Legislators Are Taking a Long Look at Safety of Big Trucks

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was a decade ago that Kim Mosqueda of Orange was crushed to death when the vehicle she was riding in collided with a 65-foot-long milk tanker attempting to navigate a sharp curve on a narrow, winding mountain road in Kern County.

The truck-and-trailer rig took up most of the road as it negotiated the curve and dragged the Ford Bronco carrying the 33-year-old pregnant woman 35 feet before flipping it over, says Mosqueda's sister-in-law, Darlene Studdard, who survived the 1991 Thanksgiving Day accident.

Since then, Studdard and the Mosqueda family have joined other truck safety advocates in pushing for legislation that would restrict the length of trucks on certain state highways, particularly rural and mountain roadways unable to safely accommodate their size.

The danger is that oversized trucks traveling on narrow and winding roads are forced to cross over the center line into oncoming lanes to navigate many of the tight curves, says safety advocate Michael Scippa of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways.

Now, after two unsuccessful bids, Senate Bill 636, also called "Kim's Law," has passed the state Senate and is heading to the Assembly Transportation Committee for further action.

If adopted by the Assembly and signed by the governor, the legislation would give the California Department of Transportation authority to prohibit long trucks from traveling on hazardous stretches of road. The length restrictions would vary, depending on road conditions.

The measure, drafted by state Sen. Betty Karnette, (D-Long Beach), also calls for the California Highway Patrol to track truck-length violations and to determine whether length contributes to crashes involving big rigs.

Currently, the state can post advisory signs warning that certain roads are unsafe for trucks of particular lengths. But the trucks cannot be legally barred from the roads.

That's a problem, safety advocates say.

Single-trailer rigs can stretch up to 65 feet in length from the kingpin--where the trailer joins the tractor--to the rear axle. And multiple-trailer rigs can stretch up to 75 feet from kingpin to rear axle.

Yet a 1989 Caltrans safety study found that on 3,364 miles, or 22%, of the state's highways, the geometry of the roadways made them unsafe for trucks 40 feet or longer. And an additional 2,831 miles of state roads were deemed unsafe for even a 30-foot truck.

Despite the findings, which would be updated under Kim's Law, the state refused to restrict longer trucks from using the roads, says Scippa, who blames the decision on trucking-industry pressure.

"I was so angry when I learned that the state had this study two years before Kim's death," Studdard says. "It was a travesty of justice. They knew the roads were unsafe for big trucks. They had the study and they buried it."

The California Trucking Assn. and California Farm Bureau Federation oppose the proposed legislation because they believe it would lead to costly and arbitrary restrictions on truck lengths on state highways.

"One of our refuse haulers discovered that the winding country road used to get to the garbage dump could not, under this bill, accommodate the garbage trucks, and those are the only vehicles on that road," says Warren Hoemann, vice president of the trucking association. "Rather than a law that is a blanket, one-size-fits-all," lawmakers should consider alternative routes or time-of-day restrictions on large truck travel on certain roads, he says.

However, the trade associations agree that the state should update its 1989 study and determine whether truck lengths are a factor in accidents.

"Let's look for solutions to traffic safety that we all want rather than saying truck length alone determines whether the truck should be on the road," Hoemann says.

Cynthia Cory, the Farm Bureau Federation's environmental affairs director, argues that "when trucks and cars get tangled, it's not always the fault of the trucker."

And she contends that if the longer trucks are restricted from many roads, we'll see increased truck traffic because farmers and ranchers will have to start using more, smaller trucks for business. The federation represents about 40,000 farmers in the state.

"It would cost a healthy hunk of change [for farmers and ranchers] if over 21% of the state's highways become suddenly restricted from use," she says.

Consumers would suffer along with truckers under the restrictions in Kim's Law, Hoemann says. If gasoline tanker trucks or large grocery trucks are prohibited from navigating the mountain roads up to the Big Bear ski resorts, for example, it's going to affect those who are expecting to have food and gas to make it back down the mountain, he says. Truckers will be sitting at the foot of the mountain, saying, "Here's your freight; come and get it," he warns.

Whether that would happen is a matter of economics. But safety advocates say it is critical that the biggest trucks be kept off California's narrow, winding rural and mountain roads.

The statistics speak loudly:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that from 1996 to 1999, 51,214 California motorists were injured and 1,669 were killed in crashes involving large trucks. Most fatal truck accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, occur in rural areas on undivided highways.

Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St.,

Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°