A North Carolina Highway Patrol crackdown last year on truckers parked on ramps – resulting in more than 400 issued tickets – was prompted by a large political donor who complained to the governor about "unsightly" tractor-trailers parked along I-77. The donor and his brother own a winery that is 3.3 miles from exit 93 on I-77. They also own a hotel adjacent to the exit.
The ticketing campaign was justified by flawed traffic crash and fatality data, errors which were uncovered by Bruce Siceloff a newspaper reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh. (Among other news stories, Siceloff writes a blog titled Road Worrier every Tuesday.) He found that the data used by the Highway Patrol was off by a magnitude of more than four times.
Although parked truckers were largely targeted by the ticketing blitz, they were involved in only 1 percent of interstate highway crash deaths in North Carolina from 2010 to 2014, according to DOT records. Moreover, alcohol-impaired, automobile drivers were responsible for the overwhelming majority of crashes involving trucks parked beside the interstate.
Sidebar: Trucks in fatal ramp crashes
Siceloff's interest in the parking crackdown was piqued last June when the Highway Patrol announced an emphasis on what he had thought was an obscure law against parking beside interstate highway ramps. He was surprised at the announcement, because if it had been a safety issue, he probably would have heard about it.
"I thought that if it happens that much - and you occasionally hear about something like this happening - but if it happens that frequently, it seems like you’d hear more. I asked the Highway Patrol to give me some examples. I thought they would have far more examples at the tip of their tongue, but they didn’t have any."
The reporter says that the Highway Patrol's response was vague so he asked what prompted the crackdown. "They said: 'Our colonel, the Highway Patrol commander, just noticed this as a problem when he goes around the state, and he thinks we need to do a better job of enforcing it.' It still sounded really vague and puzzling to me."
Adds Siceloff: "And it didn’t have a specific mention of ramps, either, so I asked questions about that, and pretty soon, I heard from truckers. I asked them for information and the truck drivers let me know that this [parking] is a problem for them, and so I focused on their concerns."
Then Siceloff got a tip that perhaps the crackdown was prompted by complaints from a particular business owner in Surry County. "He just thought it was a terrible kind of eyesore to see all of these truck parked on ramps, up and down Interstate 77."
The complainant was Charlie Shelton, who, along with his brother Ed, own a popular winery that is a tourist attraction, says Siceloff. The brothers are large political donors to both parties including current Republican governor Pat McCrory. According to Siceloff, brother Charlie had met with Gov. McCrory in February or early March last year to press for action against truckers parking illegally to take naps on the shoulders of I-77 ramps. He emailed again his annoyance to the governor in March after which Highway Patrol officers began their ticketing campaign focusing at first on exits near the winery, according to public records. Charlie Shelton noted publicly and to the reporter that parked trucks on I-77 ramps in several counties were "unsightly."
The Highway Patrol had supported the crackdown by citing statistics compiled by a DOT traffic operations engineer showing that crashes involving parked vehicles along interstates statewide were less than 1 percent but comprised nearly 20 percent of all fatalities on the interstates. When Siceloff pressed the Highway Patrol further about these figures he was told "we would have to look at every single crash report."
That's exactly what Siceloff and his database editor did.
"When we finally had a chance to do that, the working number was just much, much smaller than the one they had given us. And so I asked them to explain the discrepancy since perhaps both were correct as the result of different ways of creating a database. It was then that their sloppy database person discovered that he had made an error; he had counted each of the deaths about four times instead of just once," says Siceloff.
Rather than double checking their figures before announcing the crackdown, the Highway Patrol went with the hastily put-together statistics, even telling the traffic engineer in an email "This is good information!" Says Siceloff: "They never looked at it twice. They said that they're [the Highway Patrol] data driven, that they scrutinize the data, but they didn’t scrutinize the data. They took it and ran with it."
In response to the News & Observer stories uncovering the discrepancy, a Highway Patrol spokesperson wrote in an email published in the newspaper: "While we were surprised to discover the discrepancies in the data we were provided, we were reassured to learn that vehicles on the shoulder of the highway are not as deadly as we first thought. However, one death is too many and unacceptable.”