'You've got to do something': Kindred man follows dying wife's plea for increased farm truck safety
KINDRED, N.D.—During the last moments Bob Jostad had with his wife of 45 years, her lower body was pinned by the engine of a school bus.
Cathy Jostad, 64, was driving the Kindred bus on a foggy morning near here Sept. 25, 2015, when a loaded farm truck pulled out in front of her from a gravel road onto Highway 46.
Miraculously, no students were badly hurt when the bus slammed into the side of the trailer, but the impact crushed Cathy's legs. Three other farm trucks hit those vehicles soon after.
Bob Jostad, a school bus driver himself and rural ambulance volunteer, rushed to help while others worked to free his wife from the wreckage.
Cathy was conscious the entire 40 minutes it took to free her and, during that time, Bob Jostad said she pleaded with him repeatedly.
"You've got to do something about this," he said his wife kept saying, pointing toward the truck with its load of soybeans spilled over the roadway.
En route to a Fargo hospital, Cathy stopped breathing. Bob Jostad said she was resuscitated but never regained consciousness. The mother of two, grandmother of two and lifelong lover of horses died a week later.
A Cass County prosecutor declined to file criminal charges based on a state trooper's report that said fog was a major factor and that multiple drivers were going too fast for the conditions.
Jostad filed a civil lawsuit against Eldon Burdick, the driver of the first truck. Jostad's attorney, Patrick Weir Jr., said the suit was recently settled out of court and the terms are confidential.
With legal matters now behind him, Jostad feels free to do what his wife asked—call for stricter licensing and more training for people who drive farm trucks.
"It's been hell on earth living alone," Jostad said. "We need to keep more grandmas from being killed, or anyone."
Commercial licenses for all
Normally, a commercial driver's license (CDL) is required for anyone driving a semi.
However, farmers have long had a CDL waiver under a federal law exemption, allowing them to hire anyone with a valid, regular driver's license to haul their crops.
Jostad thinks those drivers should have a CDL, with its mandatory medical exams and drug testing.
While he acknowledges there's much more at stake with a cargo of children than a load of crops, he thinks the higher standards should be met because buses and trucks share the road and often pass within feet of one another at highway speeds.
"This vehicle and everything its size is potentially dangerous," Jostad said, gesturing to one of the Kindred school buses.
Bill Hejl, a rural Amenia, N.D., farmer, said he'd be in favor of CDLs for farm drivers if it would improve safety, but he doesn't think that's the case.
"Having the commercial driver's license won't make the truck stop any faster," he said.
Hejl employs five drivers during harvest who've either been doing it for years or come with good recommendations from other growers.
His trucks are inspected every year before harvest and, if visibility is poor, neither he nor his drivers leave the farm.
"I don't want my truck to get wrecked. I don't want anyone else to get hurt and I don't want the driver to get hurt. You live with that the rest of your life," Hejl said.
Approaching age 70, Jostad said he's not able to lead a push for increased farm truck safety and thinks it may be futile anyway in an agriculture-dominated state.
Two state legislators from his home District 25 admit it would be an uphill climb.
Sen. Larry Luick, a Republican from Fairmount who's also a farmer, said finding qualified drivers is already difficult.
Some farmers may reluctantly end up in a spot where "if you can keep your eyes open and steer," you're hired, he said.
The commotion of moving crops quickly and dealing with weather variables can make matters worse.
"In a loaded truck, you get tired people, cranky people, things can go south in a hurry," Luick said.
Rep. Alisa Mitskog, a Democrat from Wahpeton who's married to a farmer, agrees there are hiring challenges.
She recalls the crash in that city in 2010, when a sugar beet truck driver ran a red light, striking and killing an 18-year-old woman.
The truck driver, who had a DWI conviction and multiple suspended license violations, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was sent to prison for a year.
"Just a terrible reminder of what can happen if you don't hire the right people," Mitskog said.
'An empty chair'
Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said emotional reactions regarding safety are common when accidents occur.
"Nobody wants anybody to die," he said.
But, according to Wante, there's nothing "magical" from a safety standpoint about having a commercial driver's license.
Capt. Bryan Niewind of the North Dakota Highway Patrol agrees, saying past crashes, while unfortunate, weren't necessarily because the driver did not have a CDL.
"It was a decision-making issue," Niewind said.
In the crash that killed Cathy Jostad, prosecutor Tanya Johnson Martinez said there was no disputing Jostad had the right of way and that the farm truck driver pulled out in front of her.
But she said the fog and the fact multiple drivers involved in the Highway 46 crash, including Cathy Jostad, were driving "beyond their sight and reaction zones," would make it difficult to prove anyone acted in a criminal manner.
Still, it's a bitter pill to swallow for Bob Jostad, who thinks it's time to hold farm truck drivers to higher standards.
"There's an empty chair in my house," he said, his voice choking. "There's something that can be done."