Danger at the wheel

WILTON — When Dawn Zibolis-Sekella of Wilton gets behind the wheel these days, she always has a close eye on the tractor-trailer trucks that she’s sharing the road with. Once, she said, she trusted that someone was making sure those truckers were safe drivers and getting adequate rest in between their runs. After losing a daughter to a crash with a tractor-trailer truck, however, she has begun to watch the road with different eyes.

Currently, Zibolis-Sekella has her eyes on the United States Senate, where one amendment could change the restrictions for how often truck drivers can be on the road, while another seeks to keep the current status quo.

For Zibolis-Sekella, anything that allows truckers more time on the road than the 70 hours per each seven-day period is too much.

Her daughter, Alisha Zibolis of Milford, was just 20 years old when she and a friend were driving into Milford in January 2011, returning from scoping out the snow cover on Carnival Hill for possible sledding or snowboarding, when they crossed into the intersection of Wilton Road and Route 101 and collided with a Shaw’s tractor-trailer driven by Kevin R. Ruehrwein of Sanford, Maine. Alisha was killed by the impact, and her passenger, Derek Mossey, who lived in Milford at the time, was badly injured.

The death of her daughter was only the beginning of the nightmare and a long battle to determine just what had happened that day.

When Zibolis-Sekella received the police report regarding the accident, she was unsatisfied with the results. The report put the fault of the accident on Alisha, whom police alleged had been impaired in taking an leftover Oxycodone prescription medication for a toothache before driving. No charges were filed against Ruehrwein.

Then-Milford Police Sargent Kevin Furlong came to a “ratified conclusion” that Ruehrwein was not at fault in the accident, according to court documents from a civil case Zibolis-Sekella filed at the N.H. District Court in Concord in 2013.

But Zibolis-Sekella wanted to know one piece of information that was not in the police report that she considered crucial: Who had run the red light, Alisha or Ruehrwein?

She turned to an independent disaster reconstruction company, Exponent Engineering and Scientific Consulting, and asked that they provide an answer to her question.

According to deposition transcripts provided by Zibolis-Sekella, Ruehrwein stated that when he went through the light, it was green, that he had been going the speed limit, and that Alisha had been speeding.

But in two independent studies of the accident reconstruction, using surveillance footage from surrounding businesses and both vehicles’ sensing and diagnostic modules, Exponent determined that at the time of the impact, and several seconds before, Alisha’s light had been green and the truck’s had been red, and that Alisha had been slowing to approach the light, and had applied gas at a timing consistent with the light turning green.

Further investigation revealed that Ruehrwein had had multiple previous intersection violations and at the time of the accident was taking a prescription for Soboxone, but had not reported that he was on any medication to the Department of Transportation, according to deposition transcripts from the civil case.

“I’m not a crazy, bereaved mother, who can’t understand the facts,” said Zibolis-Sekella. “If the [Exponent] report had said she ran the red light, I would have accepted that. But that’s not what it said.”

With no criminal charges forthcoming, Zibolis-Sekella took her case to civil court, hoping that a win there would open up avenues for a criminal case later. Although the U.S. District Court in Concord ruled that the police finding of fault was unreliable and dismissed it from being entered as evidence, eventually, the case ended with a hung jury, and Zibolis-Sekella didn’t have the funds to get back in the ring a second time.

“I ran out of money. Going to court is very expensive. It would have cost me another $30,000 to $40,000 to go back again, and I just didn’t have the money,” said Zibolis-Sekella. “So that’s what I’m left with. This [Exponent] report, an unreliable police report and this man still driving trucks. And it’s terrifying.”

The Ledger-Transcript was unable to confirm by press time whether or not Ruehrwein, whose phone number is unlisted, is still driving trucks for a living.

Zibolis-Sekella said she is left getting through her days and being comforted by the evidence that she’s collected that refutes the original police conclusion. And a more wary eye for the other vehicles that she shares the road with.

That’s why when she became aware of amendments on the floor of the U.S. Senate, she said she became concerned.

The current debate

The issue has been brought home again for Ziblis-Sekella with an ongoing back-and-forth in the U.S. Senate where senators are attempting to clarify how many hours truckers can work before requiring a rest period. As of July 2013, the current rules allows truckers to drive 11 hours in a 14-hour work day; and, the trucker must take a rest period of 34 hours before beginning a new work week. That 34-hour period must include two periods of time off and rest between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to ensure restorative sleep, and also requires that the 34-hour restart only be used once every 7 days.

U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) has attached an amendment to a Senate bill that would suspend the rule that only allows one “restart” a week, and remove the requirement that the 34-hour period include two consecutive nights off, which would allow drivers to get on the road at night.

Collins has reportedly argued that the restart rules means there are more trucks on the road during daytime congested hours, and that the rules have had an impact on driver’s pay. Her amendment calls for a $4 million study on the effect of the restart rule on when drivers are on the road.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) said that she agreed that the study would be useful for determining whether the current regulations would be adding to or detracting from road safety. “This heartbreaking tragedy underscores the need to strengthen our efforts to keep our roads safe,” she said of Alisha Zibolis’ death, in a statement to the Ledger-Transcript. “I voted for a provision that would give us more time to study regulations and make sure that we’re not shifting truck traffic to the morning hours when people are commuting to work and children are headed to school. We need to make informed decisions on how to best protect the public.”

In a letter to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and Collins, Annette Sandberg of TransSafe Consulting, a former administrator for the federal motor carrier safety administration, noted that the trucking industry supports nearly all of the amended rules for truckers, including 14-hour day limits and requiring a 34-hour shift off before allowing a driver to restart their 70-hour week. However, requiring two 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. rest periods in that 34-hours means that truckers are heading out on the roads at 5 a.m., which is actually the riskiest time of day for trucks, wrote Sandberg.

“Suspending these changes — while keeping the remaining hour-of-service rules in tact — in order to fully study the impact of shifting more truck traffic to daylight hours — is a common sense solution to the problem,” she wrote.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has offered his own amendment to the Senate appropriations bill that would maintain the current safety rules, citing a recent rise in trucking accidents and the need to reduce driver fatigue.

“Truck accidents are on the rise and driver fatigue is a leading cause,” said Senator Booker in a press release issued June 18. “Truck drivers are working extremely long days to deliver the goods we depend on, but it should never be at the cost of their safety and that of other drivers. My amendment upholds common-sense rules based on years of study and scientific evidence. It calls for the preservation of basic protections that allow these drivers to get sufficient rest to do their job safely and efficiently.”

Zibolis-Sekella said she could not support a move that would allow truckers potential additional hours on the road in a given week.

“I believe until your family is involved, you think the controls are strict enough,” said Zibolis-Sekella. “Every truck I drive by now, I give a wide berth, because I know they’ve been on the road many hours.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com.

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