Curbs urged for 'monster trucks' in Md.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a jet black 1979 Ford F-150 half-ton pickup, a high-riding four-by-four with 36-inch tires, and front and rear lift kits that raised it a good 7 inches over stock.

A real beauty in the eyes of its owners.

A killing machine in the eyes of a Baltimore jury.

After hearing arguments that the truck's modifications allowed it to drive up the hood of an oncoming AMC Pacer -- and smash through the car's windshield to kill a 35-year-old single mother from Linthicum -- the jury returned a $1.7 million verdict May 28 against the distributor of the lift kit used to jack up the pickup.

Similar to another accident that left a Columbia woman paralyzed, it was the kind of crash that has highway safety experts, politicians and lawyers calling for tougher enforcement of stricter laws governing "monster trucks" on Maryland roads.

"Once you raise that vehicle you've made a Frankenstein," said David McAllister, a traffic safety engineer for the commonwealth of Virginia, where, unlike Maryland, statistics are kept on accidents involving modified trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Mr. McAllister's studies show jacked-up trucks are the most dangerous vehicles on the road today -- to their drivers, because the raised center of gravity and other side effects make them more susceptible to rolling over, and to other motorists.

"God forbid if you should be hit by one of them. They're coming right at you at eye level," said Bruce J. Babij, an attorney who represented the Linthicum woman's surviving daughter. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who own these things who think they are completely benign."

On May 11, Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed into law a bill that tightened a loophole that allowed some of these vehicles to remain street legal with lowered bumpers to compensate for their raised frames.

The two state delegates who co-sponsored the legislation hope that police will enforce the amended law, set to go into effect in October, better than they enforced the old laws.

"The eyes of the law enforcement agencies have been closed. It's not been a priority," complained Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

"It really is up to the state police to get those regulations going and enforce the law because they are lethal vehicles," said Del. Jean W. Roesser, a Montgomery Republican. "I will be the first to tell you I don't think the existing law has been enforced."

In 1973, working from a law making it illegal to alter bumpers in a manner that "reduces the effectiveness of the bumpers of the altered vehicle in a collision," state police and motor vehicle officials wrote a regulation that said bumpers could not be adjusted 3 inches up or down from their stock condition.

That law was in effect when the Ford pickup crashed into the Pacer in April 1985; the forewoman of the jury in the civil suit said it was obvious the truck was illegally raised but it had passed state inspection at least three times upon being sold.

In an attempt to give police a well-grounded yardstick for enforcement, state legislators added language saying car bumpers could be no more than 20 inches off the ground, and most truck and utility vehicle bumper heights were limited to 28 inches. That law took effect in July 1985.

Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck, then a state senator, said he pushed for the change after seeing a group of teen-agers use a rope ladder to descend from a monster truck.

But four-wheelers found a way around that law: They continued to jack up their frames and suspensions but added "drop bumpers" that dipped within 28 inches of the road. Although the law still prohibits bumpers modified in a way that reduces their effectiveness, state police, who adhere strictly to bumper height guidelines, say the vehicle owners are successfully skirting the law.

Authorities could not provide statistics on how many repair orders or citations, which carry a $40 fine but no points, have been issued for illegally modifying vehicles. No one has been able to say how many such vehicles are on Maryland roads.

State police and motor vehicle officials now must draft regulations to implement the law recently signed by the governor.

The new law keeps the bumper height measurements, but adds body side frame rails as a measuring point and includes a paragraph stressing that vehicles modified to the point of becoming dangerous are illegal, even if they fall within allowable bumper and frame height measurements.

Capt. Joel Underwood, commander of the Automotive Safety Enforcement Division of the state police, said, "The new piece of legislation, I do believe, will allow us to tighten up our enforcement of these modified vehicles."

'Mixed bag' of laws

George E. Walton, director of staff engineering for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), said other states have a "mixed bag" of laws pertaining to modified vehicles, with a few banning any changes beyond manufacturers' specifications and others basing laws on bumper- and frame-height measurements.

The AAMVA recommends jurisdictions adopt the Motor Vehicle Manufacturer's Association's 1988 guidelines for bumper height regulations, which limit front bumper heights to 22 inches for cars and 28 inches for four-wheel-drive trucks and multipurpose vehicles.

At issue are vehicles raised with suspension or body lift kits, products that sell for anywhere between $90 and $1,200 at Eastern Offroad Equipment in Glen Burnie.

"I'll grant you, certain heights are outrageous," said store manager Mark Williams, who says he sells two or three lift kits a day. "Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the kits and listen to the people behind the counter -- I get paid to know something about these kits. That's the way it should be handled." Mr. Williams said his customers object to laws that allow a subjective assessment of whether their vehicles are unsafe.

He said most of his customers raise their vehicles because they like the look, which allows owners to turn their pickups into a smaller version of the monster trucks that drive over parked cars and perform other stunts at touring shows.

"Monster trucks are big business. People go to the Capital Centre to see them and they have a following like pro wrestling," noted state police Lt. David Czorapinski, who as legislative liaison for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services lobbied on behalf of the new state law. "It's probably at its peak or has peaked, but you still have that segment who like the big trucks and sitting up high and it's always going to be that way."

Delegate Roesser says she was moved to take a look at the law after hearing of a fatal crash involving a modified vehicle in 1985 near Rockville and of a civil suit involving the Columbia woman, whose small Chevrolet Sprint was crushed in a crash with a jacked-up Chevy Blazer.

Mr. Babij, who with lawyers Gilbert H. Robinette and Henry E. Dugan Jr. filed suit on behalf of the victims in the Howard County and Linthicum crashes, said the modified vehicles in both cases were probably within the 28-inch limit.

Stephanie Gianfagna, a 21-year-old nursing student from Columbia, and her mother received $4.5 million under a settlement last year in their $83 million suit against the driver of the Blazer, the dealership that sold the vehicle and the manufacturer and seller of the lift kit used on it.

In the April 1985 crash in Linthicum, 22-year-old Michael A. Bachmann, the fourth owner of the Ford, crossed the center line on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard and slammed into a car driven by Lucy H. Harbaugh.

The truck left tire prints as it "ramped" up the car's hood and its bumper struck and killed the driver.

Ms. Harbaugh's 4-year-old daughter, along with Mr. Bachmann and three passengers in the truck, survived the crash with minor injuries.

A test showed Mr. Bachmann, who witnesses said had been drinking at Savage Park in Howard County, had a blood-alcohol level of .19 percent -- nearly twice the legal standard for intoxication.

He later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a five-year sentence with all but six months suspended, court records show.

In 1988, the surviving daughter filed suit against Mr. Bachmann and a lift kit manufacturer, an auto parts distributor, the garage that installed the lift kit and the original truck owner, who had the kit installed.

The manufacturer was dropped from the suit when it was learned another company, since out of business, made the kit used in the Ford.

A default judgment was entered against the installer, which had also gone out of business; the plaintiff's lawyers said further legal action is pending against the installer's insurance company. Mr. Bachmann was granted an automatic stay from the case because he filed for bankruptcy before the matter went to trial last month, court records show.

'No enforcement'

After hearing five days of testimony, the jury reached its verdict May 28: James H. Slater, the original owner of the truck was cleared, but the distributor, G & M High Performance Parts Inc., was found liable. The jury awarded $700,000 to the surviving daughter for the economic loss of her mother's death and $1 million for pain and suffering.

"The message [in the verdict] was that these kits are dangerous and the government should do something about them," said Mary Ann Henderson, a 43-year-old mortgage underwriter in the federal housing department's Baltimore office who was the jury forewoman. "There was no enforcement at all that we could tell."

Explaining the jury's decision to hold the distributor liable, she said evidence showed the lift kit's catalog included consumer safety warnings, but that the catalog never left the distributorship.

Mr. Dugan, who contends the lift kits serve no legitimate purpose, either on- or off-road, said, "My goal is very simple: I want to put all these jacked-up bumper manufacturers out of business."

John Russell Deane, general counsel for the 2,500-member Specialty Equipment Market Association, said, "It is unfair to FTC characterize all lift kits as being hazardous. I think there is a responsible way for these vehicles to be raised and lowered."

He added that his organization urges manufacturers to include warnings to use the kits in a way that does not make vehicles unsafe.

Impressive to the eye

One issue not in dispute: The towering trucks are impressive to the eye.

As Stanley Ostrowski Jr., who once owned the Ford later involved in the Linthicum crash, said in a deposition, "It was a pretty truck. That's why I bought it back then. . . . It was high and it looked good."

Mr. Slater, the truck's original owner, said he had no idea of the potential safety hazards when he modified it for use in his well-drilling business. "I can see they're dangerous after going to court," the 54-year-old Eastern Shore man said. "We were coming back from court and we got in Memorial Day traffic and there was one, we damn near could've walked under it. There were three kids in it on their way to Ocean City and I doubt they even knew how dangerous it was."

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