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It was almost Christmas three years ago when Jerry Parrick died on the side of snowy Interstate 90 near Haugan.

It would be nice to think he didn't see it coming - the FedEx Ground truck's jack-knifing double trailer that hurtled toward him as he sat in his pickup on the shoulder of the westbound lane. But he probably did.

Parrick, 59, the safety coordinator for the West End Volunteer Fire Department in DeBorgia, had stationed his Dodge truck off the shoulder of the road to warn of a single-car accident ahead, with emergency lights illuminated. He died instantly after first the lead trailer, then the second slammed into his pickup and propelled it some 190 feet.

He may have had a few horrible seconds on that late morning of Dec. 17, 2008, to recognize the 50,000-pound semi combination was coming much too fast for the conditions.

Investigators later determined its speed at between 63 and 72 mph. The truck speed limit is 65 under normal driving conditions, but the law requires traffic to slow 20 mph when approaching an accident scene, and to one-half the posted speed on packed snow.

What Parrick couldn't have known was that the driver of the truck was 54-year-old Sergei Buslayev of the Bronx, N.Y. In the 11 years since emigrating from the north Russia republic of Karelia, Buslayev had incurred violations of driving while intoxicated and separate incidents while driving trucks of careless driving, failure to yield to an emergency vehicle and speeding.

In the cab that day with Buslayev was his boss, Vladimir Kuchukov, who owned Bridgewater Trucking LLC. Kuchukov had contracted with FedEx Ground to tow two empty FedEx trailers from New Jersey to St. Paul, Minn., exchange them for two full ones and deliver those to Portland, Ore.

"This accident happened in the busiest week of FedEx's year," David Paoli, a Missoula attorney, said last week. "Jerry Parrick died at the hands of these FedEx drivers, the day before FedEx's busiest day of the year. They were moving to get to Portland and they were apparently not going to slow down for anything."

Parrick's family hired Paoli to pursue a civil suit against Buslayev and Kuchukov, as well as FedEx Ground. Shortly before the suit went to trial in September 2010, a confidential settlement was reached.

But what Paoli learned during the course of his investigation about the long-haul trucking industry got the former University of Montana lineman's hackles up. He asked to help Marcia Boris, Mineral County's new head prosecutor, pro bono in the prosecution of Buslayev.

On Nov. 23, Buslayev was sentenced by Missoula County District Judge Dusty Deschamps to 20 years in the state prison, with 10 years suspended, for negligent homicide.

Buslayev's defense asked Deschamps to release Buslayev with time served, since he'd already spent 17 months in the Mineral County jail. But Paoli successfully argued for the maximum sentence, to send what he thinks is a vital message as winter sets in on these Northern Rockies roads.

"My main point is: Truckers and trucking companies, make it safe," he said. "Take notice that your lack of safety is going to be met with severe consequences. And the public needs to know that although there are strict federal regulations out there for trucking companies and their drivers to follow, they are often, in my view, consciously disregarded."

Not by everyone, and not all the time, Paoli said.

"But from what I've seen a great many of them, enough that people should be very, very careful."

***

Bruce Charles can be more specific. He's fire chief of the West End Volunteer Fire Department, which covers the 25 westernmost miles of Interstate 90 in Montana, but in practice sometimes reaches almost all the way down to St. Regis.

Seventy now, Charles worked his way through college as a teamster in Chicago. In those days, he said, truck drivers were held in high esteem. It wasn't unusual to see them stop to help other motorists in distress.

He doesn't see many "knights of the road" any more. "What we have witnessed over the last five or six years on I-90 is a significant degeneration in the quality of the driver," Charles said.

His department responds to 100-120 accidents on the interstate a year. Of those, 40 to 50 involve truck crashes. Most of the latter, he said, have something to do with speeding.

"So many of these guys are being paid by the mile, so the faster they go, the more mileage they can cover within the prescribed day," he said.

It doesn't help that the speed limit for eastbound traffic over Lookout Pass goes from 55 mph in Idaho to 75 mph in Montana, 65 for trucks.

"On the Montana side, if I'm doing 65 or 70, I'm often passed by semis," he said. "They're not intimidated by our law."

That's a complaint the Montana Highway Patrol hears often.

"We enforce the speed limit there as much as feasible with our manpower," Capt. Greg Watson said.

Watson said the Highway Patrol has a detachment of one sergeant and six troopers in the area, but that includes Highway 200 as well as I-90.

"Unfortunately, in times when we have those (bad) weather conditions, usually our troopers are so busy on accidents that we're not doing much proactive enforcement," he said.

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Paoli's crusade to warn and rein in reckless truckers is broader than just one company. But his personal investigation focused on FedEx Ground Package System, one of a number of divisions under the former Federal Express Co.'s massive umbrella, and around Christmas one of the busiest trucking companies in the nation.

***

Among the files of depositions and affidavits in Paoli's law office on West Front Street in Missoula are a few printouts that anyone can obtain online. One is a report from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Safety Measurement System. It reveals that in the 24-month period ending Nov. 18, FedEx Ground vehicles were involved in 288 injuries/fatalities. That's an average of 12 a month or one every 2 1/2 days. Of course, they aren't dispersed so evenly.

Other printouts are newspaper accounts produced from a simple and admittedly non-comprehensive Google search for "FedEx truck accidents."

Two children and a newlywed dead in Kentucky when a FedEx truck rear-ends an SUV last February. Four people dead in FedEx truck-related crashes in New Mexico and Florida in June.

A New York man dies in July, two children perish in Mississippi in late October, two women are killed in California on Halloween night - all in crashes involving, but not necessarily caused by, truck drivers hauling FedEx trailers. A FedEx driver dead after his tractor-trailer crashes over an embankment in Pennsylvania on Nov. 30. On the same day, a passenger in a FedEx truck is killed in New Mexico.

FedEx Ground spokesman David Westrick doesn't dispute the statistics or the long list of fatalities involving his company. But he points to numbers of his own - a massive FedEx fleet of more than 28,000 vehicles that drive more than 1.8 billion miles per year on U.S. highways and deliver more than 5 million packages every day.

Safety, Westrick said, "is embedded in our culture and is an integral part of our mission, our values and our promise to our customers."

That's borne out, he said, by recognition received within the industry, including a three-time winner of the American Trucking Association's President's Trophy, the highest safety award given to motor carriers in the U.S. and presented to only three of them a year.

***

Paoli points to another packet, this one having nothing to do with FedEx Ground. It's marked "Katie Jividen."

Jividen, 27, was set to graduate from the University of Montana's fine arts school last spring. She had driven across Lookout Pass and was nearing Wallace, Idaho, on I-90 the morning of Jan. 6 with her two young children when Yuriy Kushniruk of Vancouver, Wash., lost control of his eastbound semi tractor-trailer.

The rig crossed over a concrete median and crashed head-on into Jividen's 2006 Subaru Impreza. Her children survived, but Jividen died six days later in a Coeur d'Alene hospital. Police said Kushniruk was driving too fast for the slushy road conditions.

Kushniruk, who faces a preliminary hearing in Wallace, Idaho, on Tuesday on charges of vehicular manslaughter, was hauling for a two-driver, one-truck company in Portland, Ore. According to the federal record, in the year preceding the wreck that killed Jividen, Sashco LLC was cited for six violations, two of them for fatigued driving. In one instance, Sashco required or permitted a driver to drive more than 11 hours. In the other, it was cited for a false report of drivers' records of duty status.

"The vast majority of drivers follow the regulations, they follow speed limits, they follow the weight limits, they follow the driving-hour limits," said Dave Rochford, a private traffic investigator in Coeur d'Alene who investigated both the Parrick and Jividen deaths. "The vast majority of the companies run a straight ship."

Rochford said the smaller trucking companies are often the root of safety problems.

"The major companies that are trying to invest heavily in maintenance and keeping their drivers inside their hours and so forth, they get cheated by drivers who can undercut their prices because they're not keeping their trucks maintained and they're willing to drive over their hours," he said.

Hours of service and other trucking safety measures are hot topics in Congress. They're spawned by an 8.7-percent increase in fatalities from crashes in the U.S. involving large trucks in 2010. Some in the trucking industry call that an anomaly - such fatalities dropped 31 percent from 2007 to 2009.

Truckers are limited to 11 hours behind the wheel in any one workday, but there's a move afoot to return that to the former threshold of 10. On Wednesday, a tractor trailer safety bill that would also require electronic logbooks passed the Senate Commerce committee in Washington by a 13-11 vote after a heated discussion.

Whether stronger federal regulations could have saved Jerry Parrick and Kate Jividen will never be known. But Paoli thinks the punishment meted out by a district judge in Montana last month will help prevent future tragedies if the message gets out.

The prosecution of Sergei Buslayev wasn't "a terribly easy criminal case," he said.

The defense "could and did just come in and say, ‘Aw, geez, it's an unfortunate accident.' But there were so many things that could have been done, even before these two drivers hit Montana to keep them off the road.

"I truly believe that trucking companies and the drivers they put on the road need to know that when they drive recklessly like this, and they allow reckless drivers to be out on the road, they're going to be held accountable."

Charles recently had a chat with the FedEx driver who delivers locally in Mineral County.

"He brought up the subject himself, and it was very simple," the volunteer fire chief said. "He says, ‘Boy, I'm just doing everything I can to avoid something like that.' "

 

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