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PUTTING SAFETY LAST? <br> ANALYSIS POINTS TO TRUCK VIOLATIONS, PROBLEM DRIVERS

Local motorists have reason to be nervous when a truck barrels past them on the Niagara Thruway.

A Buffalo News analysis shows that one of every four U.S. trucking companies hauling goods through the region has a worse inspection record than the national rate for shoddy brakes, poorly secured loads and other safety violations.

Western New York companies tend to be the worst offenders.

The analysis -- based on two years of police and state inspections data for 250 companies whose fleets travel through the Buffalo area -- shows that Canadian companies put safer trucks on area roads but more problem drivers behind the wheel than their American counterparts.

Police say new, tougher penalties in Ontario seem to have prodded Canadian firms to maintain their fleets better.

"If we had those deterrents on this side of the border, we'd see fewer problems with trucks," said Michael Scippa, executive director of Citizens for Responsible and Safe Highways (CRASH), a national advocacy group that pushes for more inspections and strict trucking laws.

When trucks and drivers aren't in good shape, the results can be fatal:

The truck that slammed into a Metro Bus near the Buffalo airport two months ago, killing the bus driver, had safety violations that, if detected ahead of time, would have prompted officials to order it off the road.

Steel coils rolled off flatbed trucks in two separate incidents last summer. Luckily, no one was injured. But four people died under similar circumstances in 1992.

In fact, Erie County's 207 truck crashes in 1997 were the most of any county in New York, according to federal data for that year, the most recent available.

What's more, fatal truck crashes in New York State are more likely to involve commercial driver violations or load or equipment violations than fatal crashes nationwide, U.S. Department of Transportation figures show.

Police cited equipment violations in nearly 17 percent of New York's fatal truck crashes, but in only 3 percent of fatal crashes nationwide.

The News' review of the 250 trucking companies shows Spirit Express of Western New York has the poorest inspection marks. The Town of Tonawanda company is among only 10 firms whose results for both drivers and trucks are worse than the national average.

Spirit Express' drivers have been pulled off the road for violations in the past two years at nearly twice the national rate.

Five of 35 drivers were cited and ordered out of service for exceeding the number of hours they can drive a day, falsifying a logbook or other driver violations.

In the same period, more than one of every two of the company's trucks were ordered out of service for failing a roadside inspection. Its trucks failed 19 of 36 inspections with violations serious enough to put the truck out of service until repaired.

A Spirit Express manager declined to be interviewed, but he called the inspection reports "all lies."

Federal records indicate the company's safety rating was upgraded earlier this month from conditional to satisfactory.

The federal government assigned the safety rating -- which indicates compliance with federal trucking safety regulations -- after a compliance review in which inspectors audited the company's records on drivers, trucks and trips.

The satisfactory rating means the auditors found no evidence of substantial noncompliance with safety requirements. The firm's previous conditional rating meant the company was out of compliance with safety requirements.

Citizens for Responsible and Safe Highways, the national advocacy group, is skeptical about how the federal government assigns safety ratings.

"I don't think it's a meaningful rating system," Scippa said. "It's weak to begin with, and I question the criteria behind it."

About one-third of the New York companies with poor driver or truck inspection marks during the past two years underwent compliance reviews.

The rest were not reviewed at all or took part in a safety review. The safety review is designed to assess the trucking company's knowledge of truck safety laws, and much of the rating is based on an interview with the company's management.

Advocacy groups such as CRASH want more reviews, but with performance criteria that track inspection results and crashes.

Spirit Express' trucks were involved in four crashes in two years, with injuries in two of the crashes, federal records show.

State police also consider Spirit Express a problem.

"We've detected problems with the company in the past," said State Police Sgt. Frank Broderick, who supervises the truck safety enforcement unit in Western New York.

The state's file on Spirit Express shows the company has been cited for 124 violations between October 1997 and September of this year, with 41 of them serious enough to keep a truck off the road. Problems with brakes and taillights were the most common citations, with bad tires and driver violations accounting for most of the others.

Praxair, Sorrento among safest

The commitment to safety from other companies shows up in their inspection results.

Praxair, a Connecticut-based company with a facility in the Town of Tonawanda, and Sorrento Food Service of Buffalo had the safest fleets and drivers among local firms.

No company in New York State or Ontario had as many trucks or drivers inspected as Praxair.

In 976 driver inspections, Praxair's drivers were ordered off the road less than 1 percent of the time, compared to the national average of 8 percent, from October 1997 to October 1999.

Across the country, its fleet of 640 trucks were ordered off the road after 9.9 percent of 865 inspections, compared with a national average of 25 percent.

The company's fleet delivers oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases used in processes such as steel and glass production.

There's no one reason for the company's good inspection record, but rather a combination of a lot of smart practices, said Bob Inderbitzen, Praxair's safety manager for distribution.

Praxair leases trucks for a shorter period of time than most companies, and then goes with only one model so mechanics can become more adept at making repairs.

Praxair's 40,000 monthly deliveries across the country are coordinated at a central, computer-assisted dispatching center at its Tonawanda facility. The system keeps track of the hours and miles put in by all the drivers.

The system will not allow a driver to be dispatched to make a delivery if the driver is at or near the maximum number of hours he's legally allowed to drive.

One of four fails at roadside

Overall, federal inspection data reveal a mixed record for fleets passing through the Buffalo area.

Nationally, one of every four trucks fails to pass random roadside safety inspections and is temporarily ordered out of service.

Trucks operated by companies in The News survey fared better, with 18 percent ordered out of service.

The News study also shows:

About 25 percent of American companies and 12 percent of Canadian firms exceed the U.S. national rate of trucks pulled from the road for violations.

There's an even bigger disparity among more local companies, with 21 of 60 upstate New York companies, or 35 percent, exceeding the national rate, compared with 12 of 110 of Ontario haulers, or 11 percent.

While the Canadian trucks are in better shape, their drivers are not.

In inspections across the country, an average of 8 percent of truck drivers are temporarily ordered off the road for falsifying or not keeping up with their driving logs or for problems with their licenses or permits.

About 3 percent of the American truck drivers and 10 percent of the Ontario drivers in the News survey were pulled out of service.

In addition:

About 28 percent of American companies and 51 percent of Canadian firms exceed the national rate for drivers pulled off the road.

But just 10 upstate companies, or 17 percent, exceed the national rate for driver violations, compared with 55 of 110 Ontario companies.

The contrast between upstate New York and Ontario trucks doesn't surprise Trooper Robert J. Vishion, who works out of the State Police barracks in Clarence and inspects trucks full time.

"Years ago, the Canadian trucks were more notorious," Vishion said. "But in the last couple of years, Ontario has stepped up their enforcement. That's forced Ontario trucks to become better."

In Ontario, the government can impound a truck for a couple of weeks if it uncovers a serious out-of-service violation.

"The chances of getting caught in Ontario are higher," said Barrie Montague, manager of safety and operations for the Ontario Trucking Association. "They know they had better take care of any problems or risk an out-of-service violation."

"Out of service doesn't necessarily mean unsafe," said David Bradley, president of the Ontario Trucking Association.

The most common truck violation is a brake out of adjustment, he said.

"It's a problem that requires a simple roadside adjustment, and then the vehicle goes on its way," he said. "It is not what it's made out to be, that the trucks have no brakes."

New York State troopers take a harsher view.

There's a good reason that police order trucks out of service for defects like brakes out of adjustment, said Trooper Timothy Mahony, who's assigned to the State Police's Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement unit.

The defects could cause crashes if the truck remains on the road, Mahony said.

"Out of service means unsafe," he said.

Information specialist Andrew Bailey assisted in developing data for this story.

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