Although a new state law went into effect this year barring pickup truck passengers from riding without seat belts in the bed of the vehicles, an exemption for trucks with camper shells has allowed accidents involving pickups to remain nearly as dangerous as ever, law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Such camper shells routinely snap off in accidents, often hurling their victims to their deaths, the officials said. Nationwide, one-sixth of all 1992 pickup bed fatalities involved people thrown from truck beds covered by a camper shell.
The new California law excluded vehicles with camper shells because of objections from Gov. Pete Wilson, who has maintained that shells offer adequate protection in most accidents.
How much protection seat belts would have provided in Wednesday's Barstow-area crash was unclear because of the nature of the accident. A pickup truck packed with 20 people--16 of them jammed in a covered truck bed--crashed on Interstate 15, killing 12. Nine of the passengers who died were in the back of the truck.
"When (passengers) hit the camper shell during an accident, it doesn't hold. We see time and time again that a person's body weight is enough to push the shell right off the truck," said Greg Manuel, commander of public affairs for the California Highway Patrol. A camper shell, he adds "does not provide any additional protection. It is just like riding unprotected."
As a CHP officer, Manuel said, he routinely handled cases in which a person in the back of a pickup truck was ejected during an accident--camper shell and all.
The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, prohibits people from riding in the open bed of a pickup truck without a federally approved restraint or seat belt, Manuel said. Such equipment has yet to be approved, he added.
Previously, Californians could ride in the back of open bed trucks without any restraint or seat belt; children under 12 could do the same as long as they were accompanied by an adult.
The law was approved as legislators took note of the growing toll of pickup accidents in the state. In 1993, 55 people died when they were thrown from the back of trucks; 38 deaths and 1,755 injuries were registered in the previous year. In an incident that drew wide public attention last year, seven friends who were riding in the open bed of a pickup were killed when it was struck by an alleged drunk driver on the Long Beach Freeway.
The new law has allowed the CHP to write 1,321 citations for people riding in open bed trucks so far this year, but it has left them virtually powerless to stop people from riding in pickup beds covered by the camper shells, despite mounting evidence of the hazards.
A 1991 study by an American Academy of Pediatrics' committee concluded after analyzing various crashes that "the enclosure of a pickup bed did little to reduce the risk of serious injury." The academy advocated that children and adults be prohibited from riding in the back of enclosed, as well as open, beds of pick up trucks. A UC Irvine study came to similar conclusions.
In 1991, Wilson vetoed a bill by Assemblyman Curtis Tucker Jr. (D-Inglewood) that prohibited riding unrestrained in the back of pickup trucks, including those with camper shells. In his veto message, Wilson argued that camper shells provided sufficient protection, and that the bill "would have a serious and negative impact on those families which depend on the use of a pickup truck for either work or basic transportation."
Fearing another veto, Tucker removed the camper shell provision when he reintroduced the bill in 1993.
A spokesman for Wilson, J.P. Tremblay, who carries one of his two children in the enclosed part of pickup, said the governor felt that a camper shell was sufficient to ensure the safety of passengers in low-impact accidents.
"These are the majority of accidents," Tremblay said. In cases such as Wednesday's accident, in which the overloaded vehicle rolled down a 20-foot embankment, different camper shell provisions would not have helped, Tremblay added.
But Tracey St. Julien, Tucker's chief of staff, contended that removal of the camper shell restrictions "negated a lot of the effect of the bill."
Only nine states and the District of Columbia place any restrictions on riding in the back of pickup trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Many of these states place these restrictions only on children. Of the nine states, most have no restrictions if the pickup bed is covered by a camper shell, St. Julien said.
As Wednesday's accident may illustrate, illegal immigrants are often victims in rural highway accidents. "If this is a smuggling case, it bears out what we have known all along: the ruthless nature of smugglers," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We often see people crowded into trucks like human sardines."
During a recent roadblock near El Centro, authorities stopped a smuggler who had crammed 20 people into a van meant for eight.
"Transporting people this way is a daily occurrence," said Gloria Hernandez, a community worker with the California Rural Legal Assistance Migrant Farmworker Project.