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Wyoming's oilfield commutes can be deadly. But the full extent of the problem isn't clear.

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Asleep at the wheel

A Wyoming man driving home from his job on a Utah oil rig crossed a highway’s center line. His pickup collided with a young family’s SUV, killing two people.

Investigators found empty energy drink cans in the truck, and the man told authorities he hadn’t slept after a 13-hour shift.

He’s not the only person who’s commuted home on Wyoming’s sparse roads after two weeks of pulling oil out of the ground.

But it’s unclear how often such crashes happen here.

A criminal case corresponding to the fatal 2017 crash and concluding nearly two years later brought the case to public attention. However, similar wrecks won’t necessarily become public — if they’re identified at all.

Crashes linked to fatigued driving have become a persistent problem, and Wyoming’s foremost industry is rife with risk factors: long-distance commutes to job sites, prolonged shifts and monotonous tasks associated with many oil and gas jobs all contribute to drowsy driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a federal public health agency.

When workers clock out before driving home in their personal trucks, however, they fall through gaps in data collection. Although public officials know vehicle wrecks are the leading cause of on-the-job deaths for Wyoming oil and gas workers, data analysts stop grouping or identifying workers by industry at the end of the shift.

When Alexander Richardson, a 35-year-old Lusk man, swerved into oncoming traffic on his way home from the oilfield, two people died. But by the numbers, the industry had no work-related fatalities in Wyoming that year.

***

A sheriff’s deputy at 1:28 p.m. on Thursday walked through the side door to a courtroom. He strode to the back of the room, and solicited a beep from the electronic lock. He stepped through a wooden door and returned with a court clerk. She glanced at the attorneys’ tables, and left through the same door.

Moments later, a court reporter opened the door, and, across the room, a judge’s clerk did the same. The audience stood at the court clerk’s exhortation, putting a close to the brief ballet of preparation for Judge Kerri Johnson.

Johnson was in court to hear recommendations on sentencing for Richardson, whose Ford F-250 swerved into oncoming traffic in August 2017 on his way through Natrona County. He was traveling home to Lusk after completing two weeks of work in Utah.

A South Korean woman, Soon Young Lee, was driving west in a Ford Explorer that she and her husband, Bong Jun Seo, had rented for a sightseeing trip through the western United States. Their 3-year-old son, Jaehyeok Seo, was riding in the back seat.

When Richardson crossed the center line and collided with the vehicle, the impact killed Lee almost instantly. Jaehyeok died minutes later. Seo was injured but survived.

About eight months after the wreck, prosecutors charged Richardson with two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and another count of aggravated assault, alleging he acted recklessly by failing to get enough sleep before the drive. He posted bail the same day.

The case went to trial in early February, and jurors acquitted Richardson of the three felonies he faced. However, they found him guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor that is punishable by up to a year of incarceration on each count. Convictions on the felonies could have carried a maximum of 50 years in prison.

Ava Bell, the prosecutor tasked Thursday with asking for Richardson’s incarceration, noted prosecutors had filed a statement written by Seo. Bell said she wouldn’t rehash evidence from the February trial that included a series of gruesome photographs and shaken witnesses.

“No one, frankly, needs to be put through that again,” Bell said.

Bell, instead, referenced a letter Seo wrote the court saying he has contemplated suicide since the death of his family.

“I lost it all in just seconds,” Seo wrote in the letter, which was not available from the Natrona County District Court Clerk’s office late Thursday afternoon.

Bell referenced evidence Johnson had not admitted at trial — a highway patrolman’s testimony that Richardson ran off the road while driving alone in 2015 and slid into a fence, which the judge ultimately ruled was likely caused by a diabetic reaction — and said Richardson chose not to learn a lesson from the first wreck.

The prosecutor asked for the statutory maximum sentence of a year of incarceration on each count. To conclude the argument, Bell asked Johnson to sentence Richardson to serve the time consecutively and order he spend two years behind bars.

“The state really has a simple sentencing argument,” Bell said. “The defendant killed two people.”

***

Although federal agencies look closely at work-related deaths, some links go uncaptured, said State Occupational Epidemiologist Meredith Towle. If a person clocks out, gets in a personal vehicle and starts driving home, the statisticians no longer consider them as working — even if the drive is only for their job.

“Our data and the federal data do not include people commuting for work,” Towle said by phone Friday. “We would likely count that crash or fatality as a work-related crash if they were in a company-owned car, because that tells us that the company is supporting that long-distance commute with resources.”

The data that is available indicates 24 people died working Wyoming oil and gas extraction jobs between 2012 and 2017. Even excluding workers commuting off the clock, motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Safety. The agency’s most recent report states the high injury and death rate in the extractive industry is cause for concern.

“Most of the data that we have about roadway crashes come from the investigative reports that we have patrol officers, who are first on the scene, fill out,” Towle said. “They don’t necessarily know where that driver was coming from, if they had been working just before, (or) how long their shift had been.”

Wyoming’s rate of work-related fatalities — at 7.7 per 100,000 workers in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available — is double the national average. Only two states outrank Wyoming for deaths on the job, according to the federal Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

Fatigue, weather, road conditions, workplace stress or distractions on the oilfields can all lead to crashes, according to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Safety Alliance.

“Wyoming is perennially in the top five (states) in terms of rate of fatalities in the country,” said Michael Duff, a law professor at the University of Wyoming. “But having said that, an awful lot of fatalities come about on the road, and a big part of what is going on has to do with the distances drivers are required to drive for their jobs, some of the driving conditions. Add to that, some of the dangerous work sites that maybe you are driving on.”

Todd Forry, who works in the industry as a health and safety manager and has previously served as president of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Safety Alliance, said work-related motor vehicle wrecks tend to track oil and gas prices. When demand for oil rises, rig sites get busier. The increase in traffic around oil and gas sites often comes with a potential uptick in the risk of crashes, he said.

In 2017, the industry did not report any work-related fatalities. Forry said the lack of recorded deaths was likely the result of depressed oil and gas production that year.

“In high-risk industries, the number of fatalities does ebb and flow with the boom and bust cycles of that given industry, and the oil and gas industry is your classic example of that,” Towle, the epidemiologist, said. “When industry is booming, there are more workers coming in and there is just more activity and that just means more job risk.”

Existing data does not provide a definitive link between the circumstances of the wreck near Alcova and a larger trend. However, common causes of death on the road can overlap with industry expectations.

About 10 percent of all crashes nationwide involved drowsiness, according to a recent report published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The link is stronger in fatal crashes: more than 16 percent of such wrecks involved a drowsy driver.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of oil and gas industry workers’ deaths between 2015 and 2016 were related to motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Wyoming was one of 16 states where an oil and gas worker died because of driving while fatigued, 2016 data from the same source indicates.

No standard training exists across the industry, and Forry said the level of safety training depends on the company.

When a shift ends, many workers are eager to return home to their families, even if the commute home is several hours long, Forry said. Nonetheless, he directs workers who are tired to get a motel room.

“If they get hurt on the job, it’s going to affect the job,” Forry said. “It’s going to affect their job somehow.”

Although the offer is longstanding, he said he receives only two to three calls a year from workers requesting a room to stay in overnight.

***

Frank Chapman, whose Casper law firm represents Seo in a parallel civil case, sat in the second row of the courtroom to hear Johnson read the sentence. He left as the judge concluded her recitation of the sentencing terms.

Later the same afternoon, Chapman said by phone that Seo had nearly finalized an out-of-court settlement with Richardson and insurance companies. The lawyer was largely reticent to talk about the case, but said Richardson’s employer was not involved in the settlement. After saying he had great respect for Johnson and her verdict, the lawyer moved to his interest in combating distracted driving, which has also been a concern of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, which Chapman once led as president.

The lawyer noted that technology and legal tools used to combat forms of on-the-road distraction do not as easily transfer to drowsiness. There’s no objective measurement to determine whether someone’s too tired to drive. And self-regulation is a bit more difficult as well: it’s easy to tell if you’re looking at your cell phone, but it’s not always clear to drivers when fatigue starts impacting their reaction time.

“There’s no crime of fatigued driving in and of itself,” Chapman said. “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

Chapman said state legislators should look to increase Wyoming’s liability insurance requirements. Right now, to satisfy state law, drivers are required to keep coverage for $25,000 per injured person and $50,000 in total bodily injury coverage per wreck. That amount of money can be quickly eaten up by a short hospital stay, Chapman said.

He said he’d like to see injury liability minimums raised to $100,000 per person and $300,000 per wreck.

A lot of people are keeping only Wyoming’s minimums, the lawyer said. He encouraged drivers to purchase insurance that will make up for missing coverage on wrecks that involve uninsured or underinsured drivers.

Chapman said Seo purchased additional insurance available from the rental company when he signed for the Ford SUV, but didn’t specify the nature of that insurance or how it factored into settlement discussions.

Richardson did not respond to a request for comment made through his attorney following Thursday’s proceeding. His attorney, Don Fuller, made a brief statement to the Star-Tribune the same afternoon, referring to the wreck as a tragedy and saying Johnson’s sentence was well reasoned.

***

A Wyoming Highway Patrol spokesman said by phone last week that troopers in Converse County, one of Wyoming’s more prominent energy hubs, have identified two fatal wrecks this year the agency determined are directly attributable to fatigued driving as a result of oilfield work.

A news release the agency published earlier this year sheds some light on one of the crashes. According to the statement, a Ford Super Duty driving north on Wyoming Highway 59 near Bill tried to pass a semi-truck stopped in the road. The truck driver stepped out of his cab and into the road, where the pickup hit him. He died on the highway.

The Converse County Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to messages left last week seeking more information about the existence of a link between oilfield work and fatigued driving.

Sgt. Jeremy Beck, the patrol spokesman, referenced an ongoing agency campaign to crack down on distracted and impaired driving.

“I think a lot of (factors) play into our fatality crashes,” the spokesman said. “Unfortunately, a lot of those things are found out after the fact.”

Beck said troopers in Campbell County, meanwhile, have not made any links this year between fatigued energy workers and fatal wrecks.

Campbell County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Seeman said by phone on Wednesday afternoon he doesn’t know of a specific link to energy industry work and fatigued driving. Seeman said that although long stretches of road through rural parts of the county can make for monotonous driving, he doesn’t know of any wrecks this year from drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

***

On Thursday afternoon, Richardson’s defense attorney walked to a courtroom lectern. Fuller disputed the prosecution’s characterization of the case. The jury rejected Bell’s theory that Richardson disregarded a known risk when it acquitted Richardson of recklessness, Fuller said.

Richardson has already accepted responsibility for the wreck, Fuller said, referencing his own statement on the first day of trial claiming fault for the wreck. The lawyer, however, said prosecutors have tried to stick Richardson with more responsibility than he is due.

Fuller said his client would rather not have to work in a Utah oilfield, but can’t pass on the health insurance that will help cover his son’s liver transplant.

The defense attorney then pushed back on Bell’s theory of drowsiness, arguing the evidence was less clear than the prosecutor claimed. He renewed a trial argument that had Richardson clocked out and driven straight to Lusk, he’d have been home before the time of the crash — implying his client may have stopped to rest at some point. Fuller asked for probation.

Richardson declined to add to a statement he previously provided to the judge. Johnson placed him on two years probation.

About 20 hours after the proceeding, Bell and co-counsel Mike Schafer said they thought the sentence was too lenient. On the fourth floor of a downtown building, the prosecutors and their boss, District Attorney Dan Itzen, said they thought Richardson should have been locked up.

Although Johnson at sentencing referenced Richardson’s relatively minimal criminal history — which shows a single misdemeanor conviction from a decade ago — Schafer said the deaths of Lee and her 3-year-old son should be punished with incarceration.

Such cases are hard to prove to jurors, Itzen said. The prosecutor said he doesn’t think fatigued driving is as prevalent as driving drunk. But law enforcement doesn’t spot a tired driver as readily as an intoxicated one; they’ll usually find out about drowsiness only once there’s a crash.

Though the judge largely sided with Fuller’s recommendation at sentencing, she endorsed Bell’s hypothesis of drowsiness. To complete the community service condition of his probation, Richardson must offer to speak to students about the dangers of fatigued driving.

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Crime and Courts Reporter

Shane Sanderson is a Star-Tribune reporter who primarily covers criminal justice. Sanderson is a proud University of Missouri graduate. Lately, he’s been reading Cormac McCarthy and cooking Italian food. He writes about his own life in his free time.

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