UPS crash exposes dangers of efficiency obsession

A near fatal United Parcel Service accident in Federal Way has raised new questions about the safety of some of those iconic brown trucks that line neighborhood streets nationwide.

UPS is converting its truck fleet to operate without traditional keys.

Most UPS drivers now hit a remote fob then tap a button on the dash twice to start their vehicles. The company estimates the change saves millions of dollars in time efficiency a year; however, a former deliveryman believes glitches in the system are putting both drivers and the public in danger.

Mark Haukaas is still recovering after he was nearly killed last year delivering packages in Federal Way.

Haukaas was working part-time around the holidays to supplement his income as a pastor. He had just finished dropping off a box when the truck he was riding in failed to start. “All of a sudden we were rushing down a hill with great speed,” Haukaas recalled. With the engine quiet, a series of mechanical problems ensued and both the power brakes and steering faded.  “I recall myself praying,” Haukaas told KIRO 7 investigative reporter, Chris Halsne during an exclusive interview.

Though the parking brake was engaged, it was no match for the heavy truck’s momentum on a steep neighborhood hill. The vehicle quickly careened out of control.

“My next memory is smashing into something,” Haukaas said. “I was in great pain; I knew something horrible had happened. Nine months later, Haukaas is learning to live with a fused spine, blind left eye and constant pain in his disabled hand, shoulder and leg. When KIRO 7 asked UPS to explain the accident and whether the new, retrofitted keyless ignition system might have played a factor, we received an email that stated, in part, “All mechanical and electrical functions of the package car were found to be in good working order.”

Yet, Haukaas and police dispute that statement. Federal Way police said their job was to investigate whether a crime had taken place. Officers determined that the truck driver was not at fault for the crash; however, police said the investigation into mechanical and electrical functions of the vehicle was inconclusive.

Haukaas insists that a piercing alarm began sounding off inside the truck hours before the crash.

“The alarm of some sort went off in the cab. It was very loud; I didn’t know what it signified, not sure the driver knew either,” Haukaas said. “It was very annoying and then later his supervisor came and spoke with him. I was kind of left in the dark but we were given earplugs which we used at times to try to gut it out and deliver the packages.” Accident scene photos clearly show a brightly colored foam earplug in Haukaas’s ear.

When KIRO 7 asked for a complete set of Federal Way police investigative files, UPS sought, then was granted (without our knowledge or participation in the legal process) an injunction to block release of certain crash-related documents. Once we found out, KIRO 7 challenged that ruling and a King County Superior Court judge sided with us; ruling nearly all of the documents relating to the case were public records. Those documents confirm the driver described the alarm to his UPS supervisor as “deafening” about five hours prior to the crash and that a supervisor was sent to Haukaas and the driver after two complaints into UPS’s local headquarters in Pacific.

Eric Gillett is an attorney hired by UPS in an effort to stop the full police file from being released. We asked Gillett about the alarm and earplugs. “I can’t speak to that…” Gillett said. “I’m not familiar with that investigation.”

Meanwhile, UPS might have a bigger problem than a mechanical malfunction with just one smashed truck.

Drivers tell KIRO 7 the new keyless ignition system has plenty of quirks—issues that make them feel unsafe. Teamsters Local 174 listed some of the safety issues in this never before released letter to Labor and Industries. The letter dated December 20, 2011 notes, among other things, that “cars lurch and move forward significantly when starting” and if the “engine shuts off while driving there is no power to brake system.”

What’s more, the drivers detail that “cars that don’t start still move/drive down road even when the parking brake is on” and finally that the “clutch safety system (is) disabled – allowing cars to start in gear without (a) depressed clutch”. KIRO 7 also obtained cell phone video of a local UPS deliveryman. In the video, the driver stands on the passenger side and demonstrates he can start the truck without being in his seat to push in the clutch and brake.

“Is this just the tip of the iceberg, a single accident? Or is this something more systemic?” asked Haukaas’s Seattle-based attorney David Beninger.

Haukaas has retained Beninger and the Luvera Law Firm for a potential lawsuit against UPS. Beninger believes ferretting out potential mechanical safety issues with the entire UPS fleet is just part of taking care of his client. “The more we look, the more we seem to find. The bigger the concerns and the larger the flag is,” said Beninger. “This isn’t just and isolated problem but something much bigger.”

So far, UPS appears to be downplaying drivers’ fears.

An internal safety complaint obtained by KIRO 7Investigators seems to reflect that. The safety complaint was turned in three months prior to the crash that disabled Haukaas. In the document, a driver wrote that the “keyless system will allow car to start without clutch being engaged.” A UPS mechanic responded with, “Yes almost every vehicle that has a clutch has this problem. Vehicle OK to operate.”

Haukuss tells Halsne, he hopes his accident forces UPS to do a better job factoring in how new, money-saving efficiencies might affect both employee and public safety.  “The individual worker is expendable,” Haukaas said. And by sharing his story, he hopes “it will help prevent this kind of horrible accident from recurring in some form or fashion in the future” and “empower certain ones to come out of the shadows to speak the truth.”

The Department of Labor and Industries won’t release its investigative files to KIRO 7 regarding the Teamsters complaint of the new keyless ignition system, but we do know this: UPS was not cited for any safety violations. Meanwhile, last year in New York, the attorney general’s office received a $1.3 million settlement against UPS over safety concerns.

Investigators found in 2004 and 2005 that more than 120 trucks were in use even though a supervisor identified “cracked” and “rotted” frames. In a press release, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, “UPS knowingly endangered not only the lives of their own employees but the lives of the driving public. By keeping these rotting and decaying trucks on the roadways, UPS was an accident waiting to happen…”

Aside from the million dollar fee for penalties, fines and costs related to the investigation, UPS is currently required to have all their trucks in New York independently inspected.

By KIRO 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne