Wednesday, February 27, 2008



Driving with rented risks

U-Haul International is the nation's largest provider of rental trailers. A Times investigation finds the company's practices raise the risk of accidents on the road.
By Alan C. Miller and Myron Levin, Times Staff Writers
June 24, 2007
TUCSON -- Marissa Sternberg sits in her wheelchair, barely able to move or speak. Caregivers are always at her side. Progress is measured in tiny steps: an unclenched fist, a look of recognition, a smile for her father.

Nearly four years ago, Sternberg was a high-spirited 19-year-old bound for veterinary school in Denver. She rented a U-Haul trailer to move her belongings, hitched it to her Toyota Land Cruiser and hit the road with her two dogs and a friend.

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That evening, as the Land Cruiser descended a hill in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, the trailer began to swing from side to side, pushing the SUV as if trying to muscle it off the road.

"I knew something bad was going to happen," recalled Corina Maya Hollander, who was taking a turn behind the wheel. "We both knew."

The Land Cruiser flipped and bounced along Interstate 25. The trailer broke free and careened off the road. Hollander crawled from the wreckage, her head throbbing.

Sternberg, who had been thrown from the SUV, lay sprawled on the highway, unable to move.

"Where are my dogs?" she screamed. "Somebody go find my dogs!"

Sternberg fell victim to a peril long familiar to U-Haul International: "trailer sway," a leading cause of severe towing accidents.

Traveling downhill or shaken by a sharp turn or a gust of wind, a trailer can begin swinging so violently that only the most experienced — or fortunate — drivers can regain control and avoid catastrophe.

U-Haul, the nation's largest provider of rental trailers, says it is "highly conservative" about safety. But a yearlong Times investigation, which included more than 200 interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court records, police reports, consumer complaints and other documents, found that company practices have heightened the risk of towing accidents.

The safest way to tow is with a vehicle that weighs much more than the trailer. A leading trailer expert and U-Haul consultant has likened this principle to "motherhood and apple pie."

Yet U-Haul allows customers to pull trailers as heavy as or heavier than their own vehicles.

It often allows trailers to stay on the road for months without a thorough safety inspection, in violation of its own policies.

Bad brakes have been a recurring problem with its large trailers. The one Sternberg rented lacked working brakes.

Its small and midsize trailers have no brakes at all, a policy that conflicts with the laws of at least 14 states.

It relaxed a key safety rule as it pushed to increase rentals of one type of trailer, used to haul vehicles, and then failed to enforce even the weakened standard. Customers were killed or maimed in ensuing crashes that might have been avoided.

The company's approach to mitigating the risks of towing relies heavily on customers, many of them novices, some as young as 18. They are expected to grasp and carry out detailed instructions for loading and towing trailers, and to respond coolly in a crisis.

But many renters never see those instructions — distribution of U-Haul's user guide is spotty.

To those who receive and read it, the guide offers this advice for coping with a swinging trailer: Stay off the car's brakes and hold the wheel straight. Many drivers will reflexively do the opposite, which can make the swaying worse.

Yet when accidents occur, U-Haul almost always blames the customer.
Driving with rented risks
June 24 2007

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Proper loading of the trailer is crucial in preventing sway. U-Haul tells customers to put 60% of the weight in the front half and suggests a three-step process to check that the load is balanced correctly.

But the company has declined to offer an inexpensive, portable scale that would help renters get it right.

U-Haul vigorously defends its safety record. Executives say that the company diligently maintains its fleet of more than 200,000 trucks and trailers, and that decades of testing, experience and engineering advances have steadily reduced its accident rates.

"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."

It is unknown how many U-Haul customers have crashed because of trailer sway. No government agency keeps track of such accidents, and U-Haul declined to provide a comprehensive count or year-by-year figures.

But statistical snapshots the company has produced in civil litigation hint at the scope of the problem and show that it has persisted for decades.

In a lawsuit stemming from the Sternberg crash, U-Haul listed 173 reported sway-related accidents from 1993 to 2003 involving a single trailer model.

In a case from the 1970s, the company disclosed 1,173 such crashes involving all trailer types during a 3 1/2-year period.

In other cases, it has listed up to 650 reported sway-related wrecks from about 1990 to 2002 involving two-wheeled trailers called tow dollies.

Still, U-Haul says statistics indicate that drivers towing its trailers are less likely to crash than are other motorists. This is so, U-Haul says, because people drive more cautiously when moving their families and belongings.

The claim has not been independently verified and is viewed skeptically by some outside experts.

Shoen said sway-related accidents almost always result from customer mistakes, primarily failing to load the trailer properly and exceeding U-Haul's recommended top speed of 45 mph. The company said both errors contributed to the Sternberg crash.

"U-Haul customers drive the equivalent of to the moon and back over 10 times a day," Shoen said in a recent conference call with investors, "and, regrettably, accidents occur."


U-Haul International Inc., founded in 1945, is the leader of the do-it-yourself moving industry. It sends millions of Americans out on the road annually in its signature orange-and-white trucks and trailers.

The Phoenix-based company, built on low cost and convenience, has about 1,450 company-owned centers and 14,500 independent dealers. It took in about $1.5 billion from equipment rentals last year.

Many U-Haul customers are college students, weekend movers and others who have never hauled a trailer before.

It is not unusual for a trailer to swing slightly. This normally poses little or no threat, but can be a sign of trouble.

Accidents often happen when a driver gains speed going downhill. The trailer whips from side to side more and more powerfully and finally takes control of the tow vehicle — a situation known as "the tail wagging the dog."

Peter Keith, a Canadian safety expert, described the danger in a 1984 report for transportation officials in British Columbia.

"When the trailer suddenly starts [to] swing violently, the driver can often be caught unawares and is further faced with a very dangerous situation which requires considerable skill and presence of mind to resolve," Keith wrote. "Probably only a small minority of drivers are in practice capable of bringing the vehicle combination back under control."

The weight of the tow vehicle relative to the trailer is a crucial factor. The heavier the tow vehicle, the easier it is to control the combination.

Richard H. Klein, an authority on trailer dynamics who has served as an expert witness for U-Haul, underscored the point during one court appearance. He was asked if he'd rather be driving "a larger tow vehicle than a smaller one" if a trailer began to swing.

"Yes," he replied. "That's like motherhood and apple pie."

In keeping with this tenet, other major companies do not allow customers to pull rental equipment with passenger vehicles. Penske Truck Leasing and Budget Truck Rental compete with U-Haul in renting two types of tow equipment: tow dollies and auto transports.

But Penske and Budget provide equipment only to customers who rent large trucks to pull the load. They say safety is the reason.

Penske's trucks are "engineered to pull these types of loads," said spokesman Randolph P. Ryerson. The company has "no way to make sure other vehicles would have the same adequate towing capabilities," he said.

U-Haul allows customers to tow its trailers, tow dollies and other equipment with passenger vehicles as well as with the company's large trucks. Most renters use SUVs or pickups, which have a high center of gravity and are prone to rollovers.

Moreover, customers are permitted to pull trailers that weigh as much as or more than their own vehicles.

Under U-Haul rules, the company's largest trailers, which are equipped with brakes, can outweigh the customer's vehicle by up to 25% when fully loaded. Smaller units, which do not have brakes, can weigh as much as the tow vehicle.

U-Haul says extensive research at an Arizona test track and other sites has shown that its weight rules are safe, provided customers use its equipment as instructed.

But the rules conflict with the safety recommendations of some auto manufacturers.

Ford Motor Co., for example, advises owners of the 2007 Crown Victoria, which weighs about 4,100 pounds, to tow no more than 1,500 pounds. Owners of the lighter Mustang are advised not to pull a trailer weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

U-Haul will allow a Crown Victoria to tow a trailer weighing up to 4,400 pounds and a Mustang to pull up to 2,500 pounds.

(U-Haul has banned towing with Ford Explorers since late 2003. Shoen said the SUV was not unsafe but had become "a magnet for attorneys.")

Honda Motor Co. says its vehicles should not pull trailers that weigh more than 1,000 pounds unless the trailers have brakes. General Motors offers the same advice for many of its models. Nissan Motor Co. tells owners of its Pathfinder SUV that trailer brakes "MUST be used" with a trailer weighing 1,000 pounds or more.

Yet U-Haul permits customers driving Pathfinders as well as Honda and GM vehicles to tow un-braked trailers that weigh more than that.

Some vehicle makers also recommend using sway-control devices with trailers above certain weights. These devices come in various forms and include bars or brackets that limit side-to-side movement of the trailer.

U-Haul says such equipment is not needed when "towing a properly loaded U-Haul trailer."

Automakers say their guidelines are meant to promote safety and prevent undue wear on engines, brakes and other components.

U-Haul Trailer Practices Raise Car Accident Risk, Newspaper Reports

U-Haul Trailer Practices Raise Car Accident Risk, Newspaper Reports

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.''

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,

How Safe are U-Haul Trailers?


After numerous rollover accidents the safety of U-Haul's trailers have been called into question.

U-Haul's CEO Joe Shoen is on a mission to prove that the U-Haul trailers seen all across the nation are safe.

Devin Letzer and his father Mark were pulling a U-Haul trailer on a straight stretch of Texas highway in 2003 when Devin says the trailer began to swing back and forth violently; it's called trailer sway.

As the U-Haul trailer jackknifed, both the SUV and trailer flipped. Devin's father, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the SUV and killed instantly.

Devin described the accident, telling INSIDE EDITION, "I crawled out of the car to find my dad laying on the side of the road."

In a lawsuit filed against U-Haul, the Letzer family claimed the trailer had faulty brakes, which caused the accident. But U-Haul, as it often does, blamed the driver. They argued he was going faster than U-Haul's recommended speed and had loaded the trailer improperly.

According to U-Haul's CEO Joe Shoen, customers should "load the trailer heavy in front so that the rear of your car is depressed a little." Shoen says the most important thing anyone renting a trailer should know is to load 60% of the weight up front.

U-Haul, which does more than $2 billion a year in business, was founded 60 years ago by Shoen's father. On a test track near the company's headquarters in Phoenix he demonstrated the importance of loading the trailer properly.

By placing cement blocks on the front of a trailer bed, he simulated a proper load and drove around the track. Even swerving, the trailer stayed under control.

Then he moved the concrete weights to the back of the trailer, showing an improper load. He asked INSIDE EDITION's Senior Investigative Correspondent Matt Meagher to get behind the wheel.

When swerving just slightly, the car and trailer fishtailed sharply. After hitting the brakes, even at a slow speed, Meagher lost control of the car and the trailer.

U-Haul officials say every customer is supposed to be given an instruction booklet that contains vital loading information before they leave the lot.

But are customers being given the information U-Haul says they need? INSIDE EDITION decided to check.

Wearing hidden cameras, INSIDE EDITION rented U-Haul trailers in five states. At one location, we received an abbreviated copy of some safety instructions, but they were tucked into the contract and we didn't find them until after we had driven away. Out of 14 trailers rented, just one agent gave the booklet that U-Haul officials say all renters are supposed to receive.

Shoen was disappointed by the findings. "That's not what I'd like to hear today obviously." He added, "It always can be better and the experience you related, the answer is no, there's no wondering. If your experience is totally indicative, that's not good."

Dan Catalini was a manager with U-Haul for four years. He says he was fired after his sales decreased. He sued the company and lost.

When INSIDE EDITION asked Catalini about whether the instruction booklet was handed out to every renter with their trailer purchase, the former manager said no. According to Catalini the level of importance given to safety by U-Haul was "below sales.below customer service and probably somewhere after that."

CEO Shoen disagreed. "That simply is not true," he told INSIDE EDITION. Shoen insists safety is a top priority at U-Haul. But when INSIDE EDITION had some traffic safety officers with the Bergen County, New Jersey, Police Department look at some of the trailers randomly rented, they found plenty of problems.

A clamp, part of the system that supports the rear axle, was flimsy and fell off. Four of the fourteen trailers had directional or hazard lights that didn't work. One trailer appeared to have been in an accident and repaired with putty. On some trailers, INSIDE EDITION found rusted chains and frayed wires. On another trailer there was no brake fluid.

Every U-Haul trailer is supposed to have vital safety information posted on a sticker inside. The problem is, in almost every trailer INSIDE EDITION rented, that information was almost impossible to read.

Shoen says the trailers he sees are well-maintained, but says customers should speak up if they see any problems. "Whatever the reason is, you should immediately say, 'No, I don't want to rent this,'" he said.

Shoen also had another idea for those who may feel unsafe when renting a U-Haul trailer. He asked INSIDE EDITION to publish his cell phone number. Shoen says, "People can't get this organization to behave, I can." His cell phone number is 602-390-6525.

As for the Letzer family's lawsuit against U-Haul, the company settled, without admitting any wrongdoing.

  • Consult your vehicle's owner's manual to find the maximum recommended towing capacity.
  • Avoid improper loading. To be safe, trailers should be loaded with 60% of the weight towards the front of the trailer. Use tie-downs to keep the contents from shifting.
  • Be sure the trailer's electrical cable is properly connected between the trailer and the tow vehicle and all exterior trailer lights and the electric brakes (if so equipped) are working correctly.
  • If trailer sway occurs, do not slam on brakes. Instead, take foot off gas and maintain steady control of vehicle until you come to a complete stop.
  • Reduce driving speed and avoid making any sudden stops.
  • Allow for extra time when switching lanes, stopping and passing other vehicles.
  • Be sure the coupler or ball socket from the trailer fits properly over the ball mount of the towing vehicle.
  • Always connect the trailer's safety chains securely to the trailer hitch or tow vehicle by crossing them underneath the coupler.
  • Be aware of crosswinds and passing trucks while driving on highways.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


California Department of Motor Vehicles

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