It happened at one of those wide-open intersections in the Salt Lake City suburbs. Kimberly Goodenough, a 16-year-old driver who had been licensed less than a month, tried to turn left in front of a tractor-trailer truck.
The truck rumbled through a red light, crumpled the car and rolled to a half. Goodenough and three of her four teenage passengers were killed.
Both the tractor and trailer were equipped with new, federally mandated, computer-controlled air brakes. The truck driver told investigators those brake failed on the rain-slick pavement.
Because that Aug. 18 accident was dramatic and tragic, it has become a centerpiece in a raging debete over computer braking systems and whether they work.
The computer is supposed to keep truck wheels from locking when the brakes are applied. In theory, the so-called "antilock" feature provides more efficient braking, and reduces skids and jackknifing.
All trucks and trailers manufactured since 1975 have been required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to have antilock. The same requirement is scheduled for new buses in 1978, to the dismay of both intercity and local transit companies.
NHTSA officials are eager to show a film that impressively demonstrates improved handling and braking characteristics on trucks equipped with antilock. Not one fatal accident has been positively blamed on the computer brakes, NHTSA insists.
But trucking companies - which opposed the regulation from the time it was proposed in the late 1960s and are actively seeking changes in it - have an equally impressive list of complaints.
". . . The driver hit the brakes and nothing happened," a letter from a trucking company to a Senate subcommittee relates. "Fortunately, he was the only one that entered the intersection at the time . . . Mysteriously, before we could get the truck back to the dealer, the brakes began functioning properly."
Wilson Freight, a major trucker in Cincinnati, told the American Trucking Associations (ATA) that its antilock-equipped trucks have had four times as many jackknife accidents and twice as many other accidents as its pre-computer equipment during the same two-year period.
Federal agencies themselves are not united on the value of the antilock device, and neutral parties such as the California Highway Patrol have challenged its usefulness.
The Teamsters Union, which represents millions of truck drivers, favors the rule although it concedes that drives themselves are split about 50-50.
The ATA was challenged by the new NHTSA administrator, Joan Claybrook, to provide "specific information and data, not general complaints" about the antilock systems and problems with them. The ATA is surveying its members, but in the meantime its general complaints about antilock performance include these.
The antilock system is supposed to be "fail-safe" and return automatically to standard old-time braking if there is any problem in the computer. Instead, truckers report computer failures resulting in no brakes at all.
Unstable handling results if new, antilock-equipped tractors are hooked up to old, standard trailers. Such interchangeability, however, is a requirement in the trucking industry.
The computers are difficult and expensive to maintain. They are full of sensitive electronic components that do not work well in the truckers' real world of dirt, grime and water.
"They took an electronic gadget and rammed it down the throat of a hammer-and-chisel mechanic," said Charles P. Hoffmann Jr., an engineer with the independent National Transportation Society Board who was speaking as an individual. The antilock requirement "is a bad rule," he said.
NHTSA's rule applies only to manufacturers of trucks and trailers; it does not regulate the actions of users. That falls to the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety (BMCS), part of the Federal Highway Administration and, like NHTSA, part of the Department of Transportation.
BMCS does not require that antilock systems be maintained and has no plans to do so at least before 1979. "Our assessment is that they are not reliable," said Kenneth Pierson, deputy director of the BMCS.
The result is that many truckers have told the ATA that they are disconnecting the computers. They are in no danger of being flagged off the road for that reason if they get caught in a spot federal inspection.
The ATA has formally petitioned NHTSA for a "moratorium" on the antilock provisions of the federal braking standards until more testing is completed. The bus industry supports that view.
Two weeks ago, an advisory committee to Transportation Secretary Brock Adams reversed an earlier vote and joined the moratorium parade.
But Claybrook, a prime advocate or airbags for automobiles and a long-time lieutenant of Ralph Nader, sent a telegram to all members of that committee asking for a mail vote to set aside the moratorium recommendation. She offered to set up an ad hoc committee to study alternative. She won the mail ballot and infuriated an already angry ATA in the process.
"The conclusion I have is that some suppliers (of antilock systems) have done less than a commendable job; others have done a commendable job," she said in an interview before the last maneuvering.Although the standard requiring antilock "did push the state of the art, until the government took the lead, nobody started to do anything about "inferior truck braking. she added.
The central concern Claybrook expressed is the disparity in size between trucks and cars and in the differences in stopping distances between the two. If they colide, trucks almost always win.
Claybrook and an antilock task force she has assembled at NHTSA have commissioned two studies to obtain accident and maintenance data about antilock equipment. Until those results are analyzed and understood, Claybrook said she will not move to change the rule or declare a moratorium.
"The public safety is my responsiblity and I would be an absolute fool" to take such an action without more information, she said.
If the rule were reversed now, Claybrook said, she would be trading one set of problems for another.Truck manufacturers already have gone through retooling and one severe recession immediately after the rule went into effect because truck users had stockpiled pre-antilock equipment and the trucking industry generally suffered a downturn in 1975.
Ninetenn seventy-five truck and trailer sales were about 40 per cent below results for 1974, the last year antilock was not required, according to the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. Sales have recovered since then.
The computer adds about $600 per axle to the cost of a new vehicle, ATA estimates. In 1975, the antilock requirement cost truckers about $1 billion - half for equipment and half for maintenance, according to ATA.
There are the inevitable lawsuits. A central contention is that, by requiring an antilock system, NHTSA dictated a specific design to the industry instead of just requiring better braking performance. Indeed, the rule that includes the antilock requirement standardizes some equipment and decreases braking distances for trucks. The ATA says it supports those provisions.
It was in that background that both NHTSA and the Senate Labor Subcommittee on Human Resources sent investigators to that Salt Lake City accident last month.
Tests of both tractor and trailer are continuing, and an exact-conditions test will be run. Preliminary tests have found that the brakes for the tractor were in good order.
The trailer, which had been hauled away before the investigation became serious, was recovered in California. The computer that controlled the trailer brakes was half-full of water.