La Cañada resident John Bevan was driving on the Foothill (210) Freeway in October when, he says, construction debris blew over a guardrail and struck the windshield of his 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada, leaving a small chip in the glass.
At the time, Bevan didn't think too much of it.
"I figured that's the cost of living up here," the longtime Sagebrush area homeowner said.
An unseasonable heatwave, however, caused the vehicle's window to crack outward from the tiny chip. Today, Bevan's entire windshield is bisected by a horizontal crack large enough to obscure his vision. It's attracted the attention of at least one police officer, who pulled him over but let him off with a warning.
Since then, what began as a minor irritant has become a personal quest for remedy. Bevan drafted a letter of complaint in December seeking to have his windshield replaced by Caltrans or Flatiron West, Inc., the Bay Area contractor hired to complete the three-year, 9.7-mile pavement rehabilitation from La Crescenta to Pasadena.
Sent to a Caltrans office as well as to a list of state and local representatives, the letter complained of "unsafe and deleterious" road conditions, confusing lane striping and open potholes.
"If you drive on that freeway, it's an accident waiting to happen," Bevan warned.
Collisions on the 210 Freeway
In fact, the number of collisions reported to the California Highway Patrol as occurring within the project area has increased significantly since work began in 2015.
Agency figures indicate that on the 210, between La Crescenta's Lowell Avenue and the stretch of the 210 in Pasadena near its transition to the Ventura (134) Freeway, the total number of collisions rose more than 186% — from 285 in 2014, the year before work began, to a total of 531 last year.
Between the Lowell and Berkshire avenue ramps, collisions jumped from 126 to 204 in the same period, according to CHP, while accidents between Berkshire and the 210-134 transition jumped from 159 in 2014 to 327 in 2017.
"We did see an increase in collisions in the construction area of the I-210, but we also saw an increase in collisions throughout our area of patrol," said Officer Ryan Bejar, a spokesman from CHP's Altadena office. "For example, the I-5, SR-134 and the east end of the I-210 freeways saw an increase in collisions [from 2015 to 2017]."
Just how many more accidents will be reported before the project's estimated completion this summer remains to be seen. As of December, Caltrans representatives report about 83% of the $148.5 million project had been completed.
"We're coming up on three years, but this is a project with a pavement life that could last up to 50 years," said Caltrans spokesman Tim Weisberg. "Three years versus 50 years — it's a short-term inconvenience for a long-term gain."
Anecdotal complaints from locals like Bevan about the condition of the 210 Freeway since work began in spring 2015 are common, but in nearly three years of work Caltrans has received only 31 complaints seeking damage or compensation under $10,000 through the formal claims process, 28 of which have been referred to Flatiron West, Inc. for resolution and one that was appealed and, therefore, had to be filed in small claims court.
Caltrans Claims Manager Roni Booth explained claimants must fill out an LD-0274 claim form within six months of the incident and mail it to the district office in which the damage occurred (Los Angeles and Ventura counties are served by District 7) along with supporting evidence, invoices and/or medical records.
"People should be submitting with their claim whatever evidence they have," she said, indicating Caltrans has 45 days to send a letter of acknowledgment and take action. "It's actually the claimant's burden of proof."
Booth said the agency can only address claims in which claimants have identified a Caltrans vehicle or employee as being directly involved in the incident. Since the 210 work has been contracted out, Caltrans cannot be liable for any actions stemming from construction work or vehicles, Booth said.
"We don't make the decisions — we go ahead and tender the defense to a contractor," she added.
Contractors like Flatiron West are generally required to send a letter of receipt and a response within 30 days, according to Booth.
Yet the response rate there is unclear. La Cañada resident Candice Teng replaced a side mirror on her Toyota Prius after a December 2016 project area incident during which a big-rig truck kicked up an object large enough to break the assembly, to the tune of $400.
Less than three months later, Teng was driving on the 210 near the Lincoln Avenue exit, also in the project area, when a large rock hit her windshield, creating a 2-foot long crack. A new windshield cost $445. Out of frustration, she looked up the 210 Pavement Rehabilitation project online and found a number to call. She was informed by a Caltrans employee there was a claims process for damages under $10,000 and immediately filed a claim.
"I haven't heard a response and never received an acknowledgment letter," Teng wrote in an email. "Honestly, I got tired of chasing it. Now I have exceeded the six-month [time] limit so I know I will never see a reimbursement."
What to do when damage strikes
Claims Manager Booth acknowledges it's not always easy to gather evidence regarding vehicle damage while traveling on the freeway, but offered a few tips for drivers to help substantiate their claims.
• Make sure you've filled out the claim form in its entirety, she advises. Incomplete forms only lengthen the response time. Forms can be found online at dot.ca.gov/damageclaims.html but must be signed and mailed to the District 7 office at 100 South Main St., 13th floor, MS 19, Los Angeles, CA 90012.
• Try to make a note of the exact area and time frame in which the incident occurred.
• If another vehicle was involved, try to record a license plate number or truck ID number and note whether the vehicle or equipment bears the name of a particular company or agency.
• If you can safely signal to the other driver or worker to pull off of the road, get as much information from them as you can.
• Take photographs if it's safe. If you are driving, have a passenger grab a cellphone photo of a truck, area or lane obstruction.
• Submit all relevant records with your claim, such as medical records, invoices and at least two repair estimates.
• Report problems like potholes, misplaced cones or debris to Caltrans online at dot.ca.gov/d7. For more information, call the District 7 office at (213) 897-0816.