Striking back at big rig drivers who cause deadly traffic crashes, the California Highway Patrol plans a crackdown today on truckers who break the law.
The CHP said the statewide operation, set to begin at dawn, will send a beefed-up force of up to 1,500 officers to target violators whose driving threatens the lives and safety of others.
“They’ve got to slow these things down. They’ve got to drive more responsibly,” CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick said of menacing big rig operators.
Helmick ordered the unannounced sweep by every available officer and civilian truck specialist against the backdrop of an unacceptably high number of truck crashes.
“This is going to try to make a statement to the truck drivers that they have to comply with all the rules,” he said earlier this week.
An unexpected enforcement strike by CHP airplanes and cruisers appears to have the endorsement of the biggest segment of the trucking industry in California.
Warren Hoemann, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., on Wednesday was asked how his organization of 2,500 trucking companies would respond if the CHP launched such a crackdown.
“We’d say amen,” Hoemann said. “Our folks support safety on the highway. It is really a bottom-line issue: You have an accident, you lose money, you lose customers.”
Hoemann agreed that the issue is serious but not as grim as Helmick viewed it.
Helmick said the unusual enforcement action will last at least one day, possibly longer, and will be repeated sometime in the future if truckers don’t heed the message. The campaign is aimed at drivers who violate speed laws, perform unsafe lane changes and make other unsafe maneuvers.
Last summer, Helmick launched a similar statewide campaign against farm labor vehicles after a crash in the San Joaquin Valley in which 13 Mexican workers were killed.
Participants in today’s action were to include desk officers who will put on their tan uniforms and officers who patrol back roads in pickups to apprehend drivers who evade truck weigh stations.
Helmick said all of the about three dozen weigh stations will be temporarily abandoned so their uniformed officers and civilian truck safety inspectors can join the enforcement campaign on the highways.
In what Helmick said has too frequently become an 80,000-pound dose of terror on 18 wheels, the number of fatal and/or injury accidents involving semi-tractors and trailers has gone beyond acceptable levels.
Last year in California, 412 people died in 114 big rig crashes. In 134 of those deaths, truck drivers were at fault, the CHP said. In 1999, 395 people were killed in 97 such accidents. The CHP blamed truckers for the loss of 126 lives.
Overall in the state, the CHP said, truck-involved accidents and accidents in which the driver was to blame increased by 4% from 1990 to 2000.
In Los Angeles County last year, 66 people died in truck accidents, the CHP said. Of those, the deaths of 21 victims were blamed on truck operators. That compares to 1999, when 53 people were killed, and 21 of those deaths were the fault of the trucker, the CHP said.
Helmick said truck-involved accidents occur throughout California but happen mostly in populated areas where traffic congestion is acute and can paralyze traffic for many hours and miles.
“If you get a truck accident during rush hour morning or night, instead of a 10-minute cleanup you are looking at hours,” Helmick said.
“This frustrates the average motorist, myself included,” he said. He said that even after his career as a CHP officer, he still cringes when truckers “come by at 70 to 75 mph hauling all that volume.”
Helmick said that he believes that “a good portion of the drivers are professional and safe” but that some have “become very arrogant” and seem to believe that “if they get hit [by a car], they are not going to get hurt.”
But he added that motorists are not free from blame. He said that too often they make hazardous lane changes and cut off trucks, forcing truckers to take evasive action that may result in a crash.
Although disobedience of truck safety laws is a statewide problem, Helmick said, his surprise enforcement campaign was triggered by a recent extraordinary rash of truck wrecks in the Sacramento area, especially on a five-mile stretch of Interstate 5 south of the capital.
In the last 16 months, there were at least nine fatal truck crashes, five of them on the same five-mile stretch of I-5.
In one crash involving a tanker truck on another freeway, a young father was killed and his baby son was trapped in the wreckage for two hours until rescuers gingerly pried him out. Traffic stacked up for hours. The CHP said the trucker was at fault.
In another case, a 51-year-old securities executive en route to work was fatally injured on another section of Interstate 5 when a truck hauling cabinets went out of control, smashed through the concrete median, sailed through the air and struck oncoming traffic. The highway was paralyzed for six hours. The trucker was charged with manslaughter.
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Here is a breakdown of fatal and injury accidents involving trucks in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties:
FATAL CRASHES INJURY CRASHES Truck Truck driver driver County Crashes Deaths at fault Crashes at fault LOS ANGELES 2000 63 66 19 2,446 1,116 1999 48 53 19 2,428 1,141
FATAL CRASHES INJURY CRASHES Truck Truck driver driver County Crashes Deaths at fault Crashes at fault ORANGE 2000 9 9 4 560 4 1999 16 15 6 537 239
FATAL CRASHES INJURY CRASHES Truck Truck driver driver County Crashes Deaths at fault Crashes at fault VENTURA 2000 4 4 2 143 78 1999 3 4 1 136 65
Source: California Highway Patrol