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SUNDAY REPORT

Rolling Thunder on the Highways

On a single fairly typical day last August, there were 139 truck accidents on California roads. Their repercussions have been painful and costly.

August 15, 1999|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fast-moving, 30-ton big rig that flipped over on the Artesia Freeway crushed the red Jeep Cherokee like a soda can. It was 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 12, 1998, and this was the 31st truck crash of the day in California.

More than a hundred were still to come.

Driver Eusebio Solis was 6 1/2 hours into his workday, cruising through Buena Park, when his rig loaded with fresh fruit jackknifed and toppled. He scrambled out of the cab to check for injuries. When Solis saw the flattened Jeep, he lost it.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" the 35-year-old screamed, pacing back and forth in the road, his hands holding on his head. Then he walked to the side of the freeway, sat down and cried.

Jeffrey Crouse had been so close to the crash he could have reached out his car window and touched the wreck. He rushed to help the Jeep's driver, but he peered into the front seat and knew there was no hope.

One year ago last Thursday, 139 truck accidents--one every 10 minutes--took place in clear weather on California's highways, streets and back roads. They ranged in geography from San Diego to Siskiyou County. Most were minor, but two crashes were deadly, claiming four lives.

It wasn't the busiest day of the year for truck accidents, nor the slowest.

Big-rig crashes usually capture attention only when the death toll is high, such as last week's tragedy on a rural road outside Fresno that killed 13 farm workers. One week earlier, six people died--including a family of four in their minivan--when a truck lost its load of concrete pipes on a Mojave Desert highway.

The events of Aug. 12, 1998, were more ordinary. From the vantage point of a year later, they provide a glimpse into the everyday toll of big-rig accidents--from the costs of cleanup to the economic and social toll of massive traffic jams to the personal struggles to overcome trauma, injuries and fear.

Survivors of that day's worst crashes still grieve--a nightgown has gone unwashed because it smells faintly of a wife who died. A "For Sale" sign has gone up at the dream home of an immigrant couple who worked for years to own it, only to see their hopes dashed in a mangle of metal at a rural intersection.

The Artesia Freeway accident alone has generated a tab in excess of $1 million--from a $7,145 funeral for the driver of the Jeep Cherokee to a spoiled load of pineapples and melons valued at about $35,000. A Times analysis estimated that traffic congestion around the accident cost commuters about $270,000 in lost time and wages.

A recent Southern California Assn. of Governments study put the truck accident toll for the region at more than $1.2 billion each year.

Large trucks are becoming more numerous on the road as demand increases for instant delivery of freight to retailers and consumers. Truckers are under greater pressure to work long hours, make trips quickly and fill their rigs to capacity.

In California, 1.3 million trucks hit the road each day--by far the largest number in the country. Each year, truck accidents kill about 400 people in the state and about 5,000 people nationwide--numbers that have remained flat despite the significant jump in truck traffic.

Trucks are involved in a disproportionate number of traffic fatalities: 13% of deaths in 1997 while accounting for 7% of total vehicle miles traveled. When someone dies in a truck-car collision, 98% of the time it's the occupants of the automobile.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 26,000 people in 1996 suffered serious brain injuries or loss of a limb in the 393,000 truck accidents that year.

Although traffic fatalities in California have dropped about 12% in the last five years, deaths involving large trucks have remained relatively steady, dropping slightly one year only to rebound the next. Only in about half of accidents are truck drivers found to be at fault. Often the blame lies with car drivers, many of whom disregard trucks' blind spots and longer braking distances.

Aug. 12, 1998: Midnight Madness

The day began extraordinarily badly.

Seconds before midnight, a big rig rounded a bend in a construction zone on the Santa Ana Freeway in Anaheim, slamming into stopped traffic. Twenty-one people--many of them families returning from a day at nearby Disneyland--were taken to hospitals. Three cars were incinerated.

The fiery crash closed the freeway in both directions for nine hours, well into the morning rush hours.

During the morning commute, the traffic news was grim on local radio. Reporters on KNX-1070 warned motorists to expect a bad start to their day:

The 5 remains shut down in Anaheim in both directions, and of course it's affected a lot of other freeways. 405 north in Orange County is affected by it. The 22 both directions in Orange County affected by this one problem on the 5.

Hundreds of thousands of people affected undoubtedly in one way or another.

605 bumper to bumper from Rose Hills on down to Los Alamitos.

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