The most dangerous truck fleet in New Mexico

A four-month KRQE News 13 Investigation

Larry Barker

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – There are federal laws on the books to protect the motoring public from unsafe trucks on the road. So why is a ragtag fleet of run-down and poorly maintained commercial size trucks plying city streets with everything from worn out tires to defective brakes and broken safety equipment?

“It could be budget. It could be training. It could be short staffing. None of it is acceptable. The (Santa Fe) fleet is poorly maintained and there is a total disregard for public safety.”

Perhaps you’re thinking this is some shadowy fly-by-night operation? No. It’s a fleet of garbage trucks operated by the city of Santa Fe.

A four-month KRQE News 13 investigation found, practically every day, Santa Fe officials blatantly ignoring public safety rules by recklessly putting unsafe vehicles on the road. Documents show Santa Fe administrators failed to address hundreds of safety-related defects in many of its older garbage trucks.

KRQE News 13 asked the Director of Santa Fe’s Environmental Services to grade the job Santa Fe is doing in terms of maintenance and safety.

“I would grade it a B,” says Shirlene Sitton. “I feel that we are doing an adequate job and I think our record shows we’re doing an adequate job.”

But city of Santa Fe employees paint a different picture. One former driver who asked not to be identified told KRQE News 13 the last trash truck he drove had oil leaks, some of the lights didn’t work, the tires were not in good shape, some gauges didn’t work and the brakes were unreliable. When asked if the truck was safe to drive, the truck driver said simply, “No.”

Twice each day, truck drivers are required to inspect their vehicles for broken or defective equipment. The inspection checklist includes things like oil pressure, brakes, tires, hydraulic fluid, etc. At the end of the day, those truck condition reports (Daily Vehicle Inspection Report or DVIR) are then reviewed by supervisors. Broken equipment must be repaired. According to federal law, any critical safety items like brakes or tires must be repaired immediately.

According to the New Mexico Trucking Association’s Johnny Johnson there are consequences for any fleet operator who fails to repair faulty safety equipment.

“They can be cited. They can be fined and at the very worst they can have their authority to operate taken away,” Johnson said.

Through a Public Records request, KRQE News 13 obtained some 1,400 maintenance and inspection reports for Santa Fe trash trucks going back six months. After reviewing the documentation, Johnson commented, “It could be budget. It could be training. It could be short staffing. None of it is acceptable. The (Santa Fe) fleet is poorly maintained and there is a total disregard for public safety.”

Internal inspection reports show Santa Fe refuse department supervisors ignored serious safety hazards and allowed unsafe trucks to be driven on the road. When asked whether the city of Santa Fe has ever put a truck on the streets with faulty or questionable safety equipment, Operation’s Manager Eric Lucero said, “Not to my knowledge.”

Lucero must have forgotten about Truck #557. On January 3rd the driver wrote on his DVIR, “Truck is inoperable. Cannot use. Dangerous.” Three days later, on January 6 the driver wrote, “Engine dies out on its own while truck is in operation.” Records show, for the next six months truck #557 remained in service without any evidence of major repairs.

On January 25, the driver of trash truck #556 wrote on the DVIR, “Steel braid is showing on steer tire.” Refuse Department supervisors sent #556 out on its Santa Fe route the next day without fixing the damaged tire.

The driver of trash truck #588 repeatedly reported faulty brakes over a 30 day period. Despite three visits to the maintenance shop, mechanics failed to fix the brake problem.

“That’s a case I might have to look into,” Operation’s Manager Eric Lucero said.

“This vehicle (truck #588) was operated in an unsafe manner a lot of days,” says the New Mexico Trucking Association’s Johnny Johnson. “It was an out of service type of violation which is probably the worst that you can probably think of to put on the highway.”

For 22 days the driver of trash truck #565 continuously reported on the DVIR a problem with the vehicle’s air compressor, which controls the brakes. Santa Fe did not produce any documentation showing the air compressor had been repaired. According to Johnny Johnson, “That’s just totally unacceptable.” Johnson said this truck should not have been put on the road with a faulty air compressor.

“There were violations that continued for a period of time for up to a month and there were no repairs shown. Whether there was a repair or not the repairs … were not (documented).”

On January 6, the driver of trash truck #561 noted on the DVIR, “Truck is in need of repairs, work orders are in place.” Additionally, the driver reported a “big air leak” (in the air lines) for two weeks. Santa Fe did not provide any records showing the safety issues were addressed by mechanics. “Absolutely unacceptable,” Johnson said.

The driver of truck #536 repeatedly reported on the DVIR a problem with the brakes, and, a leak in the air lines. For nine days, the massive trash truck was put on the road even though the brakes needed adjustment. When asked about the maintenance of truck #536, Eric Lucero said, “(This) concerns me.”

Lucero says some truck repairs were deferred because of limited staff and facilities in the maintenance shop. However, he denies the city failed to immediately address critical safety related issues. He says the city would never intentionally put unsafe trucks on Santa Fe streets.

During the first six months of this year, Lucero said the department only had one mechanic to work on its fleet of garbage trucks. When asked whether the city should be operating trucks it cannot fix in a timely fashion, Lucero responded, “We shouldn’t be picking up trash either right?” Lucero says his department has now added two mechanics to the truck maintenance staff.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act governs truck safety. However, when Congress passed truck safety laws years ago, it specified that any government-owned trucks would be exempt from the regulations. That means any truck fleet operated by federal, state or local governments, including Santa Fe, is unregulated.

“In my opinion, an unregulated truck fleet has no oversight. There is no one with the checks and balances to ensure safety,” said Johnny Johnson. “There’s no accountability. There’s no penalty. So there’s nothing stopping them from not continuing that bad habit.”

In New Mexico, truck safety is administered by the DPS Motor Transportation Division. However, because of the federal exemption for municipal governments, DPS has no regulatory authority over Santa Fe’s troubled trash truck fleet.

Major Gabe Pacheco heads up New Mexico’s Motor Transportation Division. He reviewed Santa Fe’s maintenance records. When asked, if regulated, would Santa Fe’s truck fleet be subject to some kind of compliance action, Major Pacheco said, “Absolutely.”

“There were violations that continued for a period of time for up to a month and there were no repairs shown. Whether there was a repair or not the repairs … were not (documented),” Major Pacheco said.

“This definitely is an issue that I want to explore,” says U.S. Senator Tom Udall who serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“All government entities should be concerned about safety and put safety regulations in place for their government fleets. The big question here is, does the federal government do it for everybody or do local, state and federal government do it themselves,” Udall says.

Senator Udall told KRQE News 13, in light of the Santa Fe situation, he may ask the General Accounting Office to look at the government truck exemption in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act.

“That’s something I think that we need to look at,” says State Senator Clemente Sanchez who chairs New Mexico’s Corporations and Transportation Committee.

“It doesn’t matter who operates a fleet out there. They have to be safe. Those vehicles out there have to be safe for protection of the driver and the public,” Senator Sanchez says.

Senator Sanchez says he will explore legislation next year to remove the governmental truck safety exemption in New Mexico.

After reviewing the results of KRQE News 13’s investigation, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales called the city’s truck fleet maintenance, “Totally unacceptable.”

“There are instances where vehicles are out on the street when they shouldn’t be,” Mayor Gonzales said. He said he wants to “make sure that type of practice doesn’t continue to happen.”

“There will be an outside review agency coming in with a report offered up to myself on, operationally, where are the gaps? Where do we need to improve? And how do we make sure that when you look at the safety regulations of the city of Santa Fe that you can place some reliance that they’re being followed and that the public is safe,” Mayor Gonzales said.

Earlier this summer, a long time trash truck driver wrote a two-page letter to top city administrators including Santa Fe’s Mayor and City Manager complaining about the lack of concern for truck safety. “I cannot and will not operate any vehicle that is unsafe and … not properly maintained,” the driver said in his June 24th letter.

“I have written these violations of the Federal DOT laws in the DVIR(s) … which … have gone completely ignored,” the driver wrote.

Shortly after writing the letter, the driver was fired. Santa Fe administrators say the driver’s termination was unrelated to his letter of complaint. City officials would not comment further citing personnel rules.

When asked if trash truck drivers can refuse to drive vehicles they feel are unsafe without fear of retaliation, Mayor Gonzales said, “Not only can they but I would expect that they do.”

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