The Detroit News
September, 1998

Fatality Renews Truck Safety Concerns

Wheel crushes teacher on I-94: Accident focuses attention on inadequate inspections.

The death of a 58-year-old Detroit teacher killed Wednesday when an airborne tire crashed through the windshield of her car on Interstate 94 renewed debate over truck safety on Michigan roads.

The accident comes at a time when the safety of big rigs and commercial vehicles is under question because of increased truck traffic and fewer inspections.  The inconsistency of Michigan truck inspections was detailed in a Detroit News investigation published last month.

Barbara Chambers was on her commute to Finney High School when a 70-pound truck trailer wheel bounced over a 4-foot concrete wall and hit her 1990 Lincoln Town Car killing her instantly.

"She never saw it coming.  There were no skid marks, nothing," state trooper Julie Eckenrode said.

Tires and wheels are a key target of state commercial truck inspectors, who routinely order off the road rigs with balding tires, missing or loose lug nuts and dangerously bent rims.  Of the 12,004 commercial trucks sidelined with out-of-service violations last year, 1,320 -- or 11 percent -- had problem wheels and tires.

In Wednesday's accident, police said loose lug nuts were most likely to blame.  The truck did not stop, and police said the driver may not have realized the trailer had lost a wheel.

"It's not uncommon, and these are big suckers that become incredibly lethal projectiles when they're detached from the vehicle and sent flying through the air," said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Michigan motor carrier inspectors are probing far fewer commercial trucks for mechanical shortcomings today than in past years.  That's in part because fewer officers are watching Michigan roads for problem trucks.

The state has about 97 commercial truck inspectors, compared to 106 in 1993, according to the Michigan State Police Motor Carrier Division.  In 1997, they examined 31,106 rigs for assorted mechanical and driver problems, compared to nearly 38,000 five years ago.

Meanwhile, truck traffic on state roads has increased by about 35 percent over the past decade.

"States should be inspecting more trucks -- not less," said Michael Scippa, executive director of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Trucks in San Francisco.

Donaldson, however, doubted state inspectors could have prevented Wednesday's tragedy.

"Let's face it: the health and safety of the motoring public really rest in the good-faith maintenance practices of high-mileage commercial carriers," he said.

The companies, he noted, are required by law to inspect their trucks daily before putting them on the road.

Eric Brown, the manager of Service Tire in Detroit -- one of two local distributors of the type of wheel involved in the fatality -- said the 14.5-inch wheel with an 8-inch wide tread is used on many commercial trailers.

"They're used to carry a lot of low platform construction equipment.  It's a fairly common trailer tire," said Brown.

State Police were still looking for the driver Wednesday.

"It's very possible the driver didn't know that the wheel came off," said State Police Lt. Frank Washington.

Chambers taught business classes for 29 years at Finney.

"She was my best friend first and then my wife," said Robert Chambers, a real estate investor, his eyes wet with tears after identifying the body of his wife.

He said she planned to teach for several more years "because there was work to be done."

Chambers heard about the crash on the radio and then received a call from the school asking why his wife didn't show up for work.

Barbara Chambers, a Jacksonville, Fla., native, also is survived by her daughter, Robin, 23, a Los Angeles teacher; 22-year-old twins Candice, 22, a senior at Hampton University in Virginia; and Chedrin Chambers, a pilot and college student.

Chambers was a member of Scott AME Church and active in civic affairs.  Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

Chambers is the 17th person to die on Detroit highways this year -- compared with 25 traffic fatalities in all of 1997.

by David Shepardson, Shawn D. Lewis and Kenneth Cole.  Detroit News Staff Reporter Christopher M. Singer contributed to this report.