In what may be the first case of its kind in the country, a federal grand jury yesterday indicted a Baltimore-area trucking company on charges that it required its drivers to exceed federal limits on the number of hours they drove each day.
The alleged practice, said to be widespread in the trucking industry, has been targeted by highway safety groups nationwide. But it is believed to be the first time a company has faced federal felony charges for it, prosecutors said. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), driver fatigue contributes to 30 percent to 40 percent of all heavy truck accidents.
Gunther's Leasing Transport Inc. of Hanover and its president, Mark David Gunther, 39, of Pasadena were charged with eight counts of conspiracy to defraud, false statements and perjury.
Several accidents involving Gunther trucks have been linked to driver fatigue, prosecutors said. A company driver was cited in a fiery crash in September on the Capital Beltway that killed a passenger riding in the cab and injured several highway construction workers.
An FBI affidavit also noted that an investigation had concluded that Gunther's allowed employees to drive routes even though they had tested positive for using illegal drugs.
"These charges should put all trucking companies on notice that it is primarily their responsibility to ensure that truck drivers comply with the federal rules," said U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia. "There is no place on our highways for tired truck drivers."
David K. Willis, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington, D.C., called the criminal case "terrific."
"I hope it sends a real strong message to those people who don't take the rules seriously," he said.
Gunther's carries products nationwide -- everything from toys and clothing to raw materials for manufacturing. It was founded in 1979, has about 165 trucks and employs about 250 people. Its safety record is rated "satisfactory" -- the highest possible rating -- by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"We're proud of our safety record," said Ken Buck, vice president of sales and marketing, in response to the charges. "We've cooperated fully with the government through the whole investigation. We believe there is no basis in fact for the charges."
Federal law says drivers may be on the road no more than 10 hours a day followed by eight consecutive hours off duty. Drivers also are required to record their time on the road.
In the most comprehensive study done on the problem, the NTSB surveyed more than 100 heavy truck accidents in which the driver survived and was able to detail the hours preceding the accident. They found that 58 percent of the accidents were fatigue-related.
The board in January proposed numerous changes. Among them: a lengthier off-duty time between trips, and examining the pay system for drivers, who often are compensated by the mile.
The problem also is being looked at by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, whose members include hundreds of transport companies.
"I can't tell you how big of a problem it is, but we have given this high priority," said Larry Stern, director of administration. A meeting is set for this summer to find ways of better addressing it, he said.
The FBI began investigating Gunther's after numerous drivers filed complaints with the Federal Highway Administration in 1991. Some claimed that on being hired, they were instructed how to falsify driving logs so it would appear they had complied with the regulations. The company routinely required drivers to exceed the federal limits, they said. All of it was described as standard practice.
According to court records:
When federal safety investigators arrived to inspect company files in early 1992, Mark Gunther refused to give them access.
When a judge ordered the company to produce documents and records for investigators, company officials said numerous drivers' logs had been lost. In sworn statements, they said the records had not been destroyed, but had simply been misplaced during an office renovation.
But two former Gunther employees told investigators that the drivers' logs were removed from company files and destroyed Dec. 23, 1991, at the direction of Mr. Gunther and the company's safety director, Keith Hughes. Mr. Hughes has not been charged.
When investigators arrived at the company to inspect driver logs several months later, they were given two large boxes filled with loose toll receipts and other papers. The driver's name had been removed from most of the records.
Out of thousands of documents, investigators were able to match and compare receipts on only 26 drivers' logs, 14 of which they later determined had been falsified to show compliance with federal regulations.
More driver complaints
They continued to receive complaints from drivers, including one who flipped his rig on a New Jersey interstate.
He said Gunther's dispatchers ordered him to complete his route despite his complaints that he was tired and needed to rest.
Another driver crashed his tractor-trailer in April 1993 after falling asleep at the wheel on an interstate highway in Pennsylvania during a round-the-clock trip that he had falsely recorded in his log book.
The case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew C. White and FBI Special Agent Rosemary S. Vicini, and investigators from the FHWA.