Suicide by truck: Part 1

This is the first installment in the “Suicide by truck” series, examining the largely undocumented incidents of pedestrians and four-wheelers who choose speeding trucks as an instrument of suicide. It also looks at how these suicides and suicide attempts affect innocent truckers, many of whom struggle with guilt or horrific memories. Click here to see more from the series.

For most truckers, a car parked on the side of the highway is no big deal. For Wade Schimmelpfennig, the sight triggers flashbacks he’ll always have. That’s because Schimmelpfennig is part of a tiny unmeasured segment of truckers: the unwilling victims of a suicide by truck.

“The trauma for the trucker is similar to those who are used against their will in suicide by cop or suicide by train,” says Dr. Dan Reidenberg, managing director of the National Council for Suicide. “The post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can be severe and last a lifetime.”

Reidenberg says it’s common for the trucker to feel guilty. Should he have swerved? Was he as alert as he should have been? Resolving such feelings often is difficult because there is often little or no support resources for an over-the-road trucker and his family.

Also, most truckers get little to no training to prepare them for suicidal incidents, unlike railway engineers. Railway suicides and other fatal rail accidents are common enough that most engineers experience at least one in their careers. The Federal Rail Administration recorded 305 railway suicides in 2013.

Starting today and continuing this week, Overdrive will feature stories of truckers, including Schimmelpfennig, recounting their feelings during and after suicide by truck experiences.

Wade Schimmelpfennig’s story

‘He was waiting for the semis’

It was Jan. 17, 2012, 14 degrees below 0, and Wade Schimmelpfennig was hauling a load of gasoline on Interstate 694 north of St. Paul, Minn. He was coming up a hill when he noticed a Ford Crown Victoria parked on the right side of the road.

Wade SchimmelpfennigWade Schimmelpfennig

A 20-year trucking veteran, Schimmelpfennig prides himself on his focus. He recalls thinking that the car was clean, had a nice paint job and might belong to an older person who was having mechanical trouble.

Then he saw a young man pop out of the driver’s side and begin walking.

“Your brain has to catch up with your eyes as you realize that he’s headed, counterintuitively, toward the traffic,” Schimmelpfennig says. “I tried to make sense of what I was seeing as he stood there, ready to step out into my lane, like he was waiting for something. Right then, I knew he was waiting for the semis.”

Schimmelpfennig made eye contact with the man and then steered slightly left, trying to avoid the hit.

That’s when the man crouched low and sprinted directly into the path of the right wheels.

“His face went into the right headlight and his shoulder into the grille, and then he rolled off as I hit the brakes,” he says. Schimmelpfennig stopped and ran back to check on the man.

Lance Lieder, 22, was lying crumpled on the freezing highway. An off-duty policeman started cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Schimmelpfennig held the dying man’s head in his lap.

“I didn’t have my gloves on and felt the warmth of his neck as he died in my arms,” he says, choking up as he tells the story.

Lieder had taken his parents’ car and left a suicide note on the passenger seat. That action likely expedited the legal aftermath for Schimmelpfennig.

Two back-to-back U.S. Department of Transportation inspections immediately followed the wreck, making Schimmelpfennig grateful that his company, Wayne Transports, runs meticulously maintained equipment. He forgot his phone that morning, so there was no question about being distracted. “I was completely focused on my driving,” he says.

Following a drug and alcohol screen, his dispatcher put him in a hotel. “Nobody thought I’d want to drive again, but I decided to go ahead and get back in the saddle,” he says. “That’s just me.”

Family, friends and coworkers offered support. Truckers who heard about the incident called to share their stories of suicidal near-misses and fatalities. When a family member of Lieder’s called to say the family didn’t blame him, he was surprised. Schimmelpfennig says he has forgiven Lieder for drawing him unwillingly into the death.

He’s also gotten on with the business of trucking, though not without baggage.

“I don’t want that suicide to define who I am,” Schimmelpfennig says. “I know I did everything possible to avoid the hit, but there was nothing I could do. I was fully alert, my equipment was in perfect shape, I didn’t hit any other cars, and my phone was not even in the truck. But still, the flashbacks come, and while Lieder’s nightmare is over, mine is with me forever.”

A rising trend?

Suicide by truck data isn’t officially tracked. What does get counted is likely underreported because when a victim of suicide by a moving vehicle leaves no note, the death often is ruled an unavoidable accident.

Suicide by truck often is lumped in with statistics for pedestrian or auto suicide. In 2013 (the most recent year for complete statistics), that category accounted for only 167 of all 41,149 suicides in the United States.

Though the lack of data makes it impossible to know how suicide by truck is trending, some reports would indicate it’s rising.

The nation’s overall suicide rate fell from 1986 to 2000. But it’s increased since then by 21 percent, from 10.4 suicide deaths per 100,000 people to 12.6 deaths in 2013, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another indicator is the experience of SmartDrive, a leading forward-facing and driver-facing dashcam system provider. Its workers review video footage from fleet clients, so they routinely see collisions with vehicles or pedestrians that might be suicidal, though that judgment is up to law enforcement.

“We do see an increase of nearly 30 percent year-over-year in the number of incidents where a pedestrian was involved,” says Steve Mitgang, SmartDrive chief executive officer. That trend isn’t inflated by growth in clients, but is based on accidents per miles driven. “Unfortunately, our requests to help with incident investigations believed to be suicides have increased in every month of the past year.”

If you need help in locating counseling services in your home area, call the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration help line: 877-726-4727. Another resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.

Click here to see the second installment in the “Suicide by truck” series.

Click here to see the third installment.