Wednesday, 02/27/08U-Haul says millions of people use their trailers safely, but after numerous rollover accidents, INSIDE EDITION investigates if their customers are receiving crucial safety information. See what INSIDE EDITION's Matt Meagher found when renting some U-Haul trailers.
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