Minneapolis station crashes trailer to demonstrate safe towing for Memorial Day weekend

KARE 11 television in Minneapolis has built a reputation for telling compelling visual stories. Reporter Boyd Huppert and the station's national-award-winning photojournalists have set fire to a house to show the usefulness of new stovetop extinguishers, and he has explained how safety glass in school windows could make classrooms safer. But the story Huppert -- who over the years has been a frequent teacher at Poynter seminars -- told Wednesday night might be one of his most remarkable.

The station spent the day helping Minnesotans who might be packing up for a Memorial Day trip.  Over the course of the day, the station produced stories about how incorrectly attached canoes and kayaks and mattresses can come flying off and into oncoming traffic. Each story included an example of stuff flying off a station vehicle.

But the opus story involved Huppert and photojournalist Jonathan Malat buying an $800 tow-behind trailer from craigslist. They wanted to show what happens when a driver fails to connect the trailer properly with safety chains and the correct trailer hitch ball. Jonathan and Boyd figured the best way to show the problem is to crash the trailer and capture it with a dozen cameras.

"My theory is go big or go home," Malat told me.

"The people in HR were rightfully concerned about how we were going to do this," Huppert said. "We had a couple of first responders, officers from the highway patrol and Minnesota Department of Transportation folks there helping us." He continued: "At one point our news director told me if I didn't feel safe driving the vehicle that was towing the trailer that she would drive it. No way was I going to let that happen."

12 Cameras and two Crashes

The MNDOT workers rigged a closed test track road with a couple of bumps intended to jar the improperly attached trailer loose when it hit. Malat attached GoPro miniature cameras to the tongue of the trailer, to the top of the trailer, down low on the back of the truck, inside the truck, and high on the truck. "I did tell my chief photographer that we might tear up some gear on this one," Malat said. "Dumb luck we didn't."

Malat and three other photographers captured the event along with more unmanned cameras, one hidden behind a concrete barrier where they predicted the trailer would come unhinged.  They planted a wireless microphone inside the trailer "because we wanted to get great sound of the crash," Malat said. They included one camera in the truck only to record the audio from the wireless microphone in the trailer.

First, Huppert showed what happens when a trailer comes off the hitch ball and is properly latched and chained to the vehicle. The trailer skidded to a stop, barely kissing the vehicle towing it.

Then the team unhooked the chains and improperly latched the hitch. When the trailer hit the bumps it disconnected, flew off into a field and crashed.

Putting a Face on the Story

"Minnesota is a state that tows," Huppert said. "We tow boats, trailers, campers, ATV's, snowmobiles."  Minnesota keeps no statistics on trailer detachments, but some estimates say around a thousand people a year die in these accidents nationwide.

When Huppert asked a state highway patrol public information officer about the size of the problem, the PIO recalled a particularly tragic case.  It was on Memorial Day weekend three years ago when a trailer detached from a car, the trailer plowed into an SUV and killed a father and a 3-year old girl. The child's mother, Kristie Cox, agreed to talk with Boyd and Jonathan about her loss, so others would not go through what she has. Kristie took the KARE 11 crew to a cemetery where her husband and daughter are buried.

Boyd had one more phone call to make, to Amanda Engelhart, the driver of the car that was towing the trailer that broke away and killed Isabel and Jeremy Cox. "You make that call because you have to," Huppert said. "I fully expected she would hang up on me. I told her I hoped she might help to try to educate the people and that I know this must be awful, but she didn't hesitate. She said yes to the interview."  Englehart served 30 days for careless driving and unsafe equipment. She now bears the guilt of having caused two deaths.

The Reaction

"We have had hundreds of comments from viewers" and the story was shared hundreds of times online, Huppert said.

"This story has affected me," Huppert said. "I own a boat. And yesterday when I hooked it to my vehicle, I checked the chains before I left my garage. By the time I got to the end of the driveway, I got out and checked them again.  When I stopped at the gas station to fill the trailer ties, I checked the chains a third time."

It is possible that the video of that trailer flying away will stick in driver's minds this weekend. But it is more likely, they will see the faces of a 3-year-old girl and her father on their gravestone and they will remember Kristie Cox's tearful interview, where she said she cannot bring herself to wash her daughter's clothes, even three years later, because if she does, the clothes will not smell like Isabel. Even with all of the elaborate TV production that masterfully told this story, one statement from that grieving mother might just stick in the mind of drivers this weekend. Kristie Cox said, "Even the word 'accident' -- for the longest time I just hated that word because, in so many ways, it was not an 'accident.'"

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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