AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Driving along Texas roads, there's no shortage of oversized and wide loads sharing the road side-by-side with regular vehicles. Figures from the Manufactured Housing Institute show 10,032 single wide and 7,498 new double wide mobile homes were sold in the state in 2015. All of those homes had to be moved from the factory to a sales center or customer’s lot. That number excludes transports of existing homes and those coming to Texas from other states.
A KXAN Investigation shows there is scant oversight and no tracking of the number of accidents or major safety issues involving mobile home haulers. While it's not just the aspect of oversized loads being an issue, some are concerned about the chassis the homes are being hauled on. Mobile home haulers tell KXAN they believe mobile home builders simply reuse the same wheel assembly over and over once the home is placed at its owner’s lot, which can make for a dangerous situation if the items are worn down.
Neither the Texas Department of Transportation nor the Department of Motor Vehicles track crashes of manufactured home haulers. Instead, incidents are lumped into general annual figures regarding oversized commercial vehicles.
Rob Ranco with Austin’s Carlson Law firm is representing Michael Fields, whose wife, Arlene, died after she ran into the rear of a mobile home that had stopped after its trailer lost a wheel.
“She was happy when she woke up in the morning, she was happy when she went to bed at night. She was very optimistic about the world,” Fields told KXAN’s Robert Maxwell.
In a recently-filed negligence suit, Ranco contends Cavco Industries (which owns the trailer the home is hauled on) and its subsidiary Palm Harbor Homes knowingly built unsafe mobile home trailers. The suit claims the companies failed to provide a bumper on the rear of the load "to prevent cars from colliding with the rear and getting stuck underneath." And "they failed to remedy the dangers of wheels falling off mobile home trailers."
“The nickname for mobile homes within the mobile home industry--they call them wobbly boxes,” said Ranco.
On Nov. 25, 2014, Arlene was headed home to Round Rock on State Highway 79 near Hutto, after putting in a full day of work as an in-home occupational therapist. Just ahead of her Toyota Camry were two tractor trailers, each hauling half of a new, double wide mobile home. A wheel had just come off one of the trailers and both drivers were stopped on the side of the road while one of them retrieved it.
Arlene slammed into the rear of one of the oversized loads, causing her sedan to become lodged almost all the way under the elevated home. Photgraphs from the scene of the collision show the 16-foot wide load was sticking out a foot or more over the white, painted line marking the road’s edge.
The crash report shows she still had a partial lane to attempt to avoid the large obstacle, but for unknown reasons, she veered slightly to the right. Fields said Arlene’s cellphone had no text messages or phone calls in the hours leading up to the collision.
Arlene was pinned in her Camry for two hours. She was taken by medical helicopter to the hospital where she succumbed to her injuries.
“I lost my partner in life. The world stopped for awhile," Fields said.
As for the two truck drivers, DMV records show they were following their permitted route that day from Ft. Worth to San Antonio. And while their loads were 16-feet wide—not big enough to require an escort vehicle—photographs of the scene show no signage visible to indicate an oversized load as Texas law requires. There were flashing lights mounted on the rear of the home itself.
Following the crash, Fields received a payout from the insurance company of the hauler, Glenn Cox out of Neiderwald. For the separate negligence suit against Cavco, Fields’ attorney deposed Cox and his son Thomas who was driving one of the trucks the day of the crash.
A longtime hauler, Glenn Cox testified he received no special training in how to move a 40,000 pound mobile home. All he needs is a commercial driver’s license, he said.
From 2012 to December 2016 there were 2,808 complaints filed with the Texas DMV regarding mobile homes, records show. Most of those complaints came from the Department of Public Safety after a commercial motor carrier was involved in a crash, received a citation or was the subject complaint. KXAN found more than two dozen complaints to the DMV where for example a hauler did not acquire a transport permit or had no insurance resulting in a delayed move, but none specifically mentioning safety issues or crashes.
There are established transportation safety rules for all haulers of manufactured homes in Texas, such as obtaining permits from the DMV. Those permits spell out a designated route that can accommodate wide, tall or heavy loads as well as required signage, lighting and escort vehicles depending on the width and height of the load.
The association in Texas that represents manufactured home builders told KXAN its members are bound by state and federal laws mandating safe transport of their goods. But, specific guidelines aimed at mandating regular pre-route trailer inspections or regulating maintenance of the chassis systems that mobile homes are built on are vague and generally left to the home builders themselves, third party inspectors or ultimately independent hauling companies.
“There's some rugged spots that these homes go through. Flats are not uncommon,” said Robert Lee, a North Texas-based manufactured home inspector. He works for a company based out of Indiana called NTA Inc. Mobile home makers submit designs to firms like NTA to make sure federal standards are followed from rooftop to chassis to tires. He points out once a home is off the factory's property, there are few safeguards.
“I've personally seen [manufactured] homes taken through things [like low ditches] they were not designed to be taken through... I've also seen them taken down the road at speeds that were way excessive and beyond what the regulations allow,” Lee said. “I've been passed by a manufactured home in a 55 mph zone and in a 70 mph zone.”
In Texas, the state has not had a hand in overseeing the design or inspection of mobile homes since the late 1990s, Lee says. Now, it’s up to private firms to ensure mobile home makers are following federal Housing and Urban Development Department safety guidelines. When a home passes design and inspection standards, various parts of the home receive a HUD sticker.
“For the standards to be written in 1976, they've held up and are pretty close to what some of the codes are today,” Lee said adding, “I have not seen a tire failure because of a design problem.”
But he says there are separate standards for the wheels, tires and axles that go under a manufactured home but it becomes nearly impossible to track each and every element.
Lee estimates about 40 percent of the trailers that mobile homes are built on are also constructed at the same factory. Others are brought in from a separate vendor. And he says inspectors like him also follow federal standards for any used axles that are re-machined. In his experience, Lee said if a manufactured home gets new tires, the builder will typically pair them with new rims.
Once a manufactured home is on the road, remaining safety checks come from law enforcement. While DPS does not track inspections on commercial vehicles by type, some (and again mobile homes are lumped in with all commercial vehicle) are examined at weigh stations or in traffic stops around Texas.
Last year, DPS inspected 454,758 commercial vehicles, placing 16,156 out of service (that's less than 4 percent). This year, DPS expects to inspect 15 percent fewer vehicles due to tighter budgets.
For Fields, his hope remains in the companies that build and transport these wide loads.
“If the manufacturer will go ‘Yeah... we're going to meet the minimum even though we know we have problems with our axles, we know we have problems with our tires.' Step up and do the right thing. Fix those problems,” Fields said.
If you see a mobile home being hauled that looks like it's unsafe here are the guidelines. DMV rules show if the load is wider than 16 feet, the mobile home needs to have flashing lights, signs reading 'wide load' and at least one pilot or escort vehicle.
You can complain to DPS or Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. The TDHCA typically tracks consumer complaints related to mobile or modular housing damaged in transit or with problems after a home is installed on a lot.
The Fields’ tragedy is among several lawsuits filed in Texas courts in the last few years related to transport of manufactured homes.
Here are some notable cases:
- Aug 3, 2015 - Cameron County: Lawsuit claims a wheel came off a mobile home trailer leading to a crash that injured another motorist when she could not avoid the loose wheel
- Feb 22, 2015 - Wells County: Lawsuit contends a mobile home hauler died in a rollover crash because the truck and trailer wheels were not maintained
- June 8, 2016 - Hays County: Lawsuit alleges a mobile home blocking part of Ranch Road 12 in Hays County caused another motorist to rear-end a third, pushing her into the stopped mobile home
In the Fields case, Glenn Cox testified prior to getting on the road, mobile home haulers typically do their own walk-around to check the bends or cracks in the metal chassis as well as any wear and tear on the tires, wheels and axles. That type of visual inspection can be repeated during a haul.
On the day of Arlene's crash, the haulers said they stopped several times to check on the load and to change one flat before the wheel came off. Glenn Cox also testified he repeatedly shared concerns to staff at Palm Harbor Homes that the trailers and the number of wheels and axles appeared to have remained the same while the weight of newly designed homes are becoming heavier, the deposition shows.
KXAN reached out to Cavco Industries for a response. A company vice president repeatedly told KXAN the company would not comment on the case since the Fields is still in going through litigation. In court documents, the company has denied any wrongdoing.
KXAN asked members of Texas House and Senate Transportation Committees if they would support measures to mandate more training for mobile home haulers and if they would lobby for better tracking of crashes involving mobile homes. House Transportation Committee member State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, says opening up talks on increased regulation depend on receiving new data.
“More data to me is always better. If you say to me 'We're having this challenge with commercial vehicles having accidents' it'd be nice to know what type of commercial vehicles (to see) if there's a pattern,” Simmons said.
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