Most trucks' brakes faulty, check shows


Howard County police discovered that two-thirds of the commercial trucks they inspected during random safety stops earlier this week had some type of brake defect.

The inspections follow a fatal accident almost two weeks ago in which a dump truck crashed into several cars at a busy Columbia intersection. A 43-year-old woman died in the accident and her 12-year-old son remains in critical condition.

Police said the truck had faulty brakes.

The problem "happens more frequently than we know about," said Owen Smith, the Police Department's commercial truck inspector. And many truck drivers use CB radios to warn their colleagues to detour around the checkpoints, he said.

In Howard, where roads get a high volume of truck traffic, police chose two busy intersections Monday and Tuesday for inspecting the 21 dump trucks and tractor-trailers they pulled over: Marriottsville Road near Interstate 70, and Route 100 at Washington Boulevard.

They found that 14 trucks had some type of brake defect, and six were taken out of service because of severe faulty brakes or no brake lights, said Mr. Smith. Two drivers were given $510 citations for brake violations. Citations for safety violations range from $40 to $1,010.

Police periodically conduct the inspections at locations with high truck traffic.

When drivers are stopped, they often use the same excuses as ordinary motorists: "I wasn't aware," or "It just went bad," Mr. Smith said. Others are under a lot of pressure, "because if they don't drive, they don't get paid," he said.

"I think we should do more [inspections], but we can't because of limited manpower," Mr. Smith said. He suggests at least two checkpoints a month.

Inspectors look for proper braking, steering and framing, and decent tires. They also make sure that drivers are wearing seat belts and that their licenses haven't been suspended or revoked, Mr. Smith said.

Capt. Raymond Cotton, commander of the Maryland State Police's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division, said state police last year inspected 65,000 trucks.

The number of trucks involved in fatal accidents in Maryland has fallen from 101 in 1985 to 78 last year, he said. "Certainly, 78 is too many, but it reflects a downward trend," Captain Cotton said.

"Good drivers can often drive defective trucks, but unsafe drivers can't drive safe trucks," he said.

Police say faulty brakes were partly responsible for an accident April 29 in Columbia, after a Finksburg dump truck driver ran a red light at Route 175 and Thunder Hill Road. The truck hit several cars, including one driven by Suzanne Denise Bice, 43. Mrs. Bice died at the scene. Her son Phillip, 12, remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

The dump truck driven by Gary Bernstein, 37, had faulty brakes and other violations, police said. Mr. Bernstein was charged with 17 violations, including manslaughter. He was released from the county Detention Center on May 4 after posting a $15,000 bond, a correctional officer said.

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