Smokey Takes Aim at Big Rigs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing beside his eighteen-wheeler on the shoulder of the Ventura Freeway, driver Jose Flores shook his head in resignation as traffic flew by. There was no way, the Pomona resident said, no way in the world he deserved a ticket for driving his red flatbed big rig in the center lane.

California Highway Patrol Officer Ken Ratcliff smiled and told Flores to have a good day. The trucker gave back a sheepish grin and drove off--slowly.

On Day 1 of the CHP's statewide campaign to reduce deadly big rig crashes, Flores and dozens of other truckers hauling loads on Ventura County freeways were ticketed or given warnings by officers for speeding, driving in unsafe lanes and other violations.

Statewide, 1,500 CHP officers participated in the crackdown in the wake of an unusually high number of freeway truck crashes in the last year. More than 1,300 tickets were written in the first seven hours of the operation, including 542 for speeding.

In the CHP's Coastal Division, which stretches from Thousand Oaks to San Luis Obispo, crashes involving big rig trucks--vehicles with three or more axles--jumped from 639 in 1999 to 689 in 2000, CHP spokesman Dave Webb said.

Nine officers from the CHP's Ventura station participated in the effort, which targeted the huge trucks that carry loads up and down the state, often under tight deadlines and at all hours of the night.

Fully loaded, a big rig can weigh more than 80,000 pounds, Ratcliff said. When they are going well over the 55 mph speed limit for big rigs, they can flatten anything in their path.

"Shaquille O'Neal on 18 wheels," was how Santa Maria fuel-truck driver Philip Serbian described a loaded truck racing down the open road.

"It takes about a whole football field to stop one of these things," Serbian said as he sat in his shiny Peterbilt at the CHP's weigh station atop the Conejo Grade. "People pull out in front of us. I can't even see them."

Officers were also on the lookout for errant drivers who, truckers said, have become more reckless. Across the state, 55 motorists were cited for such offenses as cutting trucks off in traffic and tailgating, according to the CHP.

The days of a driver giving the right of way to a massive truck are over, said Del Ontiveros, the program director for the Professional Driver Training School in Oxnard.

"There are more people on the road and there is a lot more action on the highways," Ontiveros said. "Cars are cutting in front. They aren't afraid of big rigs like they used to be. We get the finger more than we did five years ago."

But trucker frustration is no excuse for driving recklessly, said Ratcliff of the CHP.

Even as truckers' CB radios crackled with news of the CHP crackdown Thursday afternoon, the 18-year veteran officer wheeled his cruiser onto the Ventura Freeway looking for violators. Most often, Ratcliff said, the truckers he stops either are moving too fast or cutting through traffic, ignoring the law requiring them to drive only in one of the slow lanes.

Flores insisted that he meant to be in the far-right lane, but motorists blocked his way. The 36-year-old trucker was stopped by Ratcliff shortly after dropping off a load of wood pallets at an Oxnard industrial park.

"The CHP is looking for truck drivers," Flores said as he climbed into his rig. "It was really hard for me to get into the right lane."

As Flores headed home to Pomona, Ratcliff said he wasn't moved.

"Everyone is out here doing a job today," Ratcliff said. "His is to drive a truck. Mine is to catch him doing what he isn't supposed to be doing."

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Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this report.

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