Interesting Accident Case Study

Here’s a fatal crash that escaped my attention until now. This happened on April 11, 2003 in Glen Rock, PA, York County. That’s just down the road from me. A 21 year old driver of a 26,000 GVWR dump truck (non-CDL) lost his brakes on a steep hill, crashed into several cars and killed two people.

blossom-valley-crash-truckHere is the NTSB report on the crash. Very interesting. The owner of the truck was Blossom Valley Farms. The local district attorney decided to press charges against those responsible. The driver, Jaysen Newton, nursery manager, Jerry Snedden, and owner of Blossom Valley Farms, Todd Sachs were all convicted of charges stemming from the crash. Newton was sentenced to 9 months in jail, Snedden got probation, and Sachs was sentenced to 2 years in jail.

Summarizing the NTSB report: the truck was slightly overloaded, but they felt that was not a factor in the accident. The truck was on a road which heavy trucks are not supposed to use, because of the steep grade. The signs say no vehicles over 3/4 tons, except for local deliveries. The driver, who had only been working for Blossom Valley for 10 days, had not delivered to this receiver before, and thought he was making a local delivery. He was also following the directions printed for him by Blossom Valley.

The major factor in the accident was the air brakes on the truck were way out of adjustment. Following the crash, the NTSB applied the parking brakes on the truck. They were able to move the truck backwards and forwards easily, even with the parking brakes applied, showing there was virtually no braking force being applied to the wheels.

The truck was equipped with automatic slack adjusters (ASAs). The truck had its Pennsylvania State inspection 3 months before the accident, at which time the mechanic adjusted the brakes. Additionally the NTSB was able to uncover an instance in 2003 when the brakes were adjusted manually. Upon thorough inspection of the brakes, it was found that the clevis pins holding the ASAs on had warped and worn. Once they were replaced, the ASAs worked normally.

The lesson taken from the ASAs is they should work automatically, hence the name. If they are out of adjustment, manually adjusting them will only work temporarily. They will quickly be out of adjustment again. Mechanics should look for other causes and defects, if ASAs are out of adjustment.

The other factor in the accident was the driver. The driver tested positive following the accident for cocaine and marijuana, although the NTSB did not believe that drugs influenced the crash. However, the driver had never driven an air brake vehicle before working for Blossom Valley. When he crested the top of the steep hill, as he went down the hill, he pumped the brakes, which dissipated his air pressure. The driver did not realize that, unlike hydraulic brakes, pumping air brakes makes them stop working faster.

One question I get asked over and over again, and have never really know the answer to, is: do I need an air brake endorsement if I drive a non-CDL air brake vehicle? My answer has always been, call your State DMV, as these non-CDL vehicles are not covered by the licensing regulations in 49 CFR Part 383. I assumed the answer was “yes”, the State would make you pass some type of test to drive air brakes vehicles. After reading the NTSB report, I now know the answer is NO, there is no endorsement or training required to drive non-CDL air brake vehicles.

As for the accident aftermath, the local prosecutor decided the owner of the company was to blame and prosecuted him. It took 4.5 years, but he finally obtained a conviction in October, 2007. At least one employee of Blossom Valley Farms rolled on Sachs, the owner, telling the court he had previously advised Sachs the brakes were bad on the truck.

Other factors which may have played into the conviction: the driver was on drugs, and Sachs didn’t drug test him prior to employment. The truck should never have been on that road to begin with. Following the accident, the next year a Blossom Valley truck was again on that same road and ticketed. That’s really all I need to know about Todd Sachs. Here one of his trucks kills someone because they’re using a shortcut they’re not supposed to use, and he keeps using it! Sure looks to me as if he doesn’t give a damn.

Finally, despite the fact that the truck passed a Pennsylvania State inspection 3 months earlier, which is the equivalent to the Federal annual inspection, Sachs was still responsible for making sure his trucks were in properly operating condition. He was advised by one of his employees the brakes were bad. He should have investigated further as to what was wrong. But he didn’t, probably because it just wasn’t important enough to him.

Lastly, we have the local prosecutor. Well it took him forever and a day to prosecute the case, but in the end, he got the job done. As a consultant, you may think I should be against the Man ruining small businessmen only trying to make a living. That’s not the case here. I do not approve of regulatory agents run amuck strictly enforcing paperwork violations, which have no safety application. However, individuals who are reckess and negligent, like in this case, deserve everything they’ve got coming to them. Guys like Sachs make everyone who operate trucks look bad. Accidents like this happen all the time, and very rarely do the prosecutors actually do anything about it, largely because they don’t know much about the safety laws.

It is important you have a preventive maintenance schedule for your vehicles, and that your drivers are doing complete and thorough pre and post-trip inspections every day. If Blossom Valley had been even remotely taking care of its vehicles, this crash probably wouldn’t have happened.

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