"I was praying to myself, ‘I hope this is nothing. I hope this is nothing.’”
Those were Bob Kentner’s thoughts when he saw something flying through the air as he zoomed down Interstate 90.
“All of a sudden this thing crashed through my windshield,” said Kentner. “It happened so fast I didn’t know it was coming.”
He still has the 14-pound hunk of jagged metal that flew into his car last month.
"Had it been three or four more inches to the left or right I could have had my head decapitated," said Kentner.
The Washington State Patrol determined the metal came from a truck traveling ahead of Kentner. Part of its braking system collapsed, dropping pieces of metal on the freeway.
The truck is one of thousands of container haulers on roads every day. Container haulers are short-haul trucks that carry shipping containers between Western Washington shipping and rail ports and warehouses.
Numerous safety violations
A KING 5 investigation reveals safety violations are a chronic problem for trucks working in and around the Port of Seattle. The problems are so serious officers are pulling many trucks out-of-service, an official term that means they can’t go back on the road until they are fixed.
State records show law officers pulled 13 percent of trucks across Washington out-of-service after inspections this year.
But at the Port of Seattle this year the rate was more than twice as high. 32 percent of container haulers were taken out-of-service, one out of every three inspected.
State Trooper Christopher Hooper is part of a new WSP task force that’s been inspecting container haulers for the past several months.
KING 5 asked him what he does when he sees a container truck out on the road.
“I change lanes. I get away from it,” said Hooper.
During recent random inspections it only took minutes for Hooper to demonstrate why.
His team quickly found a container hauler with a flat tire, one with no brake lights, and another with a window and headlight that were held together with household duct tape.
"It looks like it's holding the fiber glass together, like he hit something and it's all broken up under there," said Hooper as he poked at the tape holding together the front end of the offending truck.
The statistics get even more disturbing when specially trained commercial vehicle inspection officers dig deeper. They also perform Level 1 inspections, a detailed evaluation of the vehicle, driver and load.
Through a public records request the KING 5 Investigators identified more than 200 Level 1 inspections performed on container haulers around the Port of Seattle this year. To view these inspections and violations click here.
Officers put 58 percent of those trucks, more than half, out-of-service following Level 1 inspections.
Many of the trucks have more than one violation. For example, one truck pulled over earlier this month had a brake that was out of adjustment and five tires with little to no tread.
“I believe it’s safe, that’s why it’s on the road,” the truck’s driver/owner told KING 5. He called himself “K-9” and wouldn’t reveal his actual name. His truck was pulled out-of-service five weeks ago. He said he spent two thousand dollars on repairs.
He was upset when an officer told him his truck was still too dangerous for the road. “That's crazy. I've seen other pieces of crap on the road way more dangerous than this," said “K-9”.
Hauling containers is a scrappy business.
The drivers, who often own their trucks, are the day laborers of the trucking industry. Shipping companies pay them as little as 46 dollars per load.
"We just don't make the money we used to,” said Forrest MaCoy as a trooper pulled his vehicle out-of-service. “I'm still working for a rate I made close to ten years ago."
"I'm a hard working trucker,” said “K-9”. “Overworked, underpaid. We do what we got to do."
But Bob Kentner, who’s grateful he was not seriously injured by truck debris, said there’s a much higher price for being unsafe.
“This could happen to anyone as it happened to me. Someone will get hurt," said Kentner.
Truck inspections have historically been handled by the Seattle Department of Transportation which reduced the size of its inspection team in the past year partly due to budget cutbacks. Earlier this year, the Washington State Patrol stepped in and launched a special task force to target container trucks at Western Washington ports.
Up Next: Our investigation continues – who is tracking the trucks?
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