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R.H. Estates Rebuffed in Truck Safety ‘Turf War’

Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, three people were incinerated when an out-of-control concrete truck careened down a steep grade on Hawthorne Boulevard and flattened the front of a small car at Palos Verdes Drive North, touching off a gasoline explosion.

The truck had faulty brakes, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which functions as the city’s police department.

Less than three years ago, a trash truck lost its brakes on the boulevard and took out trees, telephone poles and 18 cars before the driver deliberately crashed into the center divider within Torrance’s city limits. Again, bad maintenance was blamed.

“The most serious injury was a broken ankle,” said Deputy Dan Calhoun, traffic investigator at the sheriff’s Lomita Station. “We’re lucky no one was killed.”

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These incidents, and what authorities say is an average of two to four accidents a year involving runaway trucks on steep Hawthorne and Crenshaw boulevards, prompted Rolling Hills Estates to call for stepped-up controls on defective commercial vehicles.

That was more than a year ago, but it was not until last week that a bill reached Sacramento that would give specially trained county and city traffic officers authority to immediately order grossly defective trucks or vans off the road if a California Highway Patrol officer was not “reasonably available.” That task now belongs exclusively to the CHP.

And the city and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who sponsored the legislation, watched as the bill--carried by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego)--foundered in the Assembly Transportation Committee in the face of opposition from the trucking industry and the CHP employee association. Both argued that the present vehicle inspection system works and should not be changed.

In an attempt at compromise, the measure was amended to apply only to Los Angeles County and to incorporate CHP commercial vehicle training and enforcement standards. Although there was a 5-4 favorable vote, six committee members did not vote and the bill failed to muster the eight votes needed to send it on to the full Assembly.

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“It’s dead this year,” said Spike Helmick, lobbyist for the CHP, which opposed the original bill but did not object to the amended version. He termed opposition from rank-and-file CHP officers “a turf war” to keep the sheriff from infringing on their territory.

City Manager Ray Taylor said the city, knowing that there was strong opposition to the bill in advance, was disappointed but not surprised at its fate. He said Stirling will be asked to reintroduce the bill this year and, failing that, the city will continue to promote it.

“We think this is absolutely critical to communities like ours,” Taylor said. “We have major arterials with grades in excess of 10% and the potential for serious traffic accidents (is) there.”

He said the quality of CHP inspection is not the issue. “It’s a matter of their being accessible when these trucks are pulled over and inspected,” said Taylor. “The CHP does not routinely patrol Rolling Hills Estates.”

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According to the sheriff, 400 citations for vehicle code violations were issued to commercial vehicles in Rolling Hills Estates during 1984-85. Of that number, 40% to 50% were for mechanical problems, and up to 15% of those were serious enough that the vehicles should have been removed from the road. The department said the most common defects were faulty brakes, excessive tire wear and impaired steering.

On the state level, according to the CHP, 279,163 trucks were inspected during 1985 and 66,551 were sidelined as road hazards. Between January, 1984, and September, 1985, there were 30,007 accidents in which trucks were at fault, but only a small percentage--1,368, or 4.6%--were attributable to mechanical defects.

‘Step Backward’

Elmer Brown, a representative for California Trucking Assn., called the expanded enforcement proposal a “step backward” because the CHP was created to bring uniformity to an enforcement system in which truckers “got hit with different things in different counties.” He said that current practice permits county and city police officers to hold defective trucks until the CHP arrives.

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“We see nothing to show that the present system should be changed,” Brown said.

Conversely, Sgt. Bill McSweeney, who heads the sheriff’s legislative unit, said the enforcement proposal threatens no one and is justified because of the number of accidents involving trucks. “The community would be served by as much enforcement as could be made available,” he said.

He said the sheriff is looking for “secondary authority,” explaining that the system would be used only when the CHP could not respond to a stopped truck within 30 to 40 minutes.

“In instances where they’re not available, this should be available,” he said.

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