Big rigs, big danger: DUI crashes involving heavy trucks on the rise across Washington

It has been a month to the day since a semi moving at highway speeds caused a deadly crash on I-5 near Tacoma.

The aftermath shut down the major commerce corridor for hours. A truck driver was arrested for DUI and charged with vehicular manslaughter and assault.

Since then, we've been digging into what's happening on western Washington's highways and found these types of crashes are on the rise. It's an alarming trend with more truckers involved in crashes under the influence.

Just weeks before the deadly crash in Tacoma, a tow truck driver was killed after he was hit by a semi-truck on I-5 in Milton. That semi-truck driver was arrested on suspicion of DUI. 

Troopers are trying to stop more of these deadly disasters. 

"This is one of the most horrific crashes I have seen since I have seen since I worked as a state trooper," Trooper Robert Reyer said on the scene. 

It was the morning of March 18

FOX 13 News interviewed Reyer live on the scene of a horrific crash on I-5 in Tacoma near South 38th Street.

Two semis, five cars and at least seven people involved with one of them sadly killed.

"One second can change lives forever, and even end lives," Reyer said.

The driver of the maroon flatbed truck, Gregory Jenkins, 65, has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and four counts of vehicular assault.

Documents show Jenkins had a holster strapped to his ankle contained syringes and small bottles of liquid.

Toxicology results haven't been returned yet, according to WSP.

Prosecutors said troopers determined Jenkins was under the influence of something other than alcohol.

"Although marked insulin, the patrol does not believe it was in fact insulin," a prosecutor said during court.

Investigators said he crashed at highway speeds.

Trooper Nicholas Hopper, who specializes in commercial vehicle enforcement, knows that essentially turns a truck into a missile.

"These vehicles can range from 80,000 to 105,000 pounds here in the state of Washington," Hopper told FOX 13 News.

After a tow truck driver was killed in Milton in February, hit by a semi-truck driver arrested on suspicion of DUI, and this deadly crash in Tacoma, FOX 13 News reviewed years of data and thousands of reports in state databases.

WSDOT data we obtained showed heavy vehicle crashes involving truckers under the influence.

In 2019, there were 17 incidents.

There were 24 by 2020, even when the pandemic cut down commuter traffic.

Last year, there were 27.

In 2022, so far, there are four before including the latest deadly crash in Tacoma.

That brings it to a total of at least 73 in that timeframe.

Broken down locally, since 2019, that's at least 42 incidents in our western Washington counties, with 22 in King County alone.

Even more unsettling, according to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse data shows of 56,000 positive urinalysis tests, only 1,203 were positive for alcohol.

The rest were all drugs.

Investigators told FOX 13 News they're often used to enhance performance and increase pay.

Alex Otte, the National President for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a victim of a DUI more than a decade ago, said these crashes are no accident.

"For it to be a tractor trailer, that has so much weight behind it, number one, but number two, to have people that drive for a living, you would think that they have an understanding of what that takes to operate a heavy piece of machinery like that and yet are continuing to make this choice," Otte said.

She's pushing for stronger legislation, more drunk driving technology and enforcement.

WSP is working to bring these deadly encounters to a screeching halt.

Troopers recently posted enhanced patrols to Twitter, showing them catch impaired truckers in March through "Operation Sober Handle."

They said two were arrested, with one believed to be on meth and another high on marijuana.

Troopers are doing random checks at Ports of Entry, according to Hopper.

They're also training city and county officers, and even police in neighboring states, to catch these trucks.

"The more people we can get out there to be comfortable making commercial motor vehicle stops and also have the training to do it, it will help hopefully reduce those collisions and just the drivers behind the wheel that are under the influence," Hopper said.

Troopers said if you see what you believe is an impaired trucker, don't hesitate to call 911 and even the numbers on the truck.

They also said be vigilant.

"Be prepared for something to happen in front of you. Give yourself an out, give yourself space as a driver. Just be prepared for what could happen," Hopper said.

FOX 13 News reached out to the Teamsters, the union representing truckers, about this issue and what we found.

We have not heard back.

It didn't appear the trucking company employing Jenkins had any problems before this and Jenkins had no criminal record.

We've also tried to contact the trucking company for comment, but so far have not heard back.

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