THE DAY OF THE WRECK  (May 27,1999)

The door-bell rang at about 8:30 P.M.. On the front porch stood two deputies with the most agonizing look on their faces. After asking us to sit down, they reluctantly said what we were already praying they would not say: “Your son Justin has been killed in a traffic accident in Sweetwater, Tennessee.”

Those words started us down a road that is every parent’s worst fear: the death of a child. This road is full of unspeakable agony, unknown emotions, and unending grief.

We were full of questions that they could not answer: How did it happen? What about the others he was with? Who was responsible? After giving us a telephone number of an officer in Tennessee who could give us some answers to our questions, they left. I called one of our elders at the Gardendale church of Christ, and within minutes our home was full of people. It was to stay that way for days.

Justin had gone to Gatlinburg at the invitation of sixteen-year-old Josh Beddingfield, one of his close friends from church. Josh’s aunt, forty seven year old Connie Beddingfield, wanted to take the boys to celebrate the end of another school year. Jeannine Crawford – a fun loving seventy-year-old, went along at Connie’s invitation. As they were returning home, they were stopped because of road construction on interstate 75 south of Knoxville. A semi-truck hit them from behind, crushing them into another truck. All four were killed.

According to witnesses, they had been setting still for a long time when the truck hit. No reason has ever been given by Roger Walker (who was driving a truck owned by Mercer Trucking, of Moultrie, Georgia) for why he did not stop in time. The weather was clear and sunny, and the road was flat with thousands of feet of visibility. Unlike most cases where a truck driver falls asleep and does not even touch his brakes before impact, this driver did try to stop, locking his brakes, but not until he was only about fifty feet from the stopped traffic.

He was charged with four counts of negligent homicide, but never went to trial and was allowed to return to his occupation of driving trucks.

We learned very quickly that the criminal justice system does not often pursue traffic cases that involve negligence unless there are drugs, alcohol, or speeding involved. The Marion County, Tennessee judge made the statement that “even if we could prove that the driver feel asleep, it would not considered negligent.” He was in effect saying that it was not negligent to fall asleep while driving a semi-truck in the State of Tennessee!

His statement started our involvement in truck safety issues.

We learned of the organization P.A.T.T – Parents against Tired Truckers and their fight to change the way the trucking industry pays it’s drivers. The per-mile method used by many companies rewards drivers for speeding and driving while severely fatigued. Requiring drivers to be paid by the hour would significantly reduce the nearly 6000 deaths each year caused by wrecks involving big trucks.

We also learned that Roger Walker was an employee of ATS of Georgia, an employee leasing company that supplied drivers to trucking companies. Although it was later proven in court that the drivers were in fact employees of ATS, at the time of the wreck the company refused to take any responsibility for the hiring or safety training of their drivers. This created a loop-hole in which unsafe drivers could be hired and put on the road, while nether the truck owners or the employee leasing company felt solely responsible for the driver’s actions.