Tanker company's safety record a key issue in MD crash probe

| 1/19/2004

The corporate owner of the fuel truck that crashed and exploded Jan. 13, killing four motorists on Interstate 95 in Howard County, MD, has an accident record "worse than 96.6 percent of the carriers" examined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency official told The Washington Post.

In March 2003, FMCSA reviewed Texas-based Petro-Chemical Transport Inc. and found no fault with the upkeep of its 175 trucks or with driver performance, said agency spokesman Andy Beck. But Beck said officials determined that Petro-Chemical vehicles were getting into accidents with unsettling regularity.

"Among the reviews that we've done, its rate was worse than 96.6 percent of the carriers that we visited," Beck said in a Post interview.

Those accidents included at least one other recent fatal crash, involving a Petro-Chemical tractor-trailer on a Utah highway in 2002, according to agency records that are available online. The records also show that one of Petro-Chemical's sister companies, North Carolina-based Kenan Transport Inc., has an accident rating worse than 83.3 percent of the nation's trucking fleet.

Kenan tank trucks have been involved in at least four wrecks in which four people were killed since 2000, the records show. One of those involved a tank truck that crashed and exploded after swerving out of control on the Florida Turnpike west of Boca Raton.

Petro-Chemical's accident rate was viewed "only as a red flag" by regulators, who conducted four separate, intensive reviews that uncovered "no acute or critical safety violations" at the company, Beck said.

Official defends safety record

Speaking on behalf of both companies, the president of National Tank Truck Carriers Inc., an industry association, said Petro-Chemical and Kenan have exemplary safety records.

The president, Cliff Harvison, said the statistics kept by federal regulators are notoriously unreliable and potentially misleading because they do not factor in blame when tallying the number of wrecks. Harvison said he was speaking for both companies, because investigators have asked Petro-Chemical not to give out information to the news media. Petro-Chemical and Kenan are among eight trucking subsidiaries of Ohio-based Kenan Advantage Group Inc.

"It has been my experience, at least, that [Petro-Chemical and Kenan] are very well regarded in the industry as being safe carriers," Harvison told The Post.

Besides the explosion west of Boca Raton and a second fatal crash in Florida, Kenan tankers have been involved in deadly accidents in South Carolina and Alabama since 2000, according to the federal agency's records, which do not indicate who was at fault in the crashes.

Authorities said yesterday the crash investigation is in an early stage and that no evidence has emerged to suggest that Petro-Chemical was at fault. But the company's safety history has emerged in an effort to determine why the tanker vaulted off an overpass and exploded into flames on the northbound lanes of I-95.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said its investigators conducted interviews with Petro-Chemical officials Jan. 15. Beck said his agency, which is working with the safety board, is again putting Petro-Chemical's safety record under a microscope.

"Clearly this is a carrier we're taking a close look at, at this point, because of the accident," he said.

Police identified the tanker driver as Jackie M. Frost, 64, of Finksburg in Carroll County, MD. Frost had been employed by Petro-Chemical for 11 years. Relatives and co-workers said yesterday that he was a seasoned professional behind the wheel and a gentle soul who kept his work hours short enough to leave ample time for his family.