Loophole in law let teen drive big rig in crash

JORDAN, Minn. — A 17-year-old boy was behind the wheel of a semi pulling a box trailer converted into a recreational vehicle when the 57,000-pound rig crashed through a guardrail and into a Kansas ravine, killing five of the 18 people on board.

Adam Kerber’s driver’s license wouldn’t have allowed him to drive a commercial vehicle like that because of its weight and because it was carrying more than 15 people. But neither of the restrictions applied because of a loophole in Minnesota state law regarding private RVs.

The thirteen injured in the crash including Kerber, who was still in critical condition Monday. All those injured or killed were friends or members of the Kerber family.

The crash happened about 9 a.m. Sunday as the family returned from an annual motocross vacation in Texas. Their Freightliner cab and Haulmark trailer broke through a guardrail on Interstate 35 in Kansas and plunged into a ravine. Kerber and another teen were the only people wearing seatbelts.

A neighbor familiar with the trailer said he didn’t believe it even had seatbelts, which aren’t required in Minnesota other than in a vehicle’s front seat.

John Marks, of Jordan, told The Associated Press that several of the Kerber children were motocross racers and referred to the family rig as a “toterhome” because they used it to tote their motorcycles and other equipment to events.

Marks, who had been inside the mobile home, said the box trailer was divided into two sections, with furnished living quarters in the forward end with a refrigerator, store, TV, toilet, and a separate bedroom. Motorcycles and equipment were kept in back. As far as he knew, there were no seatbelts in the trailer.

Many companies sell or modify trailers for use as recreational vehicles. They are especially popular with motor sports enthusiasts and horse breeders.

Tom Meyer, who runs Tom’s Custom Coach and Trailers in Independence, Mo., said most manufacturers or modifiers advise people not to ride in them without seat belts. But customers “are pretty lax about that,” he said.

“They think they’re back in a big motor home, they’re pretty safe,” he said.

John Hausladen, the president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, declined to comment on how the Kerbers’ vehicle was being operated. But he said operating anything equivalent to a commercial motor vehicle requires training and experience to do it safely.

“We call them professional truck drivers because they have had experience and training that prepare them to handle the physics of driving a larger vehicle,” Hausladen said. “They receive training with regard to stopping distances, following distances, blind spots and other aspects of maneuvering with a large vehicle.”

The Kerber family is headed by Pauline Kerber, 46, who was in stable condition Monday at Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Kansas. The hospital released a statement from her son, Russell Kerber, 24, who was not on the trip.

“We are deeply saddened to confirm the passing of our beautiful family members who were full of life. However, we take comfort knowing they are with our Father, who passed away in 2006,” the statement said.

The Kansas Highway Patrol identified the dead as Tom Kerber, 25, of New Prague, Minn., and Jessica Kerber, 10, Joy Kerber, 14, and James Kerber, 12, of Jordan, Minn. Tom Kerber’s wife, Melissa Kerber, 24, also died.

Those injured ranged in age from 2 to 30 and were taken to various hospitals. Several had been released by Monday.

A cable was strung across the Kerbers’ driveway in Minnesota on Monday, and someone had placed a large plywood sign there reading “keep out.” Several bouquets of flowers had been left there.

Marks said the Kerbers frequently rode in Friday night races at the Scott County fairgrounds just down the road from their home amid the cattle and horse pastures just west of Jordan. He said Adam Kerber was the star and showed a reporter two trophies Kerber had given him, just a small sample of the many he said the family had won over the years.

The Kerbers had home-schooled their children until Pauline Kerber’s husband, Glen Kerber, died a few years ago. He operated an auto repair business on the family property that his sons kept going to support the family.

Pauline Kerber worked part-time as a cook and server in the cafeteria at Jordan High School. Monday was the first day back from spring break for students, and counselors and clergy members were standing by at the district’s schools in case they were needed, Superintendent Kirk Nelson said.

He said most students were doing well but news of the crash was hard on staff members who knew those who died.

A fund has been set up to help the Kerber family. Donations can be sent to the Kerber Family Fund, HomeTown Bank, 101 South Creek Lake, Jordan, MN 55352, attention Dave Holzer.

“Because of the size of the tragedy, the size of the family, they do need some help,” Nelson said.

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