Like thousands of other motorists on the San Bernardino Freeway, Vicky Koelling drives past the Baldwin Park Boulevard on-ramp while commuting to work each weekday.
For the other drivers, the short, sharply curving freeway entrance is just another source of rush-hour aggravation. But for Koelling, it is a painful reminder of her husband, Monty, who has spent the last four years lying motionless in a nursing-home bed.
While driving his motorcycle to work on June 7, 1983, Koelling collided with a pickup truck that had spun out of control after being hit by another vehicle just west of the on-ramp. Although he was wearing a helmet, Koelling, then 35, suffered permanent brain damage. Months later, he emerged from a coma with the mental capacity of an infant.
Vicky Koelling sued the California Department of Transportation, claiming that the on-ramp, which failed to meet minimum-length specifications when it was built in 1954, caused the accident that robbed her husband of his faculties.
Attorneys for Caltrans have repeatedly denied this, but last month the department reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the 37-year-old West Covina woman.
"It's like having a lead weight taken off my shoulders," Koelling said in an interview this week. "Having the money is a real relief, but that does not change the fact that Monty remains the same. No amount of money can get Monty's health back."
Neither side would disclose the exact amount of the settlement, but Koelling's attorney, Wayne Leech, said the woman and her two children, ages 11 and 8, will receive more than $15 million if she and her husband live normal life spans.
Koelling has already been given "a substantial amount" by the state and will continue receiving annual payments for the rest of her life and that of her husband, Leech said.
Caltrans attorney Stanley Gilson at first disputed the $15-million sum cited by Leech but then acknowledged: "It would be in the general ballpark, depending on how long she and Mr. Koelling live."
Gilson stressed that the settlement is not an admission of liability by Caltrans. The department agreed to the settlement to avoid even larger damages that might have been awarded by a jury, he said. The case was scheduled to go to trial in Pomona Superior Court this month.
The key issue in the trial would have been whether the Baldwin Park Boulevard on-ramp is dangerously short, providing merging traffic with too little distance to accelerate to freeway speed.
The accident involving Koelling occurred when the driver of a big-rig truck attempting to enter the freeway at 5 m.p.h. was unable to merge and stopped near the end of the on-ramp.
The driver of a car in the freeway's right-hand lane slowed down to give the truck room to enter. The next car in the lane tried to pass, struck the first car from the rear and spun into the two adjacent lanes, where it hit the pickup truck that was struck by Koelling's motorcycle.
Gilson argued that the accident was caused by the combined actions of the large truck and the other vehicles. The trucking company settled with the Koellings for $300,000, he said, and the other drivers' insurance companies paid an additional $65,000.
"Our position is that when the roadway is used with due care, the on-ramp is not dangerous," Gilson said.
Leech said Caltrans tacitly acknowledged liability by agreeing to the settlement. The department won't make such a statement publicly because such an admission could pave the way for future lawsuits, he said.
"Somebody doesn't pay $15 million to settle a case if there's no liability," Leech said. "The state knew they were going to lose. The only question was how much. Had the state designed and built an on-ramp to their standards in 1954, the accident wouldn't have happened. They caused the accident."
State highway specifications established in 1952 call for on-ramps at least 800 feet long, but the entrance from northbound Baldwin Park Boulevard to the westbound San Bernardino Freeway is only 300 feet long.
Gilson said the 800-foot minimum is a "guideline" and was not mandatory when the on-ramp was built. "Those are not requirements, the guidelines that are contained in our manuals," he said. "They are not to be substituted for good engineering."
Caltrans permitted the on-ramp to be built shorter than the specifications called for after engineers had reviewed and approved the design, Gilson said. However, he said the department's files contain no records of this review process.
Nobody Knows Why
"We don't keep every document that we generate over 30 years," Gilson said. He added that the department does not know why the on-ramp was designed so short because "we couldn't talk to anyone who was alive who worked on the project."
Leech countered that the on-ramp has been substandard since the day it was built.
"The standards are not arbitrary," he said. "They are minimums. . . . I'm a licensed civil engineer. I have a pretty good background in highway design. As an engineer, anytime I see a minimum, I do not deviate from that minimum."
Because of the short on-ramp, Leech said, the area near the Baldwin Park Boulevard entrance is a danger zone. He said a highway safety expert he consulted for the case found that the accident rate near the on-ramp exceeded the county average every year from 1978 to 1985. In one year, he said, the accident rate was more than four times the county average.
Gilson said Leech's accident figures do not agree with Caltrans statistics.
'No Higher Rate'
"I don't know where he's getting that information," he said. "This area was reviewed a year or two before the accident. The engineer that reviewed it found that the area had no higher rate of accidents than any other on-ramp on a highway carrying that volume of traffic."
A spokesman for the California Highway Patrol's Baldwin Park office declined to provide accident statistics for the past year, pending approval from superiors.
However, CHP spokesman Steve McGrath did provide figures for last November. Of the 65 accidents that month that fell under the jurisdiction of the CHP's Baldwin Park office, only one, a non-injury collision blamed on a speeding driver, could have been affected by the Baldwin Park Boulevard on-ramp, he said.
"It's probably one of the shortest ramps in our jurisdiction, but we have accidents at all our other ramps, too," McGrath said. "Almost any ramp you drive on, even if it's longer than the Baldwin Park Boulevard, you still have to merge with safety. The driver has to exhibit good judgment and common sense."
Not Listed as Cause
Leech said it is not surprising that the Highway Patrol does not consider the on-ramp hazardous because the CHP would be reluctant to hold another state department responsible for accidents. Even in the Koelling accident, he said, the Highway Patrol did not list the on-ramp as a contributing cause.
Although he and his client have prevailed in their case against Caltrans, Leech said he will not be completely satisfied until the on-ramp is closed and rebuilt.
"Just in this one case, that on-ramp has damaged the lives of at least one family," he said. "Caltrans continues to subject the riders of that freeway to this dangerous condition. They could have fixed that for less than they paid in this settlement."
Gilson maintained that the on-ramp is not a menace to the public. On-ramps do not cause accidents, he argued: Drivers do.
"Caltrans can't build an accident-free location," he said. "The more people who use it, the more accidents you're going to have."
Vicky Koelling said she is not satisfied with this response.
"The main reason I agreed to this interview is that I do want that ramp to be closed, and maybe with some publicity it will be," she said. "In order for me to get to work each day, I have to pass that on-ramp."
And as she passes the Baldwin Park Boulevard freeway entrance each morning, Koelling thinks of the accident that virtually killed her husband.
"Monty has never really been aware of anything since he had the accident," she said. "When the doctors told me had come out of the coma, I really couldn't tell the difference."