Wake County

Truck in fatal Wake Forest crash was pulling a heavy trailer without working brakes

The wreckage of a minivan crushed between two trucks at the scene of an accident on Capital Boulevard near Burlington Mills Road on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Wake County. 42-year-old Michelle Simone Barlow of Wake Forest, who was driving the minivan, was killed.
The wreckage of a minivan crushed between two trucks at the scene of an accident on Capital Boulevard near Burlington Mills Road on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Wake County. 42-year-old Michelle Simone Barlow of Wake Forest, who was driving the minivan, was killed.

Newly released safety inspection records for a truck involved in a fatal Wake Forest crash reveal multiple violations including problems with brakes, which may have contributed to the death of a school teacher whose minivan was crushed.

Michelle S. Barlow of Wake Forest was killed on March 22 when her minivan, stopped in traffic on U.S. 1, was rammed from behind. Donald W. Caulder Jr. of Laurinburg, the dump truck driver, is awaiting trial on charges of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and failure to reduce speed.

The dump truck was carrying a load of logs and pulling a trailer that carried a 9,800-pound Bobcat loader. State Highway Patrol records show that troopers who inspected the truck and trailer after the crash found that:

▪  The trailer’s electric brakes did not function because they were not wired to the truck.

▪  The chain securing the Bobcat to the trailer was not as strong as required by law. The chain broke, and the Bobcat shifted forward into the bed of the dump truck.

▪  A battery-powered emergency breakaway system – required to stop the trailer automatically by applying the brakes, if it becomes detached from the truck – did not work because the battery was missing.

▪  The logs in the dump truck were not secured.

▪  The truck had a damaged tire with the belt exposed, and it had no fire extinguisher.

The truck’s owner, Timothy L. Robbins of Raleigh, was fined $930 for the violations. He said the crash was an accident and that he is disputing the violations. Robbins and a landscaping business he owned until recently, Arbormax Tree Service, have a contentious history with the Highway Patrol, which is responsible for enforcing federal truck regulations.

Highway Patrol officials declined to discuss the March 22 violations in detail, citing the criminal case against Caulder. But a national truck safety advocate said the violations were egregious and the lack of brakes for the trailer may have increased the force with which Robbins’ truck hit Barlow’s SUV.

“This is extremely irresponsible behavior by the company,” Will Schaefer, director of vehicle programs for the Washington-based Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an association of truck safety regulator agencies, said after reading the Highway Patrol files.

“If the trailer had brakes, the vehicle would have slowed down to a slower speed at impact. What the outcome would have been, I don’t know. But this is simple physics.”

The impact left the dump truck partly on top of the crushed minivan. Highway Patrol documents say Caulder slowed from a speed of 60 miles per hour to 38 mph before his truck destroyed the minivan.

Robbins contended that Caulder never tried to stop. He said the trailer brakes had been working but were damaged in the crash.

“There were brakes on the trailer,” Robbins said. “We’re disputing that with the Highway Patrol. There was a wire broken during the wreck. The driver never hit the brakes. There were no skid marks.”

Robbins denied that the Bobcat was not properly secured, and he argued that the violations had nothing to do with the crash.

“None of it contributed to that poor lady’s death. This was a 100 percent accident,” Robbins said. “It happened because he never hit the brakes.”

The investigating trooper, S.L. Moy, wrote on the crash report that the dump truck left an 84-foot skid mark. But in an interview he said that may have been a stain from spilled fuel or something else, because there was no skid mark visible the next day after the crash was cleaned up.

Even though the truck slowed before the crash, Moy said he couldn’t recall whether Caulder actually applied the brakes. But he asserted that the trailer brakes could never have been hooked up to the truck’s brake wiring system, because their connecting plugs were not compatible.

“If Caulder did hit the brakes, that 9,800-pound equipment (on the trailer) was extra weight that the truck’s brakes were trying to stop – when you should have brakes on the trailer to stop that weight,” Moy said.

Tim Robbins said he has given up ownership of Arbormax to his wife as part of their pending divorce. He and Arbormax together have paid more than $20,000 in fines and penalties for violations against their four trucks since 2011.

“We have never had a wreck or hurt anyone,” Robbins wrote in a letter May 26, 2015, to Highway Patrol officials. He was contesting recent fines, and he accused troopers of “a relentless campaign of harassment and profiling.”

His wife, Jennifer Robbins, now head of Arbormax, complained in a Jan. 9 letter that her company was being penalized wrongly for violations linked to trucks the company had recently sold to Tim Robbins.

“I am disgusted with your constant bullying and harassment,” Jennifer Robbins wrote. She threatened to sue the Highway Patrol. That prompted a cautionary Jan. 12 internal memo in which a Highway Patrol sergeant admonished troopers to “exercise the utmost patience” in their dealings with the Robbinses.

The $20,000 in penalties, documented in Highway Patrol records, are for violations not considered to involve highway safety. They include trucks without licenses or decals certifying that they have paid their fuel taxes, and trucks carrying loads heavier than allowed by their permits.

Robbins and Arbormax have a parallel history of penalties related to separate safety inspections, but Highway Patrol officials refused to provide details. They said they were allowed to reveal the results of safety inspections conducted in connection with crashes, but other safety violations are secret under state law.

“Unless it’s post-crash, the statute does not allow that to be a public record,” said Lt. James C. Rigsbee of the Highway Patrol’s Motor Carrier Enforcement Section. He cited a broadly worded 1985 state law, G.S. 20-393, that makes it unlawful for a state official to “divulge any fact or information which may come to his knowledge during the course of any examination or inspection” involving motor carrier safety regulations.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration posts truck safety violation information on its website – but only for interstate companies that cross state lines and are required to have federal ID numbers. Rigsbee said Robbins and Arbormax do business only in North Carolina.

Rigsbee released one other safety inspection report linked to a minor crash – also involving Caulder and the neon-green dump truck that killed Barlow in Wake Forest.

On Jan. 7, Caulder was making a sharp left turn on N.C. 55 in Fuquay-Varina when logs he was hauling shifted in the dump truck bed, and the truck overturned. Tim Robbins, the truck owner, was cited for failing to secure the logs.

WRAL-TV reported after the March 22 crash that an unnamed Raleigh man had called 911 operators earlier that day, unsuccessfully urging them to stop the same green dump truck. Swerving as it hauled the Bobcat and trailer on Interstate 40, the truck ran several drivers off the road, the caller said.

Schaefer, the Washington-based truck safety advocate, said most of the March 22 safety violations did not affect the crash, and it is not clear how much difference there would have been if the trailer had working brakes for every wheel, as required by law. But the long list of violations are egregious, he said.

“The driver never connected the trailer (brakes) to the (dump truck), which is just utter negligence in my opinion,” Schaefer said. “They clearly did not maintain the brake system on this trailer.”