low six years ago, according to the CDC.
“Rollovers can be quite violent at the last phase of it,” said John Woodrooffee, a scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. “The trailer goes over first, and then it can wind up like a spring and snap the cab over. Ejection or partial ejection from the cab are the highest causes of death.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month sent a proposed rule to the White House for review that would mandate electronic stability control to take over braking on big trucks, like the technology now required on sport-utility vehicles, pickups and cars. While industry opposition has held up the regulation, NHTSA says it could save 60 lives a year and prevent 2,329 crashes.
“The delay is costing us lives,” said Woodrooffee, who conducted research for NHTSA for the proposed rollover regulation. “Without a doubt, electronic stability control is one of the most effective crash avoidance technologies for heavy trucks on the market.”
European regulators already require big trucks to be outfitted with electronic stability control, which uses a variety of sensors to anticipate when a vehicle may tip and applies brakes to specific wheels or de-throttles the engine to prevent a rollover.
Truckmakers already equip about 70 percent of new rigs with some form of stability control and are opposed to mandating the more costly electronic technology as NHTSA is proposing, said Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Trucking Associations.
“I don’t think the mandate is going to change a damn thing until all of the older tractors are off the road,” Scott said.
In the U.S., crash prevention technology like stability control, along with greater seat-belt use, has helped to reduce overall highway deaths by 21 percent since 2003, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Truck occupant deaths, in part due to lax seat-belt use, have fallen less — 16 percent since 2003.
What hasn’t changed is the percentage of truckers who die in rollovers. It was 51 percent in 2003 and 52 percent in 2012, according to federal data analyzed by Arlington, Virginia-based IIHS.
The American Transportation Research Institute this year plans to test an in-cab alert system that will sound an alarm as a truck approaches a danger zone. The organization, funded by the trucking industry, has mapped out rollover hot spots in 39 states. It also is working with the states to add warning signs.
“Hopefully, five or 10 years down the road, we will see the number of rollovers way down,” said Rebecca Brewster, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based institute.
Price said his rollover seemed to happen in slow motion. First, his trailer began to corkscrew. Then, the cab snapped over on its side and the rolled rig tore through the grass beside the highway cloverleaf.
As soon as the truck came to a stop, Price unbuckled, fell from his seat and scrambled to the back of the cab, searching for his wife, who had been sleeping there.
“I couldn’t find her,” Price said. “I was throwing stuff up toward the front of the truck to find her. It was scary.”
An 80,000-pound truck can take a 10th of a mile to come to a stop. At 60 mph, it’s covering 90 feet (27 meters) of road every second.
If a truck driver gets cut off, “it takes him a second to understand he’s got to stop to get to his brakes, so he’s gone 90 feet,” said Niswander of Groendyke Transport. “It takes another half-second to get his air brakes to work. So now he’s at 135 feet before he’s made any effort to stop.”
While the Prices felt lucky to survive their rollover, they were devastated financially. Price had to replace his destroyed truck and it took four weeks to get back on the road. Even with insurance, the total cost to him of a new truck and a month of lost wages: $100,000.
“We’re just coming out that now,” he said.
The driver of the car who caused it all faced no consequences.
“He just kept on driving, like they always do,” Price said. “They create accidents and they keep on driving like nothing happened. It’s brutal out here.”
–With assistance from Jeff Plungis in Washington and Thomas Black in Dallas