CLEVELAND — An Exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation has found hundreds of Ohioans have been injured or killed over the last five years in thousands of crashes involving shifting, falling and spilling loads on highways across the state.
I would have no idea I would eventually become one of them.
Tonight on News 5 at 11 p.m., Ron Reagan shares an investigation that became personal to him.
Our investigation obtained Ohio Highway Patrol Crash data for years 2015 through 2019 and found 2,791 unsecured load violations contributing to 6,794 crashes involving shifting, falling and spilling loads.
The data also reveals six fatalities and 715 injuries over the same period.
We found everything from mattresses, plywood, metal scraps—even ladders, falling off the back of trucks and cars on busy freeways.
At the same time, we found Ohio is among the most lax in the nation when it comes to fines and penalties for unsecured loads.
In fact, in Ohio, you’ll pay a stiffer fine for littering.
Ohio Revised Code only required that vehicles are “so constructed, loaded, or covered as to prevent any of its load from dropping, sifting, leaking or otherwise escaping”.
Ohio lawmakers actually reduced penalties for unsecure loads 6 years ago.
Of 2,791 drivers cited for violating Ohio’s law regulating securing loads, we found fines are capped at only $150 and many pay much less in a state that views violations as “minor misdemeanors”—the lowest criminal penalty possible.
Even if someone is seriously injured, there is no provision under existing state law to increase either fines or penalties and no jail time.
Ohio is unlike 28 other states that have maximum fines from $500 to $5,000 and 16 others that provide for possible jail time, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
In addition, a 2015 study prepared by the American Automobile Association Foundation found road debris was “a factor in a total of more than 200,000 police-reported crashes resulting in approximately 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths” nationwide between 2011-2014.
“Securing your vehicle load when moving or towing furniture — it’s important to make sure that all items are secured properly such as tying down loads with rope, netting or straps,” says Theresa Podguski, AAA Ohio’s Director of Legislative Affairs.
In Ohio, our investigation found that while violators face few criminal consequences, victims often live with pain for the rest of their lives as a result of devastating injuries.
Take the case of Delia Costin.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in June 2015 when Delia realized the pickup truck she was following was dangerously overloaded and feared something might fall out.
“Something flew in front of me,” she remembered, “it looked like a big piece of plywood”.
Moments earlier, she changed lanes, but that did not protect her from a piece of plywood that flew out of the back of the truck.
“Nothing was tied down,” said Delia.
Delia hit the brakes, but a 40,000-pound motor home directly behind her could not stop in time, slamming into the rear of her SUV.
The pickup truck driver, with a lengthy history of driving violations, fled the scene after briefing stopping and later tracked down by police.
He was fined only $100 for an unsecure load.
In a video deposition, he insisted “the wind” blew a mattress up in the air-- sending the plywood flying off.
Delia suffered a severe back injury that requires two injections every year for the rest of her life.
“Why should you bother tying down your load if you’re not going to get a consequence if something is going to fall?" asked Delia.
“When you try to balance the consequences for the people who are injured in these crashes," says Costin’s attorney Tom Merriman, “First the consequences for the guy who doesn’t tie down the mattress or bother to tie down the furniture that he’s hauling for 50 bucks down the street—it’s so disproportionate—it makes no sense.”
In a more recent case last summer, at least 100 drivers on busy I-77 during Cleveland rush hour had tires blown by metal scraps dropped by a commercial trucker.
And again, the driver was cited by Cleveland Police accident investigators and received just a $100 fine—about $1 dollar for every tire.
In court, the unsecure load violation was amended to an unsafe vehicle charge.
The driver was employed by a commercial trucking company that among other items, hauls scrap metal and falls under the regulatory guidelines of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
In Ohio, federal trucking regulations are enforced on the state level by Ohio’s Motor Carrier Inspection Division, which operates within the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
The agency’s inspectors also cited the driver for failure to secure cargo under separate, federal secure load regulations.
Even so, he escaped any federal fines that could have been imposed.
Because he was already cited by Cleveland Police—the PUCO “does not assess civil forfeitures as they are already before a court for the violations”—referencing the fine levied in Cleveland Municipal Court.
And according to the PUCO, federal regulations governing unsecure loads fall in what is known as Group One penalties—those most likely to cause an accident.
A spokesperson confirmed that the “first Group One penalty is $100—each additional is $150."
Records we obtained show 5,734 federal unsecure load violations over the last four years.
Meanwhile, while the Ohio Trucking Association insists it advocates for safety and enforcement of existing state and federal unsecure load regulations—it stopped short of endorsing increasing penalties and fines when questioned.
“To be very honest with you—it’s very difficult for me to answer a question like that,” said Thomas Balzer, the association’s President and CEO.
“The question is what is that fine increase going to look like, what are the details behind it and how does it affect the general driving public?” Balzer said.
Balzer points to federal regulations that include extensive requirements for securing loads that could provide for fines up to $3,685 for a driver and $14,739 for a trucking company for unsecure load violations.
“Additionally,” says Balzer, “the trucking company is potentially responsible for the losses related to property and cargo” and the carrier’s “safety record is negatively impacted, putting their business at risk of being to operate and obtain insurance coverage."
Our investigation into unsecure loads in Ohio and their impact was already underway for weeks when it turned personal.
A mattress had earlier fallen off a truck—and while successfully avoiding a rear end collision—my car was clipped by an 18-wheeler.
“Absolutely horrific,” remembers Kathleen Courtney, a nurse at University Hospitals who was in the car behind me.
Courtney left the safety of her car during an active crash scene.
She was the very first voice I heard, advising me that she was a nurse and urging me “not to move” for fear of the extent of the injuries.
“Astonishing—to watch you flip,” she said later. "I was holding my breath just praying that you were going to survive it.”
She even followed the ambulance to the hospital.
“I knew you had been compressed and I just didn’t know which part had taken the brunt of it—whether it was your head or your back," Courtney said.
It turns out—I broke my back and required months of rehab just to be able to walk more than a few steps or sit and stand for more than a few minutes.
Meanwhile, Ohio continues to permit lax regulations.
Allowing those convicted of unsecure load violations continue to pay small fines—and victims like Delia Costin and others to spend their lives in pain.
“You realize that guy doesn’t get anything—but I’m suffering for the rest of my life,” says Costin.