Trailers, negligence: A lethal combination in Chatham County
Authorities urge safety in wake of recent wrecks, including fatal crash on I-16
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Giovanna Rosenfeld was traveling west from Savannah on Interstate 16, having just celebrated her birthday with her husband and teenage daughter.
As the three reached the exit for Bloomingdale Road, entering the desolate stretch to Macon, a frightening sequence unfolded before their eyes.
"I was about three cars behind the man on the motorcycle, and I just saw a trailer come across the median at a 45-degree angle," recalled Rosenfeld, 41, an Atlanta resident. "It was going fast. He flew up in the air. I saw his motorcycle go in one direction, and the trailer continue on its original path.
"It was just surreal."
The motorcyclist, 36-year-old Carroll Girtman, was killed by that impact July 11. Gerald Adams, 66, who was hauling the trailer that hurtled into oncoming traffic, was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide and operating an unsafe vehicle.
Such circumstances might seem improbable, but the incident, local police say, underscores the need - or obligation - to safely secure trailers and their contents before hitting the highway.
"A lot of people I encounter only care about getting their stuff from point A to point B - if it comes off, it comes off," said Advanced Police Officer Brad Beddow, a Savannah-Chatham police motor vehicle investigator. "If we believe that the load is unsecured, we're going to stop you and cite you."
He added: "We're not going to wait for that load to fall off or cause a wreck before we write you a ticket."
Safety chains urged
Regulations for commercial haulers are stricter than those for regular folks who, for instance, tow yard debris or furniture across town on the weekend.
Yet those private cargos are no less dangerous, Beddow said.
"Most of the things I see are brakes that are disconnected, lights that don't work, tire problems, or (the trailers) aren't tagged," said Beddow, one of two metro officers certified by the Georgia Department of Public Safety to inspect commercial vehicles and issue safety citations. "And it's good practice - if you have safety chains on your trailer, regardless if you're a commercial enterprise or private person, they need to be hooked up and crossed."
Crossing the chains, he said, prevents the trailer tongue from striking the roadway if the trailer becomes unhitched or from swinging wildly if a tire blows.
As of mid-June, metro police had issued 22 unsecured-load citations, according to department statistics.
In a more recent case, police responded July 26 to Skidaway Road, south of Norwood Avenue, after a small trailer became unhitched from a Chrysler Town & Country van.
The errant trailer struck another van, injuring five occupants. A six-seat golf cart also flew off the trailer and plunged into a roadside ditch.
"It was just flipping in the air," Tyler Samad, a passenger in the Town & Country, said shortly after the wreck. "I was worried about what it was going to hit. I saw cars coming."
The driver, Samad's grandfather John Blitch, said the hitch had just been installed by a company, apparently without due care.
"It looks like the pin came off the trailer hitch," said Blitch, who was cited for hauling an unsecured load.
Pooler police Maj. Mark Revenew said anyone with a large load should employ an electric braking system, connected to the hitch by a small steel cable.
"If it becomes unhitched," he said, "it automatically activates the brakes on the trailer."
Beddow said a braking system is required for vehicles with a gross weight between 3,000 and 12,000 pounds. For vehicles topping that maximum, brakes are required on each axle.
Revenew said other issues police encounter include improper maintenance and inadequate safety equipment, like the safety chains.
"If a tire fails on a trailer, it becomes its own vehicle, fishtailing around," Revenew said. "The safety chains prevent it from detaching."
Georgia State Patrol Cpl. Tommy Barron noted loose items should be covered by tarps. Most of the problems, he added, arise when someone is borrowing a trailer or unfamiliar with attaching one.
"Obviously it's a driver's responsibility, before they put any vehicle on the roadway, to make sure it's safe and secure," Barron said. "Whether they're going to the landfill or just moving furniture across town."
Before the fatal wreck on I-16, Rosenfeld said, her family had planned to purchase a jet ski.
Not any more, for fear of a similar accident.
"Before that, I honestly never really thought of somebody's trailer coming loose," she said. "It makes you aware of something that you previously didn't give much thought to."