Spencer morrison was a stickler for safety. The middle-school teacher had precious cargo to protect -- his 4-year-old triplets, Ethan, Garret and Alaina. Only the best minivan and top-of-the-line car seats would do.
None of that mattered when a trailer -- a 3-ton wood-chipper on wheels -- broke loose from a truck and careened into oncoming traffic like an unguided missile on April 13, 2006.
It smashed into the minivan and "just blew the vehicle apart," the local police chief, T. Robert Amann, recalled. Morrison, 37, and two of the triplets died instantly. Ethan suffered a fractured skull and other injuries but survived.
The truck driver, Bradley Demitras, hadn't checked to make sure the chipper was securely hitched to his vehicle. He also failed to connect the safety chains, which are supposed to keep a trailer attached if the hookup fails. Demitras pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and is serving nine to 18 months in jail.
Runaway trailers are a little-known but persistent cause of devastating crashes, deaths and injuries across the country.
The government does not keep nationwide statistics on accidents caused by trailer decouplings. But a Times review of news reports and court files identified about 540 such crashes since 2000. They resulted in at least 164 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Because some accidents aren't reported by news media or captured in electronic archives, the numbers likely understate the frequency of such incidents.
Shortly before Demitras' sentencing this past May, a runaway trailer triggered a chain-reaction wreck on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland that killed three people and snarled traffic for nearly eight hours.
In August, a Montana man perished when a loose trailer struck his pickup head-on.
In September, a motorist died in Spring Hill, Fla., when a trailer broke free and hit her car.
Runaway-trailer crashes are notable for the cruel coincidences of place and time that put the victim in the path of a rolling projectile. Most of the victims are helpless motorists, but pedestrians have also been injured or killed -- including children waiting for a bus or walking home from school. Runaway trailers have even crashed into living rooms and bedrooms.
The accidents reviewed by The Times involved trailers of varying kinds -- for hauling boats, horses, gardening equipment, household goods and autos. A large majority were light- and medium-duty trailers, as opposed to big rigs. Most were owned by individuals or businesses, a small proportion by equipment-rental companies such as U-Haul International Inc.
Many of the crashes stemmed from elementary mistakes, such as failing to engage a locking device when hitching a trailer. Rarely was just one blunder responsible. More often, drivers neglected a series of precautions, any one of which might have prevented a tragedy.
"People are either ignorant of the way to properly connect a trailer, or they're in a hurry and they don't want to take the time," said Amann, Northern Regional police chief in Allegheny County, Pa.
Master Lock Co., which makes hitches and other towing equipment, surveyed more than 300 trailer owners in 2006 and found that most were "lacking in knowledge of basic safety and proper towing procedures, and few have had any real training or instruction." Fewer than half properly attached their trailer's safety chains, the survey found.
Adding to the risk is the growing number of trailers on the road. The number of light-duty trailers registered in the U.S. rose from 10.6 million in 1990 to 15.9 million in 2005, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Some of those responsible for runaway-trailer crashes wind up in prison, often with deep remorse. But enforcement rarely takes the form of preventive action, such as citing motorists for towing substandard trailers or failing to connect them properly. Police say it's not practical to make routine vehicle stops to check trailer hookups.
In all 50 states, a basic driver's license is all that's needed to tow a small to medium-size trailer.
"There's no law enforcement program that requires a person towing a trailer to have any special training," said Thomas Shelton, a former accident investigations supervisor for the California Highway Patrol.
The result, he said, is "a lot of ignorance and carelessness."
There is often no significant help at the point of sale, said Shelton, now a private accident investigator. Citing his own experience buying three trailers, Shelton said he was offered "no instruction whatsoever" on safety matters.
"A lot of it is common sense. A lot of it is not," he said. "You are on your own."
Andy Ackerman, president of the North American Trailer Dealers Assn., acknowledged that "all too often a trailer is sold and the customer backs up and the dealer hooks him up and away he goes, with no training or guidance." He said his organization wanted to change that.
But even if dealers improved safety education, it would only go so far. Most trailers are purchased used, often in sales between individuals.
Under federal and state regulations, commercial truck-trailer combinations above certain weights must get periodic safety checks and stop at highway inspection stations. Drivers need a commercial license and are required to check essential components such as lights and couplers before every trip.
But violations of the rules are widespread. "There are many companies out there that fly under the radar," said CHP Officer Chris Sahagun, a spokesman for the state's commercial vehicle program.
There is almost no federal regulation of smaller trailers. In the late 1960s, U.S. transportation officials proposed federal standards governing hitches and requiring safety instructions for motorists. But manufacturers and rental companies fought the proposal, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin- istration dropped it in 1972.
Since then, the agency's primary initiative in this area has been publication in 2002 of a brochure on safe towing. "The focus for the past 30 years has been on providing consumer information rather than regulation," said Rae Tyson, an agency spokesman.
At the state level, trailers are subject to a hodgepodge of obscure regulations. Safety chains are the most basic protection -- yet eight states don't require them for light-duty trailers. Even when used, the chains were often too worn or rusted to do any good, accident reports show.
Many states require a second backup for trailers with brakes: a breakaway system that automatically engages the brakes if the trailer comes loose. But accident investigators frequently find that the system was not hooked up or was inoperable, often because the battery that powered it was dead.
"We have laws on the books, but nobody is enforcing them," said Ron Melancon, a trailer safety activist in Richmond, Va., who has tracked decoupling accidents nationwide.
Demitras felt the trailer jerk as he hit a dip before an overpass on the William Flynn Highway north of Pittsburgh. Then he heard the squeal of tires and the sound of the wood-chipper plowing into the Morrison family's Honda Odyssey.
Pieces of wreckage, including one of the minivan's doors, were strewn as far as 150 feet from the point of impact.
Nicole Morrison had just spoken to her husband on his cellphone. Then she saw a TV report on the accident and tried frantically to call him back. Soon police were at the door, and she raced to the hospital, not knowing which of her children had survived.
Alaina, the little ballerina who looked out for her brothers, had not. Neither had Garret, the family's athletic "ball boy." As for Ethan, it was touch-and-go.
He underwent neurosurgery after suffering a fractured skull, a broken femur, and eye and facial injuries. Nicole spent that Easter weekend at the hospital, praying for her son and mourning the loss of her husband and two other children. Only when Ethan squeezed her hand and blew her a kiss did she know he was going to make it.
Now in kindergarten, Ethan faces more plastic surgery. But Morrison said in a recent interview that he was "doing great."
Demitras worked for O'Connor Enterprises, a tree-trimming company. Another employee had hitched the chipper to the truck that day. Had Demitras checked the trailer as required by state commercial vehicle regulations, he would have realized that a locking device wasn't engaged, leaving the coupler sitting unsecured atop the truck's hitch ball. The safety chains weren't hooked up, either.
On top of that, Demitras was going about 70 mph in a 45-mph zone when he hit the dip that jarred the chipper loose.
Charged with vehicular homicide and involuntary manslaughter, Demitras pleaded guilty in May to the lesser offense. His attorney said he counseled Demitras to fight the charges because he hadn't hooked up the chipper. Demitras' brother said he pleaded guilty to spare the grieving family the ordeal of a trial.
"I would gladly lay down my own life to make this not have happened," Demitras, 35, told a packed courtroom at his sentencing. "I wake up every day knowing that three beautiful people aren't here, and that is my responsibility."
Not fit for the road
Robin teller and her mother were planning to be baptized together in the little country church her mother attended. Instead, their next time in church was at Robin's funeral.
The day before the ceremony in August 2003, Teller made the short walk from her home near the village of Montgomery, Mich., to the houses where her brother and mother lived. She had brought a friend, Brooke Webb, to meet her family.
After a brief visit, Teller and Webb started back. They were just past a railroad crossing when an old Ford pickup with a trailer rattled over the tracks. The trailer flew off and plowed into the two women before crashing through a fence and stopping in a field.
Teller, 41, died at the scene. Webb, 20, suffered leg injuries that required numerous surgeries. Ultimately, doctors amputated her left leg below the knee and put a rod and pins in her right leg and ankle.
A police report described the unlicensed trailer as "a homemade-style car hauler, which was very rusty." Its safety chain "did not appear to have been broken," indicating that it had not been attached.
The driver, James L. Gibson, 29, fled the scene. After learning from a newspaper article what had happened to the two women, he bought 16 cans of black spray paint and disguised his truck, court records show. Then he decided to turn himself in.
Gibson was sentenced to a year in jail for negligent homicide and leaving the scene. Webb and Teller's family each won $1-million judgments against him. But because Gibson was uninsured and had no assets, they have not collected a dime.
Teller left a 2-year-old son. Webb, now 24, suffers from constant pain, but has been able to do sit-down work as an assembler in a factory.
"It was hard for me to recover," she said. "It was hard for me to find out I had to lose my leg. I think about it every day."
The runaway trailer that caused Earl J. Buetow's death was a piece of junk, literally. The owner had found it abandoned on his property in Agua Dulce in northern Los Angeles County, according to police and court records.
On Dec. 15, 2004, Buetow, 74, a retired auto shop parts manager, was driving home to Lancaster from a medical appointment. He was northbound on Sierra Highway, behind a Chevy Tahoe that was towing the trailer.
At a bump in the pavement, where the two-lane road crosses a bridge, the unlicensed trailer took off on its own. A southbound driver in a Ford Expedition swerved to avoid it and smashed into Buetow's 1990 Dodge pickup, killing him instantly.
Marvin Shebby, a lawyer for the Buetow family, said that the trailer was old and dilapidated, "a piece of crap," and that it broke loose because of a worn latch in a locking device.
A California Highway Patrol report concluded that the motorist towing the trailer had failed to properly connect the trailer and its safety chains.
A wrongful-death suit by Buetow's widow and children ended with a $312,500 insurance settlement.
Buetow's daughter, Carol Elaine Miller, said she thinks about him every day, "especially as I watch my daughter grow and think about what he missed."
Some of the accidents reviewed by The Times stemmed from the most fundamental of errors: The trailer's coupler was wider than the hitch ball on the tow vehicle and couldn't possibly grab it securely.
That is what caused Charles Lewis' death.
The 59-year-old postal worker from Independence, Mo., took advantage of an unusually warm Saturday in January 2006 to head for the golf course. He was driving north on U.S. Route 50 near Kansas City, Mo., when a trailer traveling in the opposite direction broke free from a pickup and shot across the grass median, smashing into his Ford Explorer.
Lewis was decapitated.
The workman towing the unlicensed 14-foot utility trailer had never been trained to hook it up safely, police investigators found. It was the first time he'd towed anything.
At the door company where the man worked, his boss had told him to hitch the trailer to the back of the pickup -- a prescription for disaster because it meant putting a 2 5/16 -inch coupler on a 2-inch ball. The driver could not recall engaging a locking pin to secure the connection.
Finally, the trailer's safety chain had been attached to a bolt on the rear of the truck that "was not strong enough to sustain any type of separation" between the trailer and pickup, a police report said. The trailer's breakaway system was inoperable, too, because no one had bothered to charge the battery.
No criminal charges were filed. A wrongful-death suit by Lewis' daughters against the driver, the door company and its owner was recently settled for $1.6 million, court records show.
Because novices may botch the hookup of a trailer, rental companies such as U-Haul instruct their agents to do it. But the companies have no control once the trailer leaves the lot.
Erica Washington and a friend were heading to a mall in Macon, Ga., on a June afternoon in 2002 when an 1,800-pound U-Haul trailer broke loose and smashed into their car. Washington, 14, was critically injured and died a few days later.
Paul S. Dale, a physician, had rented the trailer to help his mother-in-law move. U-Haul employees had hitched the trailer to his sport utility vehicle, but Dale later reconnected it to a U-Haul truck that his mother-in-law had rented.
On his way to return the truck and trailer, Dale went over a bump and the trailer detached and crossed into the opposite lane. There, it collided head-on with the Toyota in which Washington was riding, causing the car to roll several times.
U-Haul blamed Dale, saying he didn't tighten the coupler on the hitch ball and failed to attach the safety chains correctly. Dale contended that he followed the instructions of U-Haul employees, and that the coupler was defective. His insurer and U-Haul paid a combined $1,050,000 settlement.
In August 2006, two students at Texas A&M; University were killed and a third seriously injured when a rental trailer broke loose and slammed into their SUV.
The students were returning to campus from a tubing trip on the Guadalupe River, heading east in a Ford Explorer on Interstate 30 in Royse City, Texas. The trailer, an auto transport carrying a Chrysler Concorde, was in the westbound lanes when it separated from a truck and crossed the median.
It broadsided the students' Explorer, killing Britney Loren Lipsey, 20, and Rachel Rollings, 22.
Penske Truck Leasing employees had hooked the trailer to the truck when the customer, Margot Alvarado, rented both vehicles in Michigan, according to police and court records. Alvarado later stopped at a motorcycle shop and loaded a motorcycle into the truck. That required unhooking and then reattaching the trailer.
A lawsuit by the victims' families contends, among other things, that the trailer was improperly attached the second time, causing the wreck. Whether Alvarado or employees of the cycle shop hooked it up is in dispute.
Such tragedies have triggered flurries of activity by police and government officials.
After the Morrison deaths last year in Pennsylvania, police handed out more than 300 safety citations and warnings to drivers towing trailers. Pittsburgh police sponsored an educational program on safe towing attended by more than 450 people. Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering legislation to stiffen penalties for accidents caused by unsafe towing.
A more effective fix, some law enforcement officials and safety experts say, would to be to require motorists to qualify for a special license or receive training in order to tow.
"What level of education do you have for somebody towing these vehicles? Zero," complained Pittsburgh police Officer Tom Jacques.
The Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn., which represents RV manufacturers, opposes tougher licensing rules. They are unnecessary and would entail "monumental effort" and cost, said Bruce A. Hopkins, an association vice president.
Troy Bowman, an accident reconstruction specialist in Strasburg, Colo., said that if individuals pulling trailers had to stop at commercial weigh stations, officers could quickly check key components such as the coupler, safety chains and trailer lights.
Melancon, the trailer safety activist, said more rigorous oversight and education were urgently needed.
"I don't think people intentionally want to hurt other people," he said. "How many people need to pass away before something is done?"
Staff writer Jordy Yager in Washington and researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Tips for safe towing
Preparing a trailer
Hook up the electric cable for trailer lights. Check that the lights work.
On a trailer with electric brakes, make sure the power cable is attached and the battery for the emergency breakaway system is charged.
Check the owner's manual to determine the maximum weight the vehicle can safely tow. In general, use a vehicle heavier than the trailer.
When loading the trailer, put slightly more of the weight in the front half to ensure stability. If the trailer has been loaded correctly, about 10% of its total weight will be sitting on the trailer tongue.
With an open trailer, tie down the load securely.
Make sure tires are in good condition and properly inflated.
Towing a trailer
Drive slowly, especially down hills, and avoid sudden stops and lane changes.
If the trailer sways, do not apply the brakes on the tow vehicle, and hold the wheel straight. Braking or steering to counter the swaying can lead to loss of control. Stop when safe to do so and make sure the trailer is loaded properly.
Avoid towing in wet, windy or icy conditions.
For additional information:
"Towing a Trailer," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, available at: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/ cars/problems/Equipment/towing/Towing.pdf
"Recreational Vehicles," California Highway Patrol, http://www.chp.ca.gov/ html/recvehicles.html
"Trailer Loading and Towing Guide," Sherline Products,
Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Assn. of Trailer
Manufacturers, trailer safety experts.
Random victims of negligence
Runaway trailers are a persistent cause of serious accidents. A Times review identified about 540 since 2000. A sampling:
Died: Aug. 8, 2007
Location: Near Billings, Mont.
The 26-year-old roofer and ironworker was killed when his pickup was struck head-on by a horse trailer. Both the trailer's hitch and its safety chains had broken, a police report said.
Injured: March 9, 2007
Location: Jackson Township, N.J.
A landscaping trailer detached from a dump truck and plowed into a school minibus, severely injuring Kaiser, 58, the driver. The trailer's hitch was worn and its brakes didn't work. The landscaping company paid $1,078 in fines and fees.
Died: Jan. 17, 2007
Location: Glynn County, Ga.
Simpson, 48, was killed when a runaway trailer struck her Chevy Blazer. The trailer came loose because its coupler was too wide to secure the hitch ball on the truck towing it. The driver was sentenced to 90 days in jail for second-degree homicide.
Died: Jan. 4, 2006
Location: Lee's Summit, Mo.
Lewis, a 59-year-old postal worker, was decapitated when a runaway trailer hurtled across a highway median and smashed into his SUV. The trailer's coupler was too large for the hitch ball on the truck pulling it, and its emergency braking system was inoperable.
Died: Aug. 17, 2005
Location: Napa County, Calif.
Hills, a 61-year-old socialite and philanthropist, was killed when a runaway trailer cut her car nearly in half. The trailer had not been properly attached and lacked an emergency braking device required by California law.
John T. Lotter
Died: Aug. 4, 2005
Location: Oconto County, Wis.
Lotter, 42, died when a trailer separated from a pickup and struck his GMC Sierra. The pickup's hitch ball was too small to fit securely within the trailer coupler. The trailer's safety chains were also inadequate and its emergency braking system didn't work.
Earl J. Buetow
Died: Dec. 15, 2004
Location: Northern Los Angeles County
Buetow, 74, was driving home from a medical appointment when a trailer decoupled and an SUV swerved to avoid it, plowing into his truck. Police found that the trailer had been improperly hitched.
Died: Aug. 9, 2003
Location: Hillsdale County, Mich.
Teller, 41, was killed by a runaway trailer while walking with a friend on a country road. The friend suffered severe leg injuries. The driver was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and negligent homicide. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
Died: June 29, 2001
Location: Niceville, Fla.
Philpott, 34, was walking with her son, 3, and twin daughters, 1, when
a trailer carrying concrete blocks broke loose, plowing into her; the children were unharmed. The driver was sentenced to three years in prison for negligent manslaughter.