The nation’s largest provider of rental trailers says it is “highly conservative” about safety, but a newspaper investigation revealed that company practices have actually increased the risk of towing accidents.
U-Haul International lets its trailers remain in use for months without thorough inspections, a violation of company policy. Bad brakes are a recurring problem with the company’s large trailers and its midsize trailers have no brakes at all.
Compounding this, U-Haul allows customers to pull trailers as heavy as or heavier than their own vehicles even though the safest way to tow is just the opposite — with a vehicle that weighs much more than the trailer. These allowances conflict with safety recommendations of many auto manufacturers.
The result: trailers have been known to begin swinging violently when drivers travel downhill or are shaken by a sharp turn, leading to serious accidents.
The year-long investigation by the Los Angeles Times into U-Haul’s practices included more than 200 interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court records, police reports, consumer complaints and other documents.
In the company’s view, many customers load the trailers incorrectly, drive too fast or fail to follow safety instructions. Distribution of the U-Haul’s user guide, however, is spotty even though many of the company’s renters are novices as young as 18.
The Phoenix-based company, which took in about $1.5 billion from equipment rentals last year, defends its safety record. Company executives say they diligently maintain the fleet of more than 200,000 trucks and trailers rented out of its 14,500 independent dealers.
U-Haul said drivers towing its trailers are less likely to crash than other drivers because people drive more cautiously when moving their families and belongings.
“Our equipment is suited for your son and daughter,” said Edward J. “Joe” Shoen, chairman of U-Haul and its parent company, Amerco. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say U-Haul is rated 10 in safety.”
No government agency keeps track of accidents from trailer sway and U-Haul declined to provide such figures. However, statistical snapshots from court documents hint at the scope of the problem.
U-Haul listed 173 sway-related accidents from 1993 to 2003 involving a single trailer model in a lawsuit stemming from a 2003 crash that left a 19-year-old in a wheelchair with brain damage. In other cases, the company listed up to 650 sway-related accidents from 1990 to 2002. In a case from the 1970s, the company listed 1,173 crashes involving all trailer types in more than three years.
The company’s tow dollies used to pull vehicles are also vulnerable to sway.
Casey Curtis, who rented a U-Haul dolly in 2002, said he was never asked what he planned to tow and did not know weight could be a problem. Curtis used the dolly to hitch his Suzuki Samurai to tow a Geo Tracker and while going downhill in Utah in high winds, the dolly began to slide side-to-side.
The trailer came loose and flipped and Curtis hit an oncoming car.
“They didn’t even ask me what I was towing,” said Curtis, who escaped with minor injuries. “I had no idea what kind of consequences came from not having a heavier tow vehicle.”
Steve Taub, U-Haul’s assistant general council, said the company began phasing in a computerized towing manual that halts rental contract if a worker inputs an improper weight combination.
Airline pilot Chris Burke’s family wasn’t so lucky. Burke was moving his family from Indiana to Florida in 2002, towing a Ford contour which fishtailed causing Burke’s Explorer to smash into a guardrail and flip. Burke’s infant son, Ryan, suffered a fractured skull and his wife Corry, 25, sustained sever spinal-cord damage. She is paraplegic.
Despite the company’s claim that Burke was driving too fast, a jury awarded the family about $11.6 million in damages.
“Profits are No. 1,” Burke said of U-Haul. “Safety concern for their customer is last. My wife will never walk again. There’s not a day in my son’s life when she will be able to pick him up and hug him. A judgment can’t return that.”
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