Truck over weight limit
Semitrailer that crashed in Wilson killing driver was 30,000 pounds heavier than law allows.
By Emma Breysse and Benjamin Graham and Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 3, 2012
The 18-wheeler that crashed in Wilson on Sunday night was nearly 30,000 pounds over the weight limit for Teton Pass, the Wyoming Highway Patrol said.
The rig, which was hauling a car crusher, weighed between 85,000 and 88,000 pounds, Lt. Tom Kelly said. The weight limit for trucks heading over Teton Pass is 60,000 pounds.
The crash occurred when the truck’s brakes overheated and failed while descending Highway 22 toward Wilson, Wyoming State Trooper Dave Richelderfer said Sunday night. Highway Patrol officially confirmed brake failure as the wreck’s cause Monday morning.
“That’s unfortunately the cause of most of these wrecks,” Kelly said.
Sunday’s crash was the third truck wreck this summer in which brakes failed coming down Teton Pass. In the first two, while the trucks sustained severe damage, the drivers walked away virtually unharmed. Both wrecks occurred above Wilson.
In Sunday’s crash, driver Jay Winn, of Hines, Ore., died at the scene.
Winn, 36, was married to Ali Winn and the couple had five children under the age of 12, said Jennifer Jenks, the editor of the Burns Times-Herald in Burns, Ore.
Burns is near Hines, and Winn was very involved in the community, Jenks said.
“He was very well-known here,” she said. “A lot of people knew his name and knew him.”
Winn was an assistant wrestling coach at both the junior high and high schools in Burns and co-owned a recycling center in town, Jenks said.
The smell of heated metal lingered in the air for almost an hour after the wreck occurred at around 5:30 p.m.
The semi went off the road across from the Stagecoach Bar while trying to make the final sharp curve into Wilson. It rolled over one and a quarter times before coming to rest across Fall Creek Road near the Exxon gas station. On its way, it took out several feet of guardrail and tore up the bike path that runs alongside the highway.
Barb Zimmer, who works at Hungry Jack’s General Store, was on the job Sunday night and said she knew something bad had happened when she heard the “metal- on-concrete” sound.
“The sound was horrific actually,” Zimmer said. “You heard this horrible sound and you just knew what had happened. It sends a chill up my spine when I hear that noise.”
She and customers in the store ran outside to see a huge cloud of dust, she said. The air was filled with a “burning, oily smell,” she said, and people started running to the scene to help.
“And then the rescue workers got there, and there seemed to be frantic kind of feeling for a while,” she said. “Then they just stopped, and you knew it was really bad.”
When Zimmer went back to work, she said the general store filled with people sharing stories about what they saw.
Drivers told stories of seeing Winn barreling down the pass, desperately weaving through traffic to avoid hitting anyone else, Zimmer said.
“Bless his heart, he really tried to keep from hurting anyone,” she said. “I think it’s really time to think about just banning semi traffic on the pass. It’s just so needless for something like this to happen.”
Wrecks like Sunday’s are an almost annual occurrence, and most happen in the spot Winn went off the road.
Wilson residents believe that one day a truck will hit the Exxon station or take down a cyclist on the bike path, Zimmer said.
“There is an alternative way to go,” she said, referring to U.S. Highway 89, which takes drivers around the pass and through Alpine to get to Jackson. “It’s worth the safety of everyone.”
Wilson resident Joannie Epstein said it was pure luck that no bystanders shared Winn’s fate.
“In three of the last four trailer truck incidents on the Pass, my husband, my son, and a fellow teacher friend, wife, and mother of two were within 10 minutes of being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Epstein said in an email.
No clear solution to making pathway safe
Wilson residents and pathways officials are at a loss as to how to make the pathway below Teton Pass safer from runaway trucks.
On Sunday, an 18-wheeler ripped through part of the path at the base of the pass. The wreck was the third to destroy part of the pathway since it was built in 2006. It also was the most destructive, Pathways Coordinator Brian Shilling said.
“This last one is by far the worst damage we’ve had there,” Shilling said.
He didn’t think moving the pathway to prevent future catastrophes would be feasible, he said. There would be problems keeping the path in the right of way or obtaining easements on private land.
One possibility would be to move it farther from the road. But the path would have to cross private property and would be expensive to construct.
The truck destroyed the guard rail and a path fence across Highway 22 from Stagecoach Bar.
Damages from a crash last year were repaired earlier this summer, Schilling said. Sunday’s accident destroyed the same portion again.
“Residents in Wilson and throughout the county are rightly concerned about someone on the pathway being killed by a runaway truck,” he said.
Some residents were equally strapped for a solution to the pathway’s seemingly dangerous location.
“I don’t know where they’d move it to,” Wilson resident Keith Benefiel said. “It does seem to be happening with depressing regularity,” he said of the path wipeouts.
It is surprising that a cyclist hasn’t been killed and that the Exxon gas station hasn’t been hit by a truck, he said.
But Benefiel also couldn’t come up with an idea for how or where to move the path.
“Other than completely rerouting that road, I can’t imagine what they could do,” he said.
Wilson resident and avid cyclist Steve Poole offered a solution.
“The approach I would take would be to talk to WYDOT about trucks coming over the pass, rather than moving the path,” Poole said.
That is just what Friends of Pathways Executive Director Mike Welch said the group is hoping to do.
“The county and Friends of Pathways will be looking to talk with WYDOT about trucks on the path,” Welch said.
He said the county has estimates from contractors on the cost of the damage, but he didn’t know the amount.
“The guardrail is used to protect pathway users from vehicles, but it’s not going to stop a truck coming down the pass,” Welch said.
Shilling said insurance companies of the crashed trucks have covered the costs of reconstruction in the past.
WYDOT sees no immediate fix to prevent crashes
State transportation officials say there is no immediate fix to prevent runaway trucks from careening down Teton Pass.
Wyoming Highway Patrol officials don’t have enough money to send patrolmen to check every truck heading over the pass, and the Wyoming Department of Transportation is years away from installing new runaway truck ramps.
“The trucking industry needs to quit sending 80,000-plus pound loads over the pass,” WYDOT District Engineer John Eddins said Monday. The weight limit is 60,000 pounds.
When an overweight truck heads down the pass toward Wilson, there isn’t much state officials can do, he said.
“Once an 85,000-pound truck starts down the other side, I don’t have an answer to that problem,” Eddins said.
State transportation officials have the authority to close the pass entirely to tractor trailers, but doing so is a major step that could have much broader implications for business and commerce between Idaho and Wyoming, Eddins said.
“What we need to study before we pull the trigger on that is how’s that going to affect those loads less than 60,000 pounds that can make it over the pass without any problems,” he said.
Eddins said officials from the state highway patrol, the department of transportation and other agencies likely would talk about the issue in coming days. It’s a topic that often comes up when there’s a flurry of accidents on the pass, he said.
The discussion about how to improve safety on Teton Pass was prompted by a fatal accident Sunday. A 36-year-old man crashed on the west side of Wilson after the brakes failed on the tractor trailer he was driving.
He was carrying car-crushing equipment.
State transportation officials said they’ve tried to restrict the weight of trucks going over the pass, install warning signs and inspect trucks. but some drivers are simply ignoring the rules.
The price of diesel and GPS mistakes are to blame in some instances, Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Kelly said. Sometimes drivers or dispatchers plug in a location to GPS device and follow the route without knowing they’re headed for a mountain pass.
There are fines for violating weight limits and trailer restrictions, but they don’t always scare people enough to turn around, Kelly said.
“Apparently they’re not high enough to deter people from taking the risk,” he said.
At any given time, there are one to two patrolmen working, Kelly said. They try to enforce restrictions on Teton Pass as much as possible, but they don’t have enough manpower to do it all the time.
“Our enforcement activities are governed by our manpower availability,” Kelly said. “And that isn’t enough to stop all those vehicles from coming over.”
There is a division of specially trained officers who travel throughout several counties enforcing rules for commercial vehicles and trying to educate drivers, Kelly said.
The team, called the Mobile Enforcement and Education Team, is in Jackson this week, Kelly said. It was scheduled to be here before receiving word of the accident.
The team has been in Jackson four times so far this year, Kelly said.
On the west side of the pass, there is an unmanned weigh station that is left open for drivers to voluntarily weigh their vehicles.
Occasionally, troopers will staff the weigh station and check vehicles, Kelly said.
Officials from the Wyoming Department of Transportation plan to construct new runaway truck ramps on the pass, including one closer to Wilson. But they aren’t slated to build the structures for another few years.
It’s a funding issue, they say. If the state provided more money to the department, officials might be able to bump up when the new ramps get built, but even then they would have to consider other needs throughout the state.
The new “truck arresters” would have large cables suspended between two concrete walls. Trucks would drive into the chutes and, theoretically, would come to a halt without much damage.
However, WYDOT’s long-range funding plans don’t show that project getting any money until 2016 or 2017. The project is estimated to cost $3.46 million, according to the latest draft of the department’s long-term budget.
Eddins said the weight restriction on the pass, which bans trucks over 60,000 pounds, isn’t necessarily the problem. Lowering that restriction could start to cause problems for commercial companies that need to deliver products to Jackson, such as contractors hauling small equipment or loads of sod.
“The bigger issue is that some aren’t obeying [the law] now,” he said.
Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said lawmakers should review ways to increase awareness about the pass and the potential risks, including death.
“I hope we can sit down with WYDOT and county officials to see if we can figure out a solution so this tragic accident doesn’t happen again ... and again ... and again,” he said.
Legislators could install signs that say every truck driver has to pull over at the weigh station, Gingery said. It would get drivers to think more about the weight of their vehicle and could give them the option to call a patrolmen if they were unsure about whether they could make it over the pass, Gingery said.
Another option might be to install signs that detail the number of crashes and deaths that have happened on the pass, Gingery said.