Mother Fights for Trucker Safety After Teen Daughters’ Deaths

By David Voreacos and Jeff Plungis | October 2, 2014

Marianne Karth was driving on a Georgia highway with three of her nine children in May 2013 when a tractor trailer slammed their car from behind, spinning it around, and shoving it under another semi-truck’s trailer.

AnnaLeah, 17, died at the scene while Mary, 13, succumbed days later. Marianne Karth vowed their deaths wouldn’t be in vain. Karth, who home schooled her children, isn’t famous like Tracy Morgan, the comedian injured in a New Jersey Turnpike by a truck driven for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Nor has her story received the national media attention garnered by the deaths of four members of a Texas community college women’s softball team after a tractor trailer hit their bus last week in Oklahoma.

Karth turned to Facebook, created her own website and sent more than 11,000 petitions to pressure U.S. regulators, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in a bid to force safer trucking practices and equipment.

“If there’s anything I can do to help prevent some other family from having to go through the same thing, then it’s worth it,” said Karth, of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

The Morgan accident on June 7 and softball team wreck have thrown new light on safety and America’s 2 million truckers, who are involved in accidents killing almost 4,000 people a year. The causes are complex and include poor driving by other motorists, economic pressures on truckers as they deliver all types of goods, and the long hours they must work. Fatigue is often suspected.

Electronic Log Books

Large companies are trying to improve their safety by using electronic log books and tracking systems to monitor their drivers’ movements and hours of service. Trucker groups also advocate for more parking areas for drivers who need rest and enforcement policies that reward safe driving rather than punishing minor compliance violations.

Even as the industry takes steps to improve its accident record, trucker safety remains a disputed issue. In the Tracy Morgan crash, Wal-Mart said Morgan “acted unreasonably” by failing to wear a seat belt, in a Sept. 29 legal filing outlining possible defenses in the case. A day later, the world’s largest retailer said it wants to settle the actor’s negligence lawsuit.

The American Trucking Associations points out that in one of the the federal government’s most comprehensive reports on highway safety, the 2007 Large Truck Crash Causation Study, trucks were at fault in less than half of the crashes, or 44 percent of the time.

“The data tell us in the majority of crashes between a passenger vehicle and a commercial vehicle, the actions of passenger vehicle cause the crash,” said Sean McNally, an ATA spokesman. “All crashes are tragic, and there are understandably emotions connected to them and surrounding them.”

Truck Safety

On its website, the Arlington, Virginia-based trade group says laws and regulations relating to truck safety, while essential, must be practical. Requirements should be uniform between states and the federal government whenever possible.

“They should benefit the public, motor carriers and their employees while imposing a minimal burden on commerce,” the group says.

Families who have lost loves ones in trucking accidents see the issues in more personal, less economic, terms. Like Karth, they are motivated by a desire to prevent future needless deaths. And they have been battling the industry for decades over regulations that now let truckers work 14 hours a day, while driving 11, leading many to suspect fatigue is at the root of many accidents.

Slattery Family

The Slatterys are one such family. After a 2010 wreck that killed Susan Slattery and critically injured her son, Matthew, then 12, trucker Doug Bouch told police he fell asleep. He pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released after 27 months when Susan’s husband, Ed, appealed to the judge.

Slattery now advocates for safer trucking. He is one of dozens of victims’ family members who have joined groups like the Truck Safety Coalition to push for new laws in states and tighter U.S. regulations. Families volunteer to come to Washington to work on legislation or regulatory proposals while dealing with their grief, said John Lannen, executive director of the grassroots, non-profit organization.

While their stories may get a burst of local media attention, mounting a national movement has been challenging. Fatal crashes, while frequent, usually involve few victims. The roads are cleared and trucks keep rolling as families and trucking companies seek financial settlements. But laws have been resistant to change.

“They’re going up against an industry that’s well-funded, that’s very focused and is, a lot of the time, very resistant to making changes,” Lannen said. “It’s a tough, uphill climb.”

Single-Minded Persistence

Karth’s single-minded persistence has afforded her more success than most lone advocates.

She joined the fight over metal bars hanging under the rear of heavy-duty trailer trucks.

Known as underride guards, they are supposed to prevent cars from sliding under trailers. Karth’s car was pushed under the truck when the metal bar failed to prevent her car from sliding underneath, she said.

She met in September 2013 with Transportation Secretary Foxx who promised “tangible progress” in a “short period of time,” she said. She also gathered more than 11,000 signatures for a petition calling for stronger standards for underride guards, steps to decrease driver fatigue, and an increase in minimum levels of insurance required for truckers.

New Standards

In May, she met with the heads of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates trucking companies and enforces rest rules, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which writes standards for truck and auto equipment.

NHTSA is evaluating options for enhancing the rear impact guards on trailers in response to a petition from Karth, Transportation Department spokesman Brian Farber said in a statement. The department is also close to issuing requirements for electronic logging devices and has begun work to update minimum trucking company insurance requirements, he said.

Karth and her family are “brave advocates for improving large truck safety,” Farber said. “We are deeply committed to implementing higher safety standards in the commercial trucking industry.”

Mixed Emotions

Karth said she has mixed emotions about high-profile crashes.

“I resent the fact that a celebrity crash gets more attention,” yet “I began to get hopeful when there was a crash with a lot of publicity because then maybe there would be more pressure for change.”

In the meantime, she’s forever haunted by the spring day she lost her daughters. Karth, 59, said she and her three youngest children were headed on May 4, 2013, to Arlington, Texas, where her family previously lived. Two of her children were preparing to receive undergraduate degrees, and two were getting master’s degrees.

In Greensboro, Georgia, Karth had slowed her blue Crown Victoria on Interstate 20 for an accident two miles ahead. Trucker Kishigsaikhan Dorj, then a 45-year-old Los Angeles resident, was pulling a trailer stacked with cars when he attempted to change lanes, according to a police report by the Georgia Department of Public Safety. He swiped Karth’s car, which spun and was hit another time by Dorj’s truck, pushing its rear under a second truck, according to the report.

Major Head Trauma

Dorj was charged with failure to maintain a lane and two counts of homicide by vehicle, according to the police report. All three charges are misdemeanors. His case is still pending, according to Karth. Dorj’s attorney, Noah Pines, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Dorj is the owner of the 2001 model truck through his company, TFI Express, according to FMCSA records.

Karth said she suffered a broken rib, a collapsed lung and a concussion. Her 13-year-old daughter, Mary, had major head trauma and suffered a stroke before she got to the hospital, Karth said. Her son said that before rescuers came, Mary called out for her.

“Where are we, Mommy?,” she said.

Days later she died in the hospital.

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