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Double-fatal crash highlights truck safety concerns in Bakken

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In the early morning hours of Oct. 5, a semi collided head-on in a fatal crash with a pickup on the Highway 23 bypass in New Town.

Douglas Landis, a semi driver from Montana, had veered over the center line and collided with the pickup on a dark road covered with light snow, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol crash report.

The trooper, who responded to the scene, said the semi had major front end damage and the pickup's dashboard "was pushed so far in it was touching the front bench seat," according to an affidavit in support of charges filed against Landis.

The driver of the pickup, David Wilcox, 28, and a passenger, Taylor Denny, 22, were pronounced dead at the crash site.

In January, Landis was charged with two counts of negligent homicide after a trooper reported that the semi driver had been working for 27 hours at the time of the crash. Landis' attorney, Tom Dickson, disputes this claim.

The Oct. 5 crash was the second to result in fatalities on the bypass. In 2017, two semi drivers collided near the same mile marker, resulting in a fiery burst that left both dead. For some, the two crashes point to concerns that the roadway is potentially hazardous, while others argue it is a larger problem of driver fatigue.

Mile marker 928

Two double-fatal crashes occurred on New Town's Highway 23 bypass near mile marker 928 in 2017 and 2018. In both crashes, a semi driver veered over the centerline of the road and collided head-on with another vehicle.

In North Dakota, the majority of truck-involved injury crashes occur in the oil region, according to crash data analyzed by the the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.

Though the numbers have declined in recent years, the area remains crash-prone. From 2007 to 2017, McKenzie, Williams and Mountrail counties accounted for 42 percent of truck-involved crashes in the state, the institute found.

Narrowing the numbers to a four-year period from 2012 to 2016, about 67 percent of truck-related crashes occurred in North Dakota's oil counties, according to data contained in the Vision Zero Plan, a statewide effort aimed at eliminating motor vehicle crash fatalities and serious injuries.

In recent years, there's been a push nationwide to improve truck safety, including a 2017 mandate that commercial truck drivers keep an electronic logbook to track the hours they work.

The truck industry does endure heavy regulation, concedes Highway Patrol Sgt. Wade Kadrmas.

"There are a lot of regulations for (commercial truck drivers), but I think it's important, because the type of vehicle they drive; there's quite the difference between an 80,000-pound vehicle and a 2,000-pound vehicle," Kadrmas said.

Families sue companies

Despite the regulations, there are some that claims truck drivers may falsify their logbooks, or that companies push truckers to drive beyond legal hours of work.

It is these types of concerns that led the families of Wilcox and Denny to file a civil suit against Doman Farms, the company Landis was working for at the time of the crash, Fila-Mar Energy Services and Liberty Oilfield Services.

The lawsuit was filed in Harris County, Texas, a state where these companies do business, according to the lawsuit.

"The family certainly wants to have some answers as to what happened that day, why did it happen (and) could somebody have prevented it from happening," said David Harris, an attorney representing the Wilcox family.

The lawsuit contends the companies were allowing drivers to work over hours and maintain falsified logbooks. A trooper who investigated the Oct. 5 crash talked to two anonymous parties who alleged Landis was working over hours and his time sheet was altered to conceal hours-of-service regulations.

Federal regulations allow commercial truckers to work 14 hours in a day and spend 11 of those hours on the road. These hours are maintained in a logbook.

The trooper also reviewed receipts of the loads Landis picked up and dropped off, which reportedly showed he had been working for 27 hours at the time of the crash. 

Harris, who works out of Corpus Christi, Texas, said he also has information from a source to back up the lawsuit's claims that the companies were aware and instructed drivers to keep fake logbooks, which will also be included as evidence in the lawsuit.

"These drivers are overworked, they're tired and they're fibbing on their logbooks, and the result of that, when it's down to brass tacks, they're going to cause accidents," Harris said.

While the Texas lawsuit originally included Landis, Louie Cook, Harris' colleague, said the driver was dropped so the focus could be placed on the role of the companies in the crash.

"(We're trying) to get the industry's attention to this issue that's going on — and it's not just a local issue, it's nationwide — of putting drivers behind the wheel of these trucks ... that can have grave consequences when they come in contact with the motoring public," Harris said.

The lawsuit also alleges Doman Farms, based in Woodburn, Ore., has an "abysmal" safety record and has been involved in several crashes in recent years.

Doman Farms, whose legal name is Nomarco Inc., employs 21 drivers who haul large machinery, oilfield equipment and fracture sand, according to data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Last year, the company's safety rating, which is a measure of compliance with federal motor carrier safety regulations, was "conditional," meaning the company was out of compliance with one or more requirements.

Also, according to FMCSA records, the company has been involved in five crashes from 2016 to 2018.

John Elwood, a Houston-based attorney for Nomarco Inc., aka Doman Farms, did not respond to two email requests for comment.

David James, an attorney in Beaumont, Texas, for Fila-Mar Energy Services says the company denies the lawsuit's allegations. 

Frank Piazza Jr., a Houston attorney for Liberty Oilfield Services, declined to comment on pending litigation, but said the crash is tragic, and the company's "heartfelt sympathies go out to the Wilcox and Denny families."

Harris said he's aware of the criminal charges against Landis in North Dakota and indicated the Wilcox family is allowing that case to play out in the criminal justice system.

"(The family) is looking for the civil justice system to provide them some answers to specific questions, and to try to see if they can get the attention of these companies that are involved and see if they can change the way they choose to do business," he said.

'Lightning doesn't strike twice'

Dickson, Landis' attorney, said his client denies claims that he falsified his logbook. He also said Landis had slept prior to the crash and had just loaded in New Town and was en route to Tioga.

However, Dickson said he thinks there are truck drivers, particularly in the Bakken, who work over hours.

Dickson also was involved in a civil suit stemming from a fatal crash on the Highway 23 bypass in 2017; he was the attorney for the family of Anthony Gonzales, one of the semi drivers who was killed. Dickson said the parties resolved the case prior to anything being filed in court.

Still, Dickson said he believes there's something wrong with that stretch of road on Highway 23.

"When you have two identical cases with serious consequences at the exact same spot, there's something wrong," he said. "Lightning doesn't strike twice ... well, at this spot it struck twice and with dire consequences."

Dan Uran, the mayor of New Town, however, said he doesn't think the problem is the road, but rather distracted or fatigued drivers.

The Highway 23 bypass, called the New Town Truck Reliever Route, was built in 2014 to alleviate truck traffic going through Main Street in New Town. According to a 2014 news release, the road, which cost $25 million, was meant to enhance roadway safety in the region.

Overall, it has improved road safety, according to Uran who said, prior to the road being built, 3,000 to 4,000 trucks drove through Main Street in New Town.

"You couldn't even walk across (the street), or try to drive across. It was just kind of a nightmare, that's why (the route) was originally built," said Uran, adding that he doesn't think the road need to be improved, rather drivers could be more careful, especially those involved in the oil industry.

However, Uran said he believes driver fatigue is becoming less of an issue as traffic volume has decreased since the height of the oil boom. Also, the construction of pipelines has helped get some trucks off the road, he said.

"Every pipeline they get in takes maybe 40 trucks of the road," he said.

In addition to the New Town Truck Reliever Router, in the 2013-15 biennium, as a result of increased traffic due to the oil boom, North Dakota allocated more than $2 billion for highways, county and township road improvements. This also included additional truck bypass routes, as well as the expansion of U.S. Highway 85.

Also, included in the state's Vision Zero plan is a "priority safety strategy" to reduce fatigue-related crashes by improving the efficiency of truck parking spaces, and installing additional center and edgeline rumble strips.

Truck safety

In the 1970s, the vast majority of people who were falling asleep at the wheel were commercial truck drivers, according to Dan Moseman, master instructor at the North Dakota Safety Council, which offers more than 150 safety programs.

"The fatality rates with commercial trucks back then was just out of control, and that's what prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to initiate the hours-of-service rules," he said.

Since then, the number of crashes involving commercial vehicles and fatigue driving has declined, while the number of non-commercial drivers involved in fatigue-related crashes is increasing, he said.

Moseman said he thinks additional safety regulations for commercial truck drivers, including the 2017 requirement that drivers log their hours electronically, have helped reduce crashes.

Mike Gerhart, president of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association, said his organization supports the electronic logbook requirement.

Gerhart, who previously served as colonel for the North Dakota Highway Patrol, underscored that safety is paramount for trucking companies.

"I think to be successful in the trucking industry, you have to be safe and practice safe practices," he said. "Ultimately, the goal is to get the goods to the consumer effectively and efficiently, and safety factors are key to that."

Some companies, such as ConocoPhilips, that have incentive programs that require drivers to pull over and rest, regardless of whether that makes them late to pick up a load, according to Moseman.

"I think that you're seeing a lot more companies coming up with incentive programs like that to encourage their drivers to do that so they don't fall asleep at the wheel," he said.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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