On January 24, 2014, an accident occurred on a highway outside of Cincinnati involving a tractor-trailer and two passenger vehicles. According to the article, the trailer came loose from its tractor, plowing into two pickup trucks. The drivers of both pickups were killed at the scene. Authorities investigating the crash blamed the driver of the semi for not properly inspecting the hitch connecting the tractor and the trailer. However, a report released in June by the NHTSA raised questions as to whether or not the hitch is defective.
Taking a Closer Look
The brand of hitch in question is called the Ultra LT, a product manufactured by Alabama-based Fontaine Fifth Wheel. Fontaine is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. The NHTSA has been investigating what the article reported has been a “potentially high” rate of trailer separations involving the Ultra LT.
Fontaine has been the subject of an NHTSA investigation before involving the Ultra LT. In 2011, Fontaine issued a service bulletin on the hitches and the agency uncovered 12 complaints. The agency reported that Fontaine had previously changed to design of the hitch to prevent separations from occurring. The NHTSA is looking into whether the crash, the bulletin and the design change to see if there is a fundamental safety problem with the Ultra LT.
Was it Driver Negligence?
However, the company has continually maintained its hitches are safe. It blamed the Cincinnati crash on the driver, saying he did not hook up the hitch properly.
The driver of the semi involved in the January 2014 crash, Michael Simpson, told authorities he had tried to hook his trailer three times before it finally worked on the fourth attempt. According to the article, Simpson said he drove a short time to make sure the trailer was secure but remained concerned throughout his trip. Then, as his truck was climbing a stretch of U.S. 50 ominously known as “Devil’s Backbone,” the trailer came loose from the tractor. It hit the side of one pickup and then hit another head-on.
According to an Ohio State Highway Patrol investigation, the hitch failed to lock because of a combination of frozen grease as well as the minus 4 degree temperature. Then, the article reports, authorities conducted tests on the hitch that showed it was operating properly. They arrested Simpson and charged him with vehicular manslaughter, saying he would have seen the loose connection if had performed a proper inspection. Simpson was convicted, sentenced to a year’s probation and had his commercial driver’s license suspended for 90 days.
This is just another example of how extremely dangerous the semi-trucks that cross our nation’s highways in droves every day can be. Whether the cause is faulty equipment, non-attentive drivers or some other issue, there have been far too many instances of devastating accidents changing lives forever.