A pickup truck hit a Caltrans employee on the shoulder of the Antelope Valley Freeway north of Acton on Wednesday and dragged him to his death, making him the fifth Southern California highway worker killed by a passing vehicle in the past three months.
The series of deaths provoked local Caltrans officials to consider closing freeways to protect workers even during routine maintenance, saying the agency is "getting desperate" over the danger to its employees--more of whom have been killed on the state's highways than have California Highway Patrol officers.
But a powerful state lawmaker immediately said he would oppose any such move as too great an imposition on motorists.
The Caltrans worker was painting symbols on the shoulder of the northbound freeway south of the Soledad Canyon Road overcrossing when he was hit shortly after 1 p.m., CHP Sgt. Stephen Ballard said.
The victim was identified as Callie Buser, 55, of Canoga Park, the county coroner's office said.
The driver, who witnesses said was maneuvering erratically before the accident, apparently strayed into the dirt center strip, lost control and skidded as he tried to accelerate out of the dirt, Ballard said.
The skidding truck struck the Caltrans worker, dragging him until it struck a Caltrans truck, CHP Lt. Dick Stockham said.
The driver was taken by helicopter to Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where he was listed in good condition. His identity was not available.
"The driver will more than likely be charged with manslaughter," Stockham said, and will undergo tests to determine whether he was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The recent series of deaths spurred Caltrans officials to consider drastic measures to protect employees, Caltrans spokeswoman Margie Tiritilli said.
"If this continues, we may have no alternative but to close the freeway and do the work," Tiritilli said. Such a policy change has been seriously discussed in the past year, she said.
"We can't keep allowing our workers to be killed. We're getting desperate here,' Tiritilli said.
"It's an alternative we're going to have to consider more seriously," said Charles O'Connell, deputy district director of Caltrans District 7, which covers Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
"It's one that we have been avoiding because of the impact on the public, but after today we'll have to re-evaluate."
But Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said he would oppose routinely closing freeways to protect work crews.
"I understand the problem, and I'm sympathetic to the workers," Katz said. "But a policy of shutting down the highway anytime there is a survey crew or anytime there is even a minor amount of work doesn't balance the needs of motorists and the needs of the workers."
But Katz said his committee would meet with Caltrans officials to determine whether Caltrans employees can be better protected.
Statewide, 52 workers have been killed while working on California highways in the past two decades, half of them in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, Tiritilli said. By comparison, 45 Highway Patrol officers have been killed in the line of duty in the same period, a CHP spokesman said.
Under current policy, Caltrans officials do not close freeways except when the closure has a minimal effect on commuters, provides the greatest safety to workers and is the most cost-effective for the repair project, Caltrans spokesman George Hartwell said.
The worker killed Wednesday was painting symbols on the shoulder to serve as reference points for aerial photographs of the road to be used in making maps, O'Connell said.
Because the worker was performing routine surveying procedures, no traffic cones or warning signs were displayed near the site, Ballard said.
It was unclear whether even a drastic change in Caltrans policy would have safeguarded him. "The freeway probably wouldn't have been closed for Wednesday's situation," Tiritilli said. Such closures, if they became routine "would more likely focus on large-scale repair work," she said.
The accident forced the closure of the northbound Antelope Valley Freeway, causing a traffic jam that extended three miles south of the accident site, CHP Officer Stefanie McClung said.
The worker was the fifth such victim on Southern California freeways since April 27. One worker was killed and another critically injured June 12 on the Artesia Freeway in Cerritos. Two workers were killed on the Long Beach Freeway and one on the Orange Freeway in accidents April 27 and 28 that police blamed on drunk drivers.
"It's really frustrating," Tiritilli said. "After burying our last worker just a short time ago, here we go again."