From the Los Angeles TimesDANGER IN TOW
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
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
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.
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
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 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.
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
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
But statistical snapshots the company has produced in civil litigation
hint at the scope of the problem and show that it has persisted for
In a lawsuit stemming from the Sternberg crash, U-Haul listed 173
reported sway-related accidents from 1993 to 2003 involving a single
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"We would consider it unsafe to tow outside of those recommendations
because that is what we tested the vehicle to be capable of towing,"
said Honda spokesman Chris Martin. "We'd rather be safe than have
someone get into an accident."
"Our recommendations are based upon 61 years
of experience, knowledge of our rental trailers and exhaustive testing
Cargo trailers are not the only U-Haul equipment that is vulnerable to
sway. It can also happen with the company's tow dollies.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans use these two-wheeled
trailers to haul vehicles across town or across the country.
U-Haul imposed tough conditions when it began renting the devices in
1982. It required that the tow vehicle weigh at least twice as much as
the one to be towed. This would "ensure adequate braking and control,"
a company manual said.
But the rule crimped sales. Towing a typical-size car required a giant
pickup or similar vehicle. John C. Abromavage, U-Haul's engineering
director, testified in one lawsuit that the 2-to-1 standard "doesn't
make sense other than to restrict your own market."
In 1986, U-Haul relaxed the rule, requiring that the tow vehicle be
only 750 pounds heavier than the one behind it. Over the next few
years, the company increased the maximum weight of vehicles that could
be hauled on dollies, and lifted a ban on towing with small jeeps and
The new policy boosted dolly rentals. But it conflicted with the
guidelines of Dethmers Manufacturing Co., an Iowa firm that produced
many of the U-Haul dollies used in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Dethmers recommended that the tow vehicle weigh at least 1,000 pounds
more than the dolly and the second vehicle combined.
U-Haul said its relaxed standard still provided a reasonable safety
margin. But in the past employees and dealers frequently ignored the
rule, sometimes with tragic results, The Times found.
Before renting a dolly, U-Haul agents were supposed to check a manual
to make sure the tow vehicle was heavy enough. If not, the rental was
to be rejected.
That was news to two employees at a U-Haul dealer in Nogales, Ariz. In
February 1999, one of them filled out a contract for a Ford Ranger to
tow a Ford Tempo. The other hitched a tow dolly to the Ranger.
Because the two vehicles weighed nearly the same, the rental was
prohibited under U-Haul rules. Both employees said later in
depositions that they had never seen, much less used, the U-Haul
Maria Lozano-Millan, 32, rode off in the Ranger with her 7-year-old
son, Luis, and her sister. They drove to El Paso, picked up the
sister's disabled Tempo, and headed back home.
They never made it.
Descending a hill on Interstate 10 south of Benson, Ariz., the tow
dolly and the Tempo fishtailed, pushing the Ranger off the road. The
pickup's roof was crushed as it skidded along a rocky outcropping,
killing all three occupants.
U-Haul denied the weight violation caused the accident. Responding to
the family's lawsuit, the company blamed Lozano-Millan's sister for
speeding and for hitting the brakes when the trailer began to sway,
contrary to U-Haul's safety instructions.
But a former U-Haul area manager said under oath that the employees'
oversight caused the "senseless" tragedy.
When he learned of the wreck, testimony showed, he called the
"You just killed somebody."
U-Haul settled the case with an undisclosed payment. The company said
it cut ties with the dealer, who violated "policies and procedures in
the rental of this combination."
Mario Lozano, 50, Maria's companion and Luis' father, carries worn
photos of them in his wallet and lights a candle in their memory on
"Every day that passes is getting me closer to joining them
somewhere," he said.
The times reviewed police reports and other records on 222 crashes
nationwide from 1989 through 2004 in which drivers lost control while
pulling U-Haul tow dollies.
In 105 cases, the documents contained enough detail to determine the
In 51 of those crashes - 49% - the rentals violated U-Haul's rule
requiring the tow vehicle to be at least 750 pounds heavier than the
one being towed.
In some of the crashes, the tow vehicle weighed less than the one it
At least 12 people were killed in the ensuing wrecks.
Unsafe weight combinations may not always be U-Haul's fault. The
company relies on the renters of dollies to provide accurate
information about what kind of vehicle they will tow, and some do not,
former employees said. It could not be determined if that happened in
any of the cases studied by The Times.
Casey Curtis, who rented a U-Haul dolly in 2002, said he was never
asked what he planned to tow and didn't realize weight could be a
Curtis, a construction worker from Orem, Utah, had the dolly hitched
to his Suzuki Samurai and used it to tow a Geo Tracker, a vehicle of
nearly equal weight.
Going down a hill in Utah in high winds, the dolly began to slide side-
to-side. Fighting for control, Curtis overcorrected the steering, a
police report said. The trailer came loose and flipped. Curtis crashed
head-on into an oncoming car.
Several people were hurt. Curtis, then 25, escaped with minor
injuries, but says he still has "slow-motion" nightmares about the
"They didn't even ask me what I was towing," he said. "I had no idea
what kind of consequences came from not having a heavier tow vehicle."
Steve Taub, U-Haul's assistant general counsel, said the company has
curbed weight violations. In 2001, it began phasing in a computerized
towing manual that blocks the rental contract if an agent types in an
improper combination. Taub said violations "are less of an occurrence
However, current and former U-Haul dealers and employees said the
system, though an improvement, isn't foolproof. A determined customer
could lie about what he is towing - just as a dealer could
deliberately enter the wrong vehicle model to complete the sale.
U-Haul also says there have been fewer dolly accidents since a wider
model, designed for greater stability, was phased in starting in the
late 1990s. Shoen said it has eliminated sway: "We're not experiencing
it in the new product."
But documents produced by U-Haul in a Kentucky lawsuit show that
several dozen customers have filed claims alleging that they lost
control and crashed using the wider dollies.
The Kentucky case involved just such an accident. Airline pilot Chris
Burke was moving his family from Indiana to Florida in 2002, towing a
Ford Contour. When the Contour fishtailed on Interstate 65 near
Louisville, Burke's Explorer smashed into a guardrail and flipped onto
Burke's infant son, Ryan, suffered a fractured skull. His wife, Corry,
25, sustained severe spinal-cord damage, leaving her a paraplegic.
The rental met U-Haul's current weight standard, but Burke's lawyers
contended that the company should never have loosened its original 2-
to-1 weight rule.
"They knew then and they know now that you needed a larger vehicle in
front," lawyer Peter Perlman told the jury. "That's just simply
U-Haul's lawyer responded that the current weight rule was "provably
safe" and that the wider dolly "is safe, is stable, is controllable."
U-Haul contended that Burke was driving too fast - estimates of his
speed ranged from 50 to 60 mph - and that he lost control on a rain-
Nevertheless, the jury found U-Haul liable for renting "unreasonably
dangerous" equipment and awarded $11.6 million in damages, reducing
the amount by about a tenth after finding that Corry Burke was not
wearing a seat belt.
Chris Burke said the verdict has not diminished his bitterness.
"Profits are No. 1," he 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."
Marissa Sternberg was a born caregiver.
At age 12, she worked with disabled children in a therapeutic
horseback-riding program. When her grandmother was going blind,
Sternberg read to her and served as her chauffeur. In high school, she
nursed her dog back to health when the boxer was stricken with a
potentially fatal disease.
She went to grade school in Tucson with Corina Hollander's son.
Despite the difference in age, the women became friends, sharing a
love of animals.
In September 2003, Sternberg was set to start classes at a school in
Denver that trains veterinary technicians, and she asked Hollander to
make the drive with her.
Sternberg and her boyfriend, Michael Lemons, packed her bed,
television and other belongings into a 6-by-12-foot U-Haul trailer.
They noticed the trailer was in "horrible condition," Lemons recalled.
Springs in the suspension were so corroded that they resembled
"stalactites," he said.
Sternberg called a U-Haul helpline, and a representative agreed that
she should exchange the trailer. But the next morning - Sept. 3 - an
employee at a local U-Haul center made some minor adjustments and sent
her on her way. Hollander said Sternberg was "agitated" about the
trailer's condition but eager to get going.
By 10 a.m., they were on the road.
As they left Tucson, the trailer began to rock Sternberg's Land
Cruiser - "like a boat," Hollander recalled.
Sternberg tapped the SUV's brakes and the rocking stopped. This
continued intermittently as they left Arizona and entered southern New
Late that afternoon, they stopped for gas near Socorro, N.M., and
Hollander took the wheel. Soon after, the Toyota reached the crest of
a hill on northbound Interstate 25 in the Sevilleta National Wildlife
Refuge. Below, the Rio Grande meandered through a lush valley rimmed
with rugged mountains.
Hollander said she was going 45 to 50 mph and gained speed as she went
downhill, reaching 60 mph. The trailer started to swerve. Hollander
said she tapped the brakes but could not slow the vehicles. The
swaying became violent.
"There was no way you could control it," she recalled. "It was sheer
The Land Cruiser flipped, ending up on its side in the passing lane of
the interstate. The trailer landed upside-down on the median.
Passersby stopped to tend to the two women and summon help. One of
Sternberg's dogs was badly injured and had to be put down. The other
lost a leg but survived.
In the ambulance, Hollander said she told Sternberg: "Marissa, just
tell my family that I love them very much, in case I don't pull
She said Sternberg responded: "Corina, we're lucky to be alive. We're
going to be fine. We're all going to be fine."
Experts who examined the trailer for Sternberg's family found that its
brakes were badly corroded and inoperable.
A month earlier, a customer had rented the same trailer in Missouri,
and the U-Haul agent told her "it had no brakes," she said in a
By the time Sternberg rented it, the trailer had not had a thorough
safety check in more than eight months, according to its U-Haul
inspection sticker. It had been rented 19 times in that period.
Under U-Haul's rules, the trailer should have undergone a "safety
certification," including a check of its brakes, tires and other
essential parts, at least every 30 days.
U-Haul initially said skid marks and other evidence suggested the
brakes were working at the time of the accident. Later, Shoen
acknowledged to The Times that they were not. Even so, the company
said defective brakes did not cause the crash.
After its investigators examined the battered trailer, the company
said Sternberg loaded it improperly. U-Haul faulted Hollander for
going too fast and turning the wheel when the swaying began.
U-Haul also contended that Sternberg was not wearing a seat belt,
although the state trooper who investigated the crash concluded that
Without admitting liability, the company settled the suit in May 2005.
Sternberg attorney Patrick E. Broom declined to disclose the terms.
Shoen said in an interview that the condition of the trailer was
"totally unacceptable ... whether we caused the accident or not."
U-Haul's larger trailers have surge brakes that activate when the
trailer pushes against the vehicle in front. They are designed to
reduce wear on the brakes of the tow vehicle and make it easier to
stop the combination.
Safety experts say that once a trailer is swinging erratically, surge
brakes won't help. But by reducing the trailer's speed, the brakes can
help prevent swaying in the first place or limit it before it becomes
severe, experts say.
"If you do try to slow down and you can't get adequate performance
from the trailer brakes, it certainly would make it harder to get out
of a sway situation," said Robert Krouse, a General Motors engineer
who is chairman of a Society of Automotive Engineers panel on towing.
U-Haul says trailer brakes help with straight-ahead stopping but don't
reduce sway. Nevertheless, the company says, they should always work.
The Times found recurring problems with U-Haul trailer brakes. As far
back as 1966, U-Haul's own insurer told the company it needed to do a
better job maintaining them.
"We are increasing the risk of an accident by sending a trailer with
faulty brakes on a rental which we advertise and represent as being
safely equipped with brakes," wrote Frontier Insurance Agency of
Portland, Ore. The memo surfaced in a lawsuit years later.
A 1995 crash in Indiana drove home the potential consequences of brake
failure. Two people were killed in the wreck, which police said was
caused by inoperable brakes on a U-Haul auto transport.
Shoen said U-Haul recognized in the late 1990s that trailer brakes
were not being maintained well enough and responded by requiring more
In a statement, U-Haul said that despite isolated incidents, there was
no "pervasive pattern" of brake failures.
Yet problems have persisted.
Architect Mark Letzer rented a U-Haul trailer in 2003 to move from Los
Angeles to New Orleans. With his son, Devin, driving on Interstate 10
in Texas, the trailer whipped violently and their Honda Passport
The elder Letzer, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the
vehicle and killed.
The family's lawsuit said faulty trailer brakes helped cause the
crash. The plaintiffs presented evidence that there was little or no
brake fluid in the trailer and some brake pads were missing. The
trailer had gone two months without a safety certification, according
to its U-Haul inspection sticker. It had been rented nine times during
U-Haul said brake problems didn't cause the accident. It blamed
improper loading and said Devin Letzer drove too fast and braked and
steered improperly when the trailer began to snake. His father
contributed to the crash by grabbing the wheel, the company said.
U-Haul settled the suit in February 2006.
Eric Christensen, an engineer, was moving his family from Utah to New
Hampshire in 2001, towing a trailer behind his Explorer. His father,
Ronald V. Christensen, was riding with him.
On an icy patch of Interstate 80 in Wyoming, the trailer whipped and
both vehicles slid off the road. Neither man was injured, and they
forged on, intending to exchange the trailer for a new one at a U-Haul
center 70 miles ahead.
Minutes later, coming down a steep grade, the trailer began swaying
wildly. The Explorer overturned and rolled twice, killing Ronald
The family sued, citing expert reports that the trailer's brake-fluid
reservoir was dry. U-Haul records indicated that the trailer was more
than a month overdue for a safety inspection.
U-Haul contended that the brakes were working at the time of the
accident and lost fluid later, when a hose was damaged in the towing
of the wreckage.
The company blamed Eric Christensen for driving too fast and braking
and steering too sharply. U-Haul settled the suit on confidential
"My son's growing up without his grandfather," Christensen said
recently. "I have to face my mom and my brothers and sisters thinking
I was responsible for my dad's death."
Lew Jones was moving furniture from North Carolina to Rochester, N.Y.,
in 2005 when he veered to avoid another car. Jones said his U-Haul
trailer jackknifed, pushing his Jeep Cherokee into a guardrail. Jones'
wife escaped with minor injuries; he was unhurt.
A Virginia state trooper found no fluid in the trailer's brake
reservoir. Because state law holds the driver responsible, he gave
Jones an $86 ticket for driving with defective brakes. Jones' auto
insurer slapped him with a three-year, $846 surcharge.
U-Haul denied the wreck resulted from a brake problem but declined to
Trooper Scott T. Parsons said the accident might not have happened if
the trailer had working brakes. "There's a reason those brakes are on
those trailers," he said, "and that's to help in control of the
NO BRAKES AT ALL
With some U-Haul trailers, the issue is not bad brakes but a lack of
Most states require surge brakes on larger trailers such as the model
Sternberg rented. At least 14 states also mandate brakes on smaller
trailers under common conditions. Yet U-Haul ignores this requirement,
renting small and midsize trailers that have no brakes.
In general, the state regulations say that trailers below 3,000 pounds
must have brakes if they exceed 40% of the tow vehicle's weight. By
that standard, two popular, un-braked U-Haul cargo trailers are
frequently in violation of the rules.
For instance, U-Haul's 5-by-8-foot trailer, which weighs 2,700 pounds
fully loaded, would be required to have brakes unless the tow vehicle
weighed at least 6,750 pounds. Only giant pickups weigh that much. U-
Haul routinely rents the trailer to customers using much smaller tow
Shoen acknowledged that U-Haul was not in compliance with the state
motor vehicle codes but suggested it was a trifling matter. To make
his point, he pulled out a news clipping about a 201-year-old North
Carolina law barring unmarried couples from living together.
What's important, Shoen said, is that vehicles towing U-Haul equipment
can stop within state-mandated braking distances.
"The laws you're referring to are well-known to people at the state
jurisdictions," he said. "But what happens is they enforce, or don't
enforce, depending upon what the public good is."
John Abromavage, U-Haul's engineering director, once testified that as
a witness for the company in some 200 cases, he had never seen an
accident he regarded as U-Haul's fault.
Richard Klein, the trailer expert and U-Haul consultant, said in an
interview that "U-Haul trailers and tow dollies are the most highly
tested equipment in the industry.... Sway is not a problem with a
properly loaded and driven trailer."
Peter Keith, the Canadian safety expert, offered a similar appraisal
based on investigating tow-dolly crashes for U-Haul: "These accidents
never occur when a vehicle is being driven in anywhere close to the
manner in which it's meant to be."
The fault, in U-Haul's view, nearly always lies with customers - for
loading the trailer incorrectly, driving too fast or otherwise failing
to heed safety instructions.
They should know better, according to U-Haul. Taub, the U-Haul
attorney, said the company's safety guide is given out "virtually
But former U-Haul employees and dealers said many customers did not
receive guides. Some said they were too busy to distribute them. Steve
Eggen, a former dealer in Alameda, Calif., said he left the pamphlets
on a counter, and, at most, half his customers picked one up.
Tammie Wise, a onetime dealer and U-Haul general manager in Northern
California, said that with long lines of anxious customers and few
employees, "there just wasn't enough time" to make sure everyone got a
In addition, the guides are not available in Spanish, though many
customers are Latino. Shoen said a Spanish-language guide was "a nice
idea," but "we don't have a big demand for it."
Christian S. Strong said he and Mindy Swegels were never informed of
the risks when they rented a trailer to tow his motorcycle.
Strong and Swegels, who had just become engaged, were returning to
Kentucky from a Florida vacation in May 2002. On Interstate 75 in
Tennessee, the trailer swerved and their Ford Explorer flipped.
Swegels, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered multiple fractures
and a head injury that left her brain-damaged, according to her
lawsuit. U-Haul blamed inattentive driving and excessive speed.
Swegels and Strong said that they never received the U-Haul user guide
and that trailer decals citing a 45-mph speed limit were missing or
To bolster their case, their engineering experts rented 12 U-Haul
trailers at various sites. They said they were given user guides only
In February, the jury rejected the claim that the trailer was
defective but found U-Haul negligent for failing to warn about the
risks. It awarded nearly $2.6 million in damages.
Strong said that if he'd known about the dangers of towing above U-
Haul's recommended 45-mph speed limit, he would have left his
"I'm not going to risk my life to take a bike 850 miles," he
Even when clearly communicated, the 45-mph limit is problematic.
It's a challenge for anyone traveling cross-country or around
California, since prevailing speeds are often at least 70 mph on
interstates. Some experts say going 45 mph on a major highway is
hazardous because it increases the chance of being hit from behind.
Shoen said the 45-mph ceiling was meant to "create a compensatory
attitude." Customers may not go 45, but "maybe they'll go 55 or 60,"
Yet, when accidents happen, a standard U-Haul defense is that the
driver exceeded the 45-mph limit.
Failing to balance the load in the trailer is another customer error
often cited by U-Haul. A company manual once called it "sheer
The safety guide tells customers to put 60% of the weight in the
trailer's front half to promote stability. The instruction is
underscored by a line inside the trailer. The guide describes a series
of measurements to make sure the weight is distributed correctly.
A portable scale that could help renters ensure proper loading has
long been available. U-Haul has used such a scale during accident
investigations, but it does not offer one to customers to help prevent
Sherline Products Inc. of Vista, Calif., sells a portable trailer
scale to farmers, ranchers and owners of recreational vehicles for
Craig Libuse, the company's marketing director, said executives wrote
to U-Haul in the mid-1990s offering to design a version that could be
built into U-Haul trailers. Another option was for U-Haul to rent
scales to customers.
Sherline said the scale's wholesale cost would be $55.
Libuse said U-Haul never responded. U-Haul said it had no record of
the proposal. The company said a scale was unnecessary because its
loading instructions had proved sufficient.
"There's no mystery to loading a trailer," Shoen said. "You need it
heavier in front. It's just that simple."
When Brian Sternberg arrived at the hospital in Albuquerque, he didn't
recognize his daughter.
Marissa had suffered numerous fractures, as well as heart and lung
damage and a severe head injury. The cumulative trauma caused brain
damage that became evident soon after the accident.
By the time her father saw her, she could no longer speak or move.
Physicians put the odds against her survival at 200 to 1.
But Marissa held on. She spent four weeks in the trauma unit of the
University of New Mexico Hospital before being transferred to a
rehabilitation center in Austin, Texas. Her mother, Lisa, spent eight
months with her there.
Marissa's first word was: "Home." Since then, she has spoken only an
The Sternbergs, who have long been prominent in Tucson philanthropic
circles, built an airy, art-filled house for their daughter next to
their own home in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Four
caregivers tend to her around the clock.
"I'm looking to make her comfortable," said Brian, 48, who owns a
wholesale food company with his brother.
After discovering that the nearest neurological rehabilitation center
was more than 100 miles away in Phoenix, the Sternbergs funded
construction of a state-of-the-art facility in Tucson.
The center has 100 patients and a staff of 10. Marissa, now 23,
receives therapy there five days a week. She has made progress, but
doctors have told the family the most they can expect is that Marissa
will learn to "follow commands," her father said. He called this "the
best case, and the worst case."
"It's not like tomorrow's going to be a different day," he said. "It's
a dream we just haven't woken up from, a nightmare."
Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.