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LIFE ON WHEELS

Mother's Anguish Spurs Effort on Safety

August 03, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"We have a SigAlert out on the Santa Ana Freeway. . . . There's an injury accident involving a jackknifed big rig. . . . The CHP is trying to get that cleared away as quickly as possible, but in the meantime it looks like we'll have some slow going from about. . . ."

When Helen Shanbrom of Santa Ana hears those traffic reports, she doesn't worry about the frustrated drivers who may need a little more time to get where they're going. Her thoughts are with those for whom the accident is much more than an inconvenience: the victims and their families.

She knows all too well the anguish that remains long after the wreckage has been "cleared away" and the flow of traffic returns to normal. She also knows that many of those devastating accidents didn't have to happen.

Three years ago, Shanbrom's youngest son, David, was killed when a speeding tractor-trailer rig went out of control on the Orange Freeway in San Dimas and struck his small Mazda sedan. It was 6:30 p.m., and the radio traffic scouts duly warned listeners about the slowdown.

David Shanbrom was 27 years old. He had a good job, a condo in Yorba Linda and was engaged to be married. All that was gone in an instant. "The impact was so hard that his car burst into flames," Helen Shanbrom says.

Since then, Shanbrom has waged a one-woman campaign for truck safety. She knew nothing would bring David back, but she needed to extract some meaning out of what seemed so senseless. If nothing else, maybe she could spare some other mother the pain she felt.

"After we retired several years ago, David would come over and we'd be lying on the couch reading or something, and he'd say, 'Why don't you get out and do something?' Well, now I am.

"At first I didn't have the vaguest idea what I should do," she says.

Some of her friends were less than encouraging. "They'd say, 'You're only one person; you can't make a difference.' " But today, at least two legislators credit Shanbrom for spurring them into action on the issue of truck safety.

Shortly after David's death, Shanbrom heard that Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) was interested in the issue, so she wrote to him, asking what measures the state Legislature was taking to make trucks safer. Then she did the same with her own representative, Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), who was sponsoring a bill authorizing the California Highway Patrol to use unmarked patrol cars. Shanbrom helped lobby for the bill, and it passed in 1986.

"If there is a single greatest resource that I have had relative to all the truck safety legislation I have carried, it's one involved citizen named Helen Shanbrom," says Seymour. "She exemplifies what the little person can do. I've handled a lot of legislation on this issue in the past few years, but the credit goes to her. I'm just a mouthpiece."

Shanbrom studied the issue from every angle, commissioning an expert to analyze her son's accident, poring over CHP statistics, learning about trucks, from load capacities to braking systems. She developed an agenda, a list of bills she wanted to get through the Legislature.

"I'm not against trucks," Shanbrom says. "We need them. But we need to make them safer. I found out that the California Trucking Assn. represents the truck companies, and the Teamsters Union represents the drivers. But who represents the victims?"

For a while, she tried to start an organization she was going to call Families Against Speeding Trucks, but she couldn't find others who were interested, so she forged on alone.

The truck that killed her son was moving much faster than the 55-m.p.h. speed limit, and Shanbrom learned that "speed is the major cause of truck-involved accidents where the truck is at fault."

So one of the first bills on her list was a measure, sponsored by Seymour and Katz, that would have doubled the fines for speeding truckers from $100 to $200 for the first offense, and from $200 to $400 for the second. A watered-down version of the bill passed in 1987, leaving the first-offense fine at $100 and increasing the second-offense fine to $300. But the original measure was reintroduced this year, and Shanbrom is lobbying for its passage.

"If you look at some of the other fines--gridlock, for example, is $100 to $500, car-pool lane violations are $150 to $500, and littering is $150 to $1,000--it doesn't make sense for the speeding fine to be so low," Shanbrom says.

"What is the chance of being killed by any of those violations?" Shanbrom wrote in a letter to Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. "Considering what devastation to life and property the crash of a big rig does, the low-level penalties for speeding seem hardly adequate and irresponsible. . . . Under the present system, it is more economical to break the law than to obey it."

"Legislation is slow and frustrating, but it is the only way," she says. "Obviously, we cannot leave it up to a driver's conscience to obey the rules."

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