After one of his semi trucks ran into a line of traffic on Interstate 435 and killed a man in Overland Park last year, Alpha Transport Inc. owner Kashif Siddiqui did more than hunker down for the impending legal battles that ultimately would end in an $850,000 settlement.
He also updated his fleet of tractor trailers to include the latest safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking.
“We’re trying to make sure things like that don’t happen again,” Siddiqui said. “Safety should come first.”
Fatal truck wrecks are spiking this decade, killing 4,761 people in the United States last year. That is 41 percent more than in 2009, which was the lowest count since the government started keeping records in the 1970s.
Yet most semis on the road today do not have the latest safety equipment, nor does the government require them to, The Star reported last month after a months-long investigation of fatal crashes involving large trucks.
Twelve of the Lenexa-based Alpha Transport’s 16 trucks now have collision avoidance systems, Siddiqui said Friday. In addition to brakes that engage on their own to avoid rear-end collisions like the one that killed 55-year-old Willie “Darryl” Wilson of Kansas City, Alpha Transport’s newest trucks have lane departure warning systems and sensors that send alerts when vehicles are in a truck’s blind spot.
None of them did before.
Siddiqui said he made that considerable investment in safety improvements — a new semi can run $150,000 each — prior to the settlement reached recently in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Wilson’s parents in federal court.
Alpha Transport, truck driver Antonio DeFranco and Alpha’s insurance company agreed to pay Willie and Wilma Wilson $850,000 as compensation for the death of their son, a computer technician for Johnson County government. That check was cut and the case dismissed late last month.
In the settlement, neither DeFranco nor Alpha admitted liability. Overland Park police blamed DeFranco for the wreck, citing him for “failing to avoid a collision,” to which he pleaded no contest and was fined $149.50, plus $25 in court costs. He no longer works for the company, Siddiqui said.
The chain-reaction crash occurred during the evening rush hour on July 17, 2017, and left four vehicles destroyed by fire. Wilson suffered critical burns and died nearly a month later after what court records said were multiple surgeries.
Due to road construction work, the eastbound lanes of I-435 were snarled when DeFranco came upon the backup and failed to stop in time. Police estimated his semi was traveling at 41 mph when it crashed into the rear of Wilson’s Isuzu Rodeo. The truck then swerved, struck a barrier and hit another truck, which ran into the car in front of it.
Another vehicle that pulled up alongside the crash caught fire and was destroyed along with both trucks and Wilson’s Isuzu.
In addition to the Wilsons’ court settlement, the company and its insurer, Berskshire Hathaway, paid damage claims filed by the owners of those other vehicles. In all, those payouts and the Wlsons’ claim topped $1 million, Siddiqui said.
Studies have shown that more than 70 percent of rear-end truck crashes could be prevented, while damage could be mitigated in the other 30 percent, if all semi trucks on the road had collision avoidance systems with automatic emergency braking.
However, only a small percentage of trucks have that safety equipment. Among The Star’s key finding was that regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have ignored repeated calls over the past 20 years from the National Transportation Safety Board to mandate forward collision warning systems on all trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more.
Similarly, the NTSB has been calling on NHTSA since the late 2000s to require automatic emergency braking on all vehicles, but especially large trucks because of the catastrophic damage they can cause when running into smaller vehicles at high speed.
But the safety administration is still studying the technology and has issued no regulations or standards for manufacturers to follow.
Automakers voluntarily agreed to make automatic braking standard on nearly all passenger vehicles by 2022. Makers of large trucks have not followed that example and automatic emergency braking remains optional.
After the crash that killed Wilson, Siddiqui said he researched whether he could retrofit his then-existing fleet of trucks with after-market collision avoidance technology. When he learned that couldn’t be done, he ordered new trucks with the technology installed.
That crash was one of two fiery truck wrecks involving multiple vehicles on Kansas City-area interstates that month. Five people died six days earlier on the Kansas Turnpike near Bonner Springs when a semi ran into stalled traffic in the westbound lanes.
The Kansas Highway Patrol’s investigation of the Bonner Springs wreck took about a year to complete and is now in the hands of Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson to consider in deciding whether to file charges.
Thompson was unavailable for comment Friday.
That crash, too, might have been mitigated had the semi operated by Colorado-based Indian Creek Express been outfitted with crash avoidance technology, authorities have said. Same for a rear-end truck crash that killed two children in a wreck on Interstate 435 in Johnson County earlier this year.
The Highway Patrol investigation of that wreck is ongoing.