LISBON — News that changes your life comes in an instant and sometimes it breaks your heart.
Daphne and Steve Izer remember well the night the police came to their door 20 years ago.
It was just before 11 p.m. on Oct. 10, 1993, a Sunday. He was watching TV. She had just stood to go to bed when she saw the police cruiser pulling into the driveway of their Ferry Road home.
The news, delivered by a state trooper and an officer from the Lisbon Police Department, was every parent's nightmare.
"They said they needed to come in, there's been an accident on the Maine Turnpike and Jeff was killed along with his three friends," Izer said in an interview last week. A fifth teen, riding with the others in Jeff's car, survived but was seriously injured.
The tragedy occurred when a tractor-trailer rolled over the small car the teens were in as it was parked in the breakdown lane on the Maine Turnpike. They had been on their way to a haunted hayride in Gorham when the car started to overheat and they pulled over.
For several days the couple believed their son had parked only partially in the breakdown lane, but police later discovered the truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. There were no skid marks, no sign of evasive maneuvers. The couple later learned the driver's log book had been falsified. He had driven more hours than he should have. The investigation also revealed Jeff's car was parked fully in the breakdown lane when the truck hit it.
In the decades following the crash, the Izers turned their grief into action, lobbying state and federal governments for changes in trucking regulations to make the nation's roads safer.
They have met with every U.S. secretary of transportation since the crash, testified before state legislative and federal congressional committees, and brought their story to hundreds of civic organizations around Maine and the country.
The advocacy organization they founded a year after the crash, Parents Against Tired Truckers, went national and is now under the Truck Safety Coalition based in Arlington, Va. The coalition each year holds a "Sorrow to Strength" conference for families and friends of those who have been killed by fatigued truckers. The conferences teach survivors how to advocate for truck safety improvements and educate them on truck safety issues.
Creating a national network for survivors was one of the first roles PATT took on in the early years. Daphne Izer took many calls from grieving family members from around the country. She soon learned hundreds of families were in similar circumstances.
Over time, the group's list of legislative achievements grew to include the addition of rumble strips on most interstate highways and an expansion of the cap on damages in wrongful death lawsuits.
When Jeff was killed, the most a surviving family could be awarded in a wrongful death civil suit was $75,000 per individual killed. In 1994, the Izers and PATT successfully lobbied the Legislature to increase the cap to $450,000 in Maine, but it remains one of only 19 states in the nation to have a cap on damage awards.
PATT also pushed for and was successful in getting laws passed that strengthened enforcement and prosecution of tired truckers, and most recently helped pass a mandate that heavy trucks begin to use electronic logging devices so log books cannot easily be falsified, Daphne said.
The driver involved in the crash that killed Jeff and his friends served 89 days in the county jail for his falsified logbook, but was not charged with any other crime. The maximum price his employer had to pay under Maine civil law at the time was $75,000 per death. The company, Walmart, did so without a fight.
A good son remembered
But for Daphne and Steve Izer, it's never been about money. Both said they've done what they've done over the years to hopefully prevent other families from enduring the grief they have experienced. It was also a way to honor their son's memory and his spirit.
Jeff was a fun-loving and caring person, his parents said. After he died, the couple learned more about what a good friend and kind person their son was.
"He liked to help people," Daphne said. "The first sympathy card we got after his death was from a high school student; she wore real thick glasses and everyone used to make fun at her — but Jeff didn't."
Daphne still breaks up a little when she talks about his generosity. "He would sometimes give his lunch money to a kid who didn't have lunch," she said. "We heard a lot of stuff after his death, but nothing was bad."
One story the Izers heard was about the time Jeff was giving friends a ride home from the Auburn Mall. His car was full, so he offered one kid a chance to ride in the trunk. But halfway home to Lisbon, Jeff stopped and had somebody else drive because he wanted to ride in the trunk himself.
"He didn't want to miss out on that fun," Steve said.
At his closed-casket funeral, Jeff's friends covered the coffin with quarters, Steve said. He later found out that Jeff often asked his friends for a quarter.
"He'd say, 'Hey man, you got a quarter? You got a quarter?'" Steve recalled. "And when he would get enough, he would put gas in his car."
Daphne said her son loved life. "My brother said afterward that Jeff lived every day to the fullest, almost knowing he only had 17 years," she said.
Changes seem to be working
While the Izers — and others — know they have saved countless lives with the changes they helped initiate, it's difficult to draw definitive conclusions.
Over the past 20 years, fatal accidents involving large trucks have declined in the U.S. and in Maine. In 2011, Maine saw 17 fatal accidents involving big trucks, compared to 27 in 1994. During the same period, fatal truck crashes in the U.S. decreased from 5,144 to 3,757. There are peaks and valleys in the data, but the overall trend is a decrease in total fatalities.
Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, said one of the most visible changes to come from PATT's efforts are rumble strips on the edges of interstate travel lanes.
The idea at first was not well-received by safety experts, but the strips, which create a loud rumbling buzz when a car or truck tire passes over them, work, Williams said.
"I can remember when they first started talking about that, and we said that will never work, that's just going to startle people," Williams said. "I think just the contrary has happened. I think it has saved countless lives, and we know it has saved hundreds if not thousands of crashes. (It is) just an early-warning device that's relatively cost-efficient to install and maintenance-free."
Steve Izer said he believes a rumble strip could have saved the lives of Jeff and his friends.
"You would be surprised the people who travel the interstate and say, 'You know, I hit that the other day and it's a good thing I did,'" Williams said. "It's pretty simple to drift, as we all do occasionally with all the stuff we have on our mind, so I think that's been a great safety addition to the motoring public."
James Wright, motor carrier supervisor for the Maine State Police, said changes in technology that were advocated by PATT are also helping to change trucker behavior.
Electronic log book devices, known as ELDs, are making it easier for truckers to accurately track their hours behind the wheel and their hours at rest, so they can meet state and federal standards. The devices are difficult to tamper with, so if a trucker intends to break the rules, it's more difficult, Wright said.
Impact difficult to assess
Maine has so few fatal trucking accidents now that identifying trends can be a challenge. One year may see a spike of one or two with the same cause, but the next year may see no accidents attributed to the same cause. The state has changed the way it tracks contributing factors in fatal accidents at least twice since 1993, adding to the challenge of getting long-term trend and comparison data, Wright said.
And while even one fatal is one too many, the variance in numbers is so small in some categories, it can be difficult to fully assess a trend, Wright said.
At the federal level the data on crashes is not broken down into specific categories of cause or contributing factors.
A review of crash data with the Maine Bureau of Traffic Safety shows fatal trucking accidents in which the driver fell asleep or fatigue is listed as a contributing factor appear to be on the decline.
Records indicate only six fatigue-related fatal crashes involving big trucks occurred from 2003 t0 2013, which is as far back as the state's most current data goes. Only one of those was blamed on the truck driver falling asleep at the wheel. The other accidents involved the drivers of the other vehicles falling asleep.
That one crash blamed on the tired trucker was in 2006, in Rumford, and involved only the truck; the driver died when he went off the road and crashed into a stand of trees.
Casting some question on the state's statistics, however, is the fact that they don't reflect another crash in July 2011, in which 5-year-old Liam Mahaney was killed when a truck carrying logs in Jackman rolled over.
Logs from the truck smashed into the boy's home, crushing him as he lay asleep on a couch. The boy's mother and father, also in the home at the time of the early-morning crash, were injured.
"Operator advised he fell asleep while operating," the investigating officer wrote in his narrative on the accident report. Wright could not explain why that crash isn't included in the state's latest statistics.
The Somerset County District Attorney declined prosecution in the crash, noting the investigation showed the driver may have fallen asleep due to a medical condition.
No test for fatigue
Tara Gill, with the Truck Safe Coalition, said proving a trucker involved in a fatal crash fell asleep at the wheel is difficult.
Unlike operating under the influence of drugs and alcohol, there is no medical test that can be performed after a crash to determine whether the driver was asleep, Gill said.
She said that in 98 percent of the fatal crashes involving big trucks, the driver is the only survivor and there are no other witnesses.
One trend that law enforcement officials have noticed in recent years is that fatal accidents are often not the fault of the truck driver, Wright said. He said new efforts to educate the motoring public on how to operate more safely around big trucks were designed to help reduce the number of crashes.
Wright said the largest number of citations issued to commercial truck drivers in Maine is for log book violations.
It's often a matter of the trucker simply not keeping his log up to date, hour by hour, Wright said. Truckers are allowed so many hours of actual drive time and so many total on-duty hours that must be balanced with off-duty hours. How that is or isn't logged is often the biggest problem for commercial truck drivers, he said. "You can't just catch it up at the end of the day," Wright said.
He also said there is still a mindset among some truck drivers and some trucking companies that "if the wheels aren't rolling we aren't making money."
"There is some old-school attitude out there," Wright said. "But we are all doing our best to try to stop that."
Most truckers and companies now recognize that the cumulative costs of violations — including fines, lawsuit settlements and higher insurance rates that result from an unsafe driving record or a bad accident — simply don't add up in their favor, he said.
Wright, a former state trooper and commercial vehicle inspector, said federal deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s may have contributed to an increase in crashes during the 1990s.
"The emphasis of the new trucking companies was to run faster, longer and cheaper than their competition," Wright wrote in an email message to the Sun Journal. "There were dozens of new trucking companies starting up daily. It took several years for enforcement and regulations to catch up with the deregulation."
Wright said the state has six motor carrier inspectors and about 20 troopers assigned to commercial vehicle enforcement, along with three supervising officers.
In all, the state is probably short between six and eight troopers for commercial vehicle enforcement, Wright said. He added, however, that is a conversation for people higher up the chain of command, as the entire Department of Public Safety works to balance its limited resources against all public safety demands.
Work goes on
Despite the loss of their son and their 20 years of fighting to improve highway safety, the Izers said there are a lot of good truckers and good trucking companies.
"They are not all breaking the law," Daphne Izer said. "They are driven in many cases, but ultimately they are responsible behind the wheel. But for some of them, if they don't get that load delivered, they will lose their jobs."
The Izers will mark the 20th anniversary of Jeff's death privately.
They plan to continue their advocacy work into the future.
Asked how long they would stay active in advocating for truck safety, Steve Izer answered with a question: "How long are we going to live?"