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Parents campaign to make semi-trailer trucks safer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He loved his mom and all that but, well, he was a teenager now and being kissed good night by her just wasn’t in keeping with his advanced age.

His mom didn’t buy that.

“When he started saying he didn’t want my good-night kiss, I told him, ‘You never know when it might be the last time,’ ” Wendy Hein said. “So that became our thing. Every night he would give me a kiss. ‘Besos y abrazos,’ he’d say. Hugs and kisses.”

And, oh, how she wishes she could have kissed him that last time in November 2015. How she wishes she could have his besos y abrazos still.

She was hundreds of miles away from Tijeras, where she and her husband, Eric, had raised their daughter, Rachel, and son, Riley. Her ailing mother had needed her in Oceanside, Calif.

She was among the first to awaken that Nov. 13, 2015, morning, her mother’s home quiet, save for the giggles and cooing of her visiting 6-month-old grandnephew.

Riley Hein was killed in 2015 when his car was hit, then trapped under a semitrailer in Tijeras Canyon. (Courtesy of the Hein family)

“I was listening to this happy little boy, and I was thinking: I’m so lucky to have a son,” she said. “And I just felt an overwhelming warmth of unconditional love move through me.”

She thought about Riley, that he had also been a happy baby, that he had grown up to be a happy 16-year-old who woke up with a smile and went to sleep with a smile – and, usually, one of her kisses.

She pulled up Facebook on her phone and saw a post from a friend back in Tijeras complaining that the morning – Friday the 13th – was not starting out so lucky. Interstate 40 through Tijeras Canyon was shut down because of a fiery, fatal crash involving a semitrailer and a Honda Civic.

“And I just knew,” she said. “It was my worst nightmare.”

Six gut-wrenching, frustrating hours later, the Heins received confirmation that Riley was the fatality. The Manzano High School junior was driving west in the right lane of I-40 through Tijeras Canyon on his way to band practice when a tractor-trailer veered out of the center lane, struck the Honda, trapped it under the body of the trailer from the side, dragged it for nearly a half-mile and scraped it along a concrete barrier before the Honda burst into flames.

Riley was burned over 75 percent of his body. He died at the scene.

“Just like that, everything changed,” Eric Hein said. “We had a really good family life, and it came to a screeching halt.”

What hasn’t been halted is the Heins’ efforts to hold those who caused Riley’s death accountable and to help find ways to prevent a similar tragedy.

This is one version of an underride guard that could help prevent vehicles from passing into the underride, or the space between the trailer and the ground, in cases of side collisions with big rigs. (Courtesy of Airflow Detector)

In June 2016, the Heins, through their attorneys Michael Sievers and Randi McGinn, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Choptank Transport, GNB Trucking and Barkandhi Express, all trucking companies involved with the tractor-trailer, and the state Department of Transportation.

A second amended complaint filed Sept. 18, 2017, introduced a new defendant – Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., one of the largest manufacturers of truck trailers, including the one involved in the crash.

UTM, which remains the sole defendant in the lawsuit after settlements were reached with other parties, is accused of manufacturing and selling a dangerous and defective product that contributed to Riley’s death.

Eric Hein said the focus switched to UTM because of an NPR interview of Marianne Karth and Lois Durso, two mothers who joined forces to advocate for truck safety after their daughters died in separate crashes with tractor-trailers. Like Riley’s crash, they were killed when their vehicles were forced under the trucks’ trailers.

These “underride” crashes, as they are known, account for an estimated 300 to 500 of deaths annually, although no official statistics are kept. One of the most notorious underride crashes occurred in 1969 when actress Jayne Mansfield and two others were killed after their car went under the rear of a semitrailer obscured by a fog of pesticides, shearing off the top front of the car.

The crash led to the trucking industry’s implementation of rear underride guards, which are often called Mansfield bars.

But much of the trucking industry has been averse to side underride guards, despite studies indicating that such guards could greatly reduce the number of fatalities in semitrailer-related crashes. A 2017 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that side guards could reduce injury risk in about 75 percent of side-trailer crashes.

But trucking groups such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the American Trucking Associations oppose the side guards, arguing that they add too much weight and wear out the trailers sooner.

“To date, the federal government has determined that side-impact guards have not been shown to be technologically or economically feasible,” attorneys for UTM wrote in a response to the Heins’ lawsuit.

Still, the Heins remain convinced that side guards will save lives and have joined with Karth, Durso and other families to support federal legislation that would require side and front underride guards and would update the standards for rear guards.

The Stop Underrides Act is Senate Bill 665, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and 10 co-sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

House Bill 1511 is a similar version. Both were introduced last month after a first attempt in 2017 failed to gain traction. The Heins traveled to Washington, D.C., for the introduction.

Less than four months after the crash, the Heins moved away from Tijeras, away from the place in the canyon where their son died, away from the home they had moved into on his due date.

“We had to leave,” Eric Hein said. “There were too many memories. The house was too quiet without Riley’s laughter.”

But the happy boy with the constant smile is still a strong presence in their lives. They wear wristbands that read “Release Your Inner Riley.” They see him in the ocean waves near where they now live, in the sunshine that warms a cold morning, in their efforts to save lives, in the besos y abrazos they can only now imagine.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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