By Myron Levin and Alan C. Miller
Times Staff Writers
June 25, 2007
The U-Haul truck was 19 years old, with nearly 234,000 miles on its odometer. It had a history of problems with its emergency brake and was overdue for a safety inspection.
Talmadge Waldrip, 73, of Forney, Texas, was using it to help his daughter move some belongings in September. He drove to a warehouse and killed the engine. Then he put the manual transmission in gear, set the emergency brake and stepped down from the cab, he told family members later.
Instantly, the truck rolled backward. Waldrip tried to climb back in, but the door knocked him to the pavement. The 6-ton truck rolled over his midsection and dragged him, crushing his pelvis.
Nine months and 14 surgeries later, the once-vigorous Waldrip cannot walk and needs round-the-clock care.
U-Haul International Inc. has denied responsibility and says it's still investigating the cause. Whatever the outcome, the accident shows how the company tries to squeeze the last mile from its vehicles, and how it often fails to meet its own standards for inspecting and maintaining them.
During a yearlong investigation, Times journalists surveyed more than 200 U-Haul trucks and trailers in California and other states and found that more than half were overdue for a company-mandated "safety certification," a check of brakes, tires and other parts typically required every 30 days.
Some safety checks were more than a year overdue.
In response, U-Haul said its fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles is safe and well-maintained. It said it is investing heavily to modernize the fleet and spends about $350 million a year — about 20% of its rental revenue — on maintenance and repairs.
U-Haul, the nation's largest do-it-yourself moving company, said its trucks are involved in fewer than four accidents per million miles — about the same as a federal estimate of the accident rate for all passenger vehicles. The company said the rate for its trailers is even lower.
U-Haul's figures could not be independently verified. No government agency keeps track of accidents involving rental equipment.
The company said its "performance record on the highways of North America says that we are succeeding."
AN OLDER FLEET
Among U-Haul's 100,000 trucks are many aging, high-mileage vehicles. Many have logged more than 100,000 miles. A recent court filing by U-Haul underscored the fleet's age: A company executive, referring only to the type of truck rented to Waldrip, said 4,595 of them were still on the road with 200,000 miles or more.
U-Haul has purchased about 38,000 new trucks over the last two years and has sold nearly as many older ones. But the company says it does not automatically retire vehicles at a fixed mileage or age.
Penske Truck Leasing, one of U-Haul's two major competitors, says that it replaces up to half its consumer rental fleet every year and that its oldest trucks are about 3 1/2 years old. Budget Truck Rental says the average age of its trucks is 2 to 2 1/2 years.
U-Haul relies on a far-flung network of independent dealers to supplement its 1,450 company-owned rental centers. This has added to maintenance problems.
Most of the 14,500 dealers have no auto service background. They include storage sites, mini-marts, postal supply shops, even liquor stores and laundromats.
Further complicating matters is U-Haul's practice of booking reservations without knowing if it will have trucks and trailers when and where renters want them. The policy leads to long lines of overwrought customers, creating pressure to get equipment back on the road quickly.
Twenty-four former U-Haul employees, including some who collectively oversaw hundreds of rental locations in California and other states, said in separate interviews that basic safety checks were often skipped because of thin staffing and the need to keep trucks and trailers rolling.
U-Haul mechanics on occasion have falsified repair records, listing work they did not perform — a practice known as "hanging paper," court records and interviews show. U-Haul says this is rare and never tolerated.
The company faces little regulatory scrutiny in the U.S., but Canadian officials have sharply criticized its maintenance practices.
From July 2005 through August 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation inspected about 800 U-Haul trucks and removed 20% from service because of such problems as defective lights, steering and brakes.
The inspectors idled only about 4% of the trucks of other rental firms.
U-Haul said that some vehicles were sidelined for reasons unrelated to their condition, such as a driver lacking a proper license, and that its Canadian operation is safe. The company said it is improving its performance in Canada by adding new trucks, retraining employees and dropping errant dealers.
Ontario Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield said in an interview that U-Haul has a long way to go.
"The bottom line is, people are renting U-Hauls and they're not safe," she said.
The phase "Moving Made Easier" is emblazoned on U-Haul equipment, reflecting what chairman Edward J. "Joe" Shoen calls the company's "strong social purpose."
Customers "need to be dealt with just as fairly and kindly" as possible, Shoen said. "We have a culture of trying to do that. Does that mean it works every time? Of course it doesn't work every time. But it works in the vast majority of times."
Don't tell that to Art McCain.
McCain was concerned when he saw that the odometer in his U-Haul truck read 116,475 miles. But he had confidence in what he called "an internationally known brand," so he drove it onto Interstate 5 in July 2003 to move from El Dorado Hills, Calif., to Upland.
His faith faltered when the vehicle began vibrating. The rear "pitched violently to the left," recalled McCain, 44, a school guidance counselor. "I was able to wrestle the truck, with concerted effort, to the shoulder."
A mechanic dispatched to the scene by U-Haul found that lug nuts and studs were missing from two wheels. McCain said a highway patrol officer told him he was "the luckiest man in the world" not to have been seriously injured.
The truck was towed to a service station, where McCain waited 13 hours for repairs to be completed.
McCain said his anger boiled over when mechanics showed him that two of the truck's inside rear tires were so undersized that "they weren't even hitting the ground."
Asked for comment, U-Haul said the truck was checked and found safe before McCain drove it. The company said it could not explain what happened.
David Driscoll had a close call of his own.
The construction supervisor was moving from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2003. His U-Haul truck broke down in Missouri, and he spent two nights in motels waiting for repairs. He had reached California two days later when a front wheel flew off the truck near Blythe on Interstate 10.
"The wheel tumbled hundreds of yards into the desert as the truck went careening across the highway until it crashed into the side of the road," Driscoll wrote to U-Haul, adding that the wheel was missing a bolt, bearings and retainer pin. "This accident could have cost me or someone else their life."
Driscoll, who was not injured, said he hitchhiked 20 miles through a dust storm to reach a pay phone. He said he was unable to get assistance from U-Haul. Facing a night in the desert, Driscoll called a friend in Los Angeles who drove seven hours round-trip to rescue him.
U-Haul said mechanics made wheel and brake repairs to the truck shortly before Driscoll drove it. "It appears that the repair may have been faulty," the company said.
Driscoll received a partial refund from U-Haul, as did McCain. The Times learned of their experiences from complaints they filed with the Better Business Bureau.
The truck Cheryl Akers rented to move from Michigan to Arizona in 2002 suffered the equivalent of multiple organ failure.
There were transmission repairs in Oklahoma and exhaust problems in Texas, she said in an interview and in a consumer complaint to the bureau. Akers, her daughter and her 16-month-old granddaughter were stranded in New Mexico when the truck overheated. They got going again, only to have the brakes give out.
The travelers repeatedly found themselves marooned without enough food or water. Akers said her son-in-law eventually drove seven hours from Mesa, Ariz., to rescue the toddler. The next day, the truck overheated again outside Tucson.
Akers said a U-Haul representative declared the vehicle undrivable. Even then, she said, it took two days on the phone to get U-Haul to tow the family to their ultimate destination: Surprise, Ariz.
Instead of the four days she had planned, Akers was on the road for eight, with added hotel, meal and phone bills.
"It was a trip from hell," she said.
Akers recovered the full cost of her rental and some other expenses.
Breakdowns can have consequences beyond inconvenience and delay.
Dr. Omar Danner, his wife and three others were scattered like bowling pins when a big rig plowed into their crippled U-Haul truck during a 2001 move from Birmingham, Ala., to Baltimore.
It was the second defective U-Haul issued to the Danners, according to court records and interviews. The first truck rattled and shook so much that Danner said he went back for another.
The replacement truck had not gone far when smoke began pouring from under the hood. Danner pulled over to the side of Interstate 20 outside Birmingham. Danner; his wife, Jacqueline; two relatives; and a mechanic were in or near the U-Haul when the rig drifted onto the shoulder and rammed it.
More than six months pregnant, Jacqueline Danner suffered head injuries and severe knee damage. She later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
U-Haul blamed the "unfortunate incident" on the "driver of a tractor trailer who apparently fell asleep at the wheel." The company contributed to a multimillion-dollar settlement paid almost entirely by the truck driver's employer.
Talmadge Waldrip was behind the wheel of a U-Haul truck Sept. 20 because his daughter had gotten divorced and needed to move boxes of clothing, books and toys. She couldn't operate the truck's manual transmission, so Waldrip agreed to drive.
Rail-thin and always in motion, Waldrip had been a tax collector and assessor for a small town near Dallas. He later went into the antiques business and planned to move his daughter's belongings to a warehouse where he was opening an antique mart.
He drove off in the U-Haul. His daughter, Annabeth Boyd, drove separately and arrived at the warehouse about five minutes after he did.
In a deposition and in an interview with The Times, Boyd recalled finding her father lying beside the 26-foot truck, conscious but severely injured.
"I was just hysterical," she said. "I could tell his leg was mangled. I didn't want him to raise his head and see what I was seeing . So I just kept asking him, what's going on, what happened, and are you OK? And he said, 'Could you please call 911?' I said, 'Daddy, I already have.' "
Along with a crushed pelvis, Waldrip suffered a ruptured bladder and fractured vertebrae and had chunks of flesh torn from his right leg. He has been hospitalized for all but nine days since the accident. He can't walk and has more than $1 million in medical bills, his daughter said.
The family has sued U-Haul, contending that the 19-year-old vehicle was "in a callous state of disrepair." The case is awaiting trial.
U-Haul repair records filed in court show that the truck's parking brake had malfunctioned repeatedly in the four years before the accident.
"Park brake wasn't hold," reads an entry dated April 14, 2003. Two months later, an employee wrote: "Parking Brake Will Not Hold."
Each time, mechanics made repairs, but the problem persisted. According to the records, the parking brake had to be adjusted again in October 2005 at 229,849 miles — just 4,000 miles before Waldrip drove the truck.
About two weeks before the accident, his grandson, Jonathan Simington, used the same vehicle to move furniture and antiques for his grandfather and had a nerve-jangling experience.
In a deposition in March, Simington, 24, testified that he had trouble shifting the truck into first gear and that the side mirror was "flapping around."
Simington said that when he stopped the truck and set the emergency brake, it rolled downhill about 80 feet before he could stop it. After that, he said, he wedged a concrete block behind one of the wheels whenever he parked on an incline.
He said he told the U-Haul dealer about the problem but wasn't sure the dealer heard him.
U-Haul has denied responsibility for the accident and said in court papers that there was no evidence it was "aware or should have been aware" of any problems with the emergency brake.
Boyd said her father was too sick to be interviewed. She described him as emotionally devastated by the accident.
"He was a man that could not sit still for a minute. He needed to be busy all the time," she said. "Now he feels helpless. Everybody has to do everything for him, and that's not who he was his entire life."
Every truck or trailer that rolls off a U-Haul lot is supposed to bear evidence of a recent safety check. Many do not.
Company policy calls for trailers to undergo a "safety certification" at least once every 30 days. The same applies to trucks picked up and dropped off at the same location. Trucks rented for one-way trips are supposed to be certified at least once every 60 days.
In internal documents and court testimony, U-Haul has described the system as a cornerstone of its maintenance program. An employee manual called it "the essential foundation for performing all other safety inspections."
In a safety certification, U-Haul agents check brakes, tires and other key components. Then they are supposed to affix a sticker to the equipment that shows the month, week and year of the inspection.
The truck Waldrip rented was more than a month overdue for a certification. The Times survey found similar problems on a bigger scale.
Combing residential streets, parking lots and highway rest areas for U-Hauls, Times staffers checked the safety certifications on 207 trucks and trailers in January and February.
Most of the vehicles were in Southern California; others were in Maryland, Georgia, Washington, Texas, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
About half the trucks and more than three-fourths of the trailers were overdue for safety certifications, according to the stickers. One-fifth of the vehicles had not had these inspections in at least six months.
They included a truck on a Northridge street with a sticker showing it was last certified in November 2005; a trailer parked at a McLean, Va., town house complex that was last inspected in June 2006; and a truck parked at an Ikea store in Atlanta that was last certified in April 2006.
It was unclear whether the trucks were rented for local use or one-way trips, so U-Haul was given the benefit of the doubt: Trucks were considered to be in compliance if they had been certified within the preceding 60 days. Even by that standard, 80 of 163 trucks — 49% — were overdue.
U-Haul's trailers fared especially poorly. Only seven of 44, or 16%, bore evidence that they had been certified in the previous 30 days. Twelve had not been certified in at least six months, according to their stickers. Sixteen had no stickers at all.
In response to The Times' findings, U-Haul said that in some cases, stickers may have fallen off or agents may have checked equipment but failed to attach a sticker.
Former U-Haul employees, however, said the opposite sometimes happened: They would apply and mark stickers without having completed an inspection. U-Haul said such sources were not reliable.
The company also downplayed the importance of safety certification, describing it as only one of several overlapping procedures designed to keep equipment running well.
For instance, U-Haul requires agents to do a "receive and dispatch" check when equipment is returned. Customers are asked whether they had problems, and agents are supposed to examine essential features such as lights and tires.
Trucks are also supposed to have preventive maintenance, including inspection of the brakes, transmission and suspension, at intervals of 5,000, 15,000 and 30,000 miles.
Finally, trucks must be inspected once a year to ensure they meet U.S. Department of Transportation safety requirements. U-Haul mechanics or private garages perform these inspections.
Dave Adams, a longtime senior U-Haul manager in the Bay Area who quit after a 2002 demotion, said routine maintenance procedures such as "receive and dispatch" checks and safety certifications were "a heck of a good-looking program on paper.'"
He said the reality was different. "More often than not, when the equipment did arrive, it was not safety-checked."
" 'Sprinkle holy water on it' was the expression," Adams said. "It's truly a matter of people just not having the time and resources to get it done."
Ed O'Toole, a former longtime U-Haul executive in Northern California, said: "Safety was a big, big concern of the organization. It's not cost-effective for them to have a piece of equipment that breaks down."
But he acknowledged that in the rush to provide trucks and trailers to customers, "there were probably pieces of equipment that got rented out that shouldn't have been."
U-Haul strives to keep costs low so it won't lose business to rivals and so people will rent equipment rather than borrow it from friends or family. One result is modest paychecks, tight staffing and high turnover.
"U-Haul's turnover was just outrageous," said Jim Buell, a former senior executive who supervised operations in California and three other states until 2004.
"You couldn't possibly keep people trained. You've got employees who don't even know how to find the dipstick under the hood of a truck and they're being asked to do a full safety certification."
In 2005 testimony, U-Haul official Russell Johnson said a training program for trailer mechanics had to be canceled because too many trainees were leaving the company.
U-Haul said that average employee tenure is about five years and that turnover is not a problem.
Ryan Keefer, 22, who said he earned about $7.50 an hour working at a company-owned U-Haul center in Poway in San Diego County in 2003 and 2004, described the place as "extremely understaffed."
"Working under conditions like these would often cause me to question whether I hooked the trailer up right due to a lack of proper training, or it would cause me to rush through certain jobs because of the pressure of constant waiting customers," Keefer said in a posting on a Web forum.
"After a month at the job and barely knowing what I'm doing, I already had seniority and was training people."
In an interview, Keefer said employees at the center routinely skipped safety checks before renting equipment and put on certification stickers without doing inspections.
He recalled an angry customer whose trailer had decoupled and damaged his rear bumper. The hook-up had been done by a brand-new employee.
"He didn't know what he was doing," Keefer said.
Tammie Wise, a former U-Haul center general manager in the East Bay and a onetime U-Haul dealer, said that at the busiest times, "it hardly ever happened that trucks got checked."
"There was no time to check the tires or anything like that," she said. "We would at least clean it so it looked presentable."
Lee Taylor, a U-Haul shop foreman, rented a company truck to move in 2001. His friend and co-worker, Johnny Williams, was driving the truck when he rear-ended Taylor's pickup.
Taylor suffered shoulder, back and neck injuries and sued U-Haul, contending that the truck's brakes failed.
Two mechanics testified that while working on the truck, they documented brake maintenance that they hadn't done. One of the mechanics called this "hanging paper" and said it was "the only way we'll keep our job."
U-Haul mechanics are rated on efficiency, with time limits for specific tasks. Missing targets can lead to dismissal, so the pressure to perform can be intense.
U-Haul blamed Williams for the crash. But a jury found U-Haul liable and awarded Taylor $1.5 million in compensatory damages. Before the jury could decide on punitive damages, U-Haul reached a confidential settlement of the entire case.
Steve Taub, U-Haul's assistant general counsel, described "hanging paper" as "clearly an unacceptable practice," but said the testimony in Taylor's case represented "a single and isolated allegation."
It was not the only time such allegations have surfaced, however.
Bonita Michelle Moss was killed in Atlanta in 1999 when another vehicle pushed her car into the path of a U-Haul truck. The driver of the U-Haul hit the brakes but couldn't stop in time.
Moss' son and niece were also killed, and a nephew was seriously injured. Moss was 8 1/2 months pregnant; her baby was delivered but suffered brain damage and died 3 1/2 years later.
Moss' family sued U-Haul, contending that the truck's power brakes weren't working and that maintenance records showed recurring brake problems.
U-Haul denied responsibility for the accident. It said the 1989 truck, which had been driven 131,000 miles, would have had adequate braking power even if the power brakes had failed.
Edward Hicks, a former U-Haul mechanic in Atlanta, testified for the plaintiffs that maintenance of the company's trucks was "quite poor." Hicks said his name had been forged several times on repair records to make it appear he had performed work when he hadn't.
Hicks, who left U-Haul in 1999 in a dispute over a medical leave, said it was common for mechanics to falsify repair records.
"We would get the truck and find out nobody touched the brakes," he said. "Or they said that they replaced this or that. And it wasn't done."
Without admitting liability, U-Haul settled the Moss suit in 2004 for an undisclosed sum.
Four former U-Haul mechanics, each with at least 10 years' tenure, told The Times that mechanics "hung paper" to maintain efficiency ratings. Some said this was especially common with older trucks that can require time-consuming repairs.
"I would never rent a U-Haul truck," said David Esquivel Jr., who was a U-Haul mechanic in Fremont, Calif., before being fired under disputed circumstances during a union organizing campaign in 2004. "It's not dependable."
Darryl Stasher, formerly a top U-Haul executive in Mississippi, said he was accused of "hanging paper" when the company fired him in 2001. Stasher, who worked for U-Haul more than 17 years, said that the charge was a pretext in his case, but that the practice was rampant.
"They set standards and guidelines that, in reality, they knew were not happening," he said. "All these trucks were breaking down the day after they were rented, and after they said maintenance had been performed."
Only about a third of U-Haul's independent dealers are automotive businesses like gas stations and repair shops. Many others aren't equipped to fill a tire. Their equipment is maintained by U-Haul field personnel or sent to company-owned repair shops.
But the dealers have responsibility for making sure rental equipment is safe. They are supposed to perform the "receive and dispatch" inspections and be able to safely hook trailers to customers' vehicles, among other duties. U-Haul depends on them to call safety problems to its attention.
U-Haul's reliance on this network has undermined vehicle maintenance and customer service, former employees say.
"They wanted so many dealers," said Buell, the former senior executive. "They didn't care if it was a convenience store, a nail salon or a liquor store."
Buell said he was fired after 19 years with the company for keeping inactive "paper dealers" on the books — a practice he said was pervasive to support the company's claim to have more than 15,000 rental locations.
U-Haul said it was not aware of such a practice.
Under Shoen's leadership, U-Haul has grown from 4,600 outlets in 1987 to nearly 16,000.
Shoen said expansion of the dealer network has not impaired service or safety. Many dealers have deep roots in their communities and an abiding concern for their customers, he said.
Unlike people who buy a franchise, dealers don't invest to become part of U-Haul, which for most is a small side business. They make their money from commissions on each rental.
Jeff Rodriguez, who runs a plumbing and storage business in Freedom, Calif., said he quit last year after 18 months as a U-Haul dealer because there were too many headaches. He complained about getting no training and about irate customers arriving with reservations he wasn't told about and couldn't fill.
"Nobody showed up to tell us anything," Rodriguez said. "And nobody over the phone knew anything."
Steve Eggen, co-owner of an Alameda party supply company that was a U-Haul dealer for 31 years, said equipment would sit idle on his lot for weeks at a time because U-Haul personnel were too busy to fix it or get it to a company-owned repair shop.
"Sometimes we became a parking lot for downed trucks," he said.
In 2005, Eggen and his brother had had enough. They switched to Budget.
Brian Martin booked a truck weeks in advance to move from Tehachapi to Salt Lake City last Labor Day weekend. A day before the move, the 33-year-old chiropractor learned from U-Haul that he'd have to pick the truck up in Ridgecrest, 74 miles away.
He had barely turned the key when the truck's "check engine" light and a warning beep turned his annoyance to alarm.
He said the dealer told him not to worry — the truck had just been serviced and he could crank up the radio to drown out the beeping. When Martin complained that the air conditioning didn't work, the dealer said there was no one there to fix it.
With the temperature above 100 degrees, Martin drove into the Mojave Desert on California 178. After about 10 miles, the truck blew a hose. Amid billowing smoke and steam, Martin eased the truck out of traffic with a highway patrolman's help.
He eventually made it to Salt Lake City in a newer truck provided by another U-Haul dealer.
U-Haul said the engine in Martin's truck was destroyed by the heat and his bad experience resulted, in part, from renting "in a rural area on the busiest moving week of the year."
U-Haul had unusual advice for Jenifer R. McCormick as she struggled with a balky truck in Tennessee: "Avoid hills."
She and her husband waited hours for the truck they had reserved to move from Texas to Washington, D.C., in 2004. That turned out to be the least of their problems.
First, the truck's alternator belt gave out, requiring an emergency repair on the shoulder of the interstate. Back on the road at 2 a.m., the couple discovered the power brakes and steering were gone.
They limped into Memphis and waited nearly a day for more repairs. Later in the trip, a mechanic told them the truck was out of engine coolant and motor oil.
It was on a call to U-Haul's emergency help line that McCormick said she was given the impossible advice to avoid hills in mountainous Tennessee.
When she arrived days late in Washington and complained to U-Haul, she said she was told that reaching her destination should be "good enough." Later, she got a partial refund.
"This company is the most miserable company I have ever had the misfortune of being involved with," McCormick said in a letter to the Texas attorney general's office. "Their business practices are despicable in almost every respect. I feel very sorry for their employees who must withstand irate customers at every turn."
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