Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Sloppy data drove NC Highway Patrol’s ‘data-driven’ crackdown

A trucker parks his rig along the shoulder of a southbound exit ramp on I-74 in Surry County, where interstate truckers frequently receive tickets for roadside napping from the NC Highway Patrol.
A trucker parks his rig along the shoulder of a southbound exit ramp on I-74 in Surry County, where interstate truckers frequently receive tickets for roadside napping from the NC Highway Patrol.

The Highway Patrol overstated safety hazards and seized upon sloppy crash statistics to justify its “data-driven” crackdown on truck drivers who park beside interstate highway ramps – often for sleep mandated by federal truck-safety rules.

The campaign was spurred by Surry County winery owner Charlie Shelton, a longtime political donor who complained to Gov. Pat McCrory about “unsightly” tractor-trailers. Troopers started issuing parking tickets in March 2015 to truckers snoozing on the shoulders of Interstate 77 ramps – mostly, at first, near Shelton Vineyards.

On June 3, as Highway Patrol leaders prepared to take their no-parking campaign statewide, Capt. Freddy L. Johnson Jr. emailed the state Department of Transportation with a request for “pretty quick” data on interstate crashes.

“Ask and ye shall receive,” Cliff Braam, a DOT traffic operations engineer, replied 45 minutes later. He delivered five years of numbers with this summation: “Crashes involving parked vehicles on the interstates statewide is less than 1%, but these same crashes comprise nearly 20% of ALL fatalities on the interstates.”

The Highway Patrol emphasized Braam’s “nearly 20 percent” figure in a news release issued that same day. It provided a powerful traffic-safety rationale: Troopers would scour interstate ramps and shoulders for parking violators “in an effort to save lives and increase safety for the motoring public.”

“This is good information!” Johnson said in a thank-you note to Braam.

But it was bad information.

Braam’s hasty analysis roughly quadrupled the true numbers of interstate crashes and deaths where parked vehicles were present. Victims also included people whose cars were stopped in the roadway – not parked – after being damaged moments earlier in separate crashes.

Braam told Johnson in June that 101 people perished in crashes involving parked vehicles on interstates from 2010 through 2014, out of 512 interstate deaths during those five years.

But after the Road Worrier questioned the numbers, Braam discovered that when he had queried DOT’s statewide crash database, he inadvertently counted parked-vehicle crashes and deaths several times.

Actually, he told Johnson by email on Jan. 5, parked vehicles were involved in only 26 interstate crash deaths in those five years – roughly five deaths each year or 5 percent of all interstate deaths. Braam blamed his mistake on “an error in the programming that was not caught.”

Truckers parked on ramps were implicated in only a fraction of these deaths. A News & Observer analysis found that tractor-trailers on the shoulders of on- and off-ramps were involved, on average, in one death each year or 1 percent of interstate deaths.

Before they learned that their numbers were wrong, Highway Patrol officials made other statements that further inflated the link between parked vehicles and fatal accidents.

Col. Bill Grey, the Highway Patrol commander, defended the no-parking push after The N&O reported in November on the political roles played by McCrory and Shelton. Although DOT numbers pointed broadly to fatal crashes where parked or stopped vehicles were present, Grey said pointedly that “illegal parking has caused” these 101 deaths.

“While we are always receptive to citizen’s concerns regarding safety, we verify those concerns using a data-driven approach in our enforcement campaigns,” Grey said Nov. 15 in a prepared statement.

He said the patrol had not verified the particulars and did not know how many accidents involved trucks parked on interstate ramps, because that would require extensive research.

“That’s not something we could answer ... unless we pulled every record of every interstate crash,” Grey said in a November interview. “You’d have to go to every wreck and look at it.”

5 ramp deaths involved trucks

The N&O counted the cases involving parked vehicles in DOT’s crash database, obtained copies of accident reports, and found answers to some of these questions.

In all, out of 512 deaths over five years, five deaths occurred when drivers ran into tractor-trailers parked beside interstate ramps.

“While we were surprised to discover the discrepancies in the data we were provided, we were reassured to learn that vehicles on the shoulder of the highway are not as deadly as we first thought,” Sgt. Mike Baker, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said by email in February after Braam corrected his error. “However, one death is too many and unacceptable.”

Federal safety rules limit the hours truckers can drive without rest. Drivers complain that they frequently cannot find legal places to nap at state-owned rest areas and privately owned truck stops in North Carolina. A recent 50-state survey found that truck parking is more plentiful in four bordering states.

Truckers told The N&O they’d rather park illegally than flout federal hours-of-service limits. The interstate parking violation is an infraction, punishable by a $25 fine plus $188 court costs.

State troopers were responsible for most of the 445 tickets issued in 2015 for vehicles parked illegally on interstate ramps and shoulders, according to the Highway Patrol and a state courts database. Of that total, 149 tickets were issued in Surry County. That’s up from 177 interstate parking tickets issued statewide in 2014, including only 2 in Surry County.

Charlie Shelton and his winery partner, brother Ed Shelton, thanked the governor in June for focusing attention on “Interstate 77 and its exit ramps that were being abused by the trucking industry.”

Since then, the Shelton brothers and two of their children have given a combined $20,400 to McCrory’s re-election campaign.

Database editor David Raynor contributed.

Trucks in fatal ramp crashes

Truck drivers parked beside interstate ramps were primary targets in the Highway Patrol’s ticket-writing campaign in 2015, but they have been involved in just 1 percent of interstate crash deaths across the state.

A News & Observer analysis of crash reports from 2010 through 2014 found seven fatal accidents involving trucks or cars parked on interstate ramps. Ten people died in these crashes.

Only four of these crashes and five of the 512 interstate crash deaths in five years were related to tractor-trailers parked on the shoulders of on- and off-ramps. One crash took place in daylight, while the others occurred between 1 and 4 a.m.:

Mecklenburg County, Jan. 4, 2010: An alcohol-impaired driver ran off an I-85 off-ramp and struck a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder. The car driver died.

Mecklenburg County, March 14, 2011: An alcohol-impaired driver drove his pickup off an I-85 on-ramp and struck a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder. Two pickup passengers died.

Yadkin County, Sept. 5, 2012: An alcohol-impaired driver ran off I-77 and struck a tractor-trailer parked partly on the shoulder and partly in the lane of the entrance ramp to a public rest area that had been closed to the public, with barricades preventing entry. The driver died.

Iredell County, Nov. 12, 2013: A driver ran off an I-77 on-ramp and struck a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder. The driver died.

Source: NCDOT crash reports