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California and the West

Caltrans Says Errors Led to 24 Accidents

Safety: Agency employees sent trucks under bridges that were too low, officials admit. They had called fatal Anaheim crash an isolated incident.

August 19, 1999|MEGAN GARVEY and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the past 3 1/2 years, Caltrans employees issued route permits that sent at least 24 oversized trucks under bridges too low for them, including three mobile homes that slammed into bridges, several cranes that damaged overpasses and a truck carrying a solar turbine that struck an overpass because the load was more than a foot too high.

Details of the accidents were released Wednesday by Caltrans officials, who had originally portrayed as an isolated incident a similar mistake that resulted in the July death of a Westminster man.

In that accident, 36-year-old Tam Trong Tran was crushed to death when a 7,000-pound fuel tank was knocked off a 15-foot big rig passing under the 14-foot, 10-inch La Palma Avenue overpass in Anaheim. At the time, officials said it was one of three incorrect truck routes approved since June, which they said were the first errors made in the last three years.

But the list released Wednesday is much longer. Although no known injuries resulted from the other mistakes, many were substantial errors that sent loads as much as 17 inches too high barreling toward freeway overpasses for which they were too big. Accidents this year did at least $45,000 in damage to property, vehicles and cargo.

Caltrans requires all trucks higher than 14 feet to get a permit to travel on state freeways and other roads. A permit is considered to be issued in error if the load clears the bridge with less than a 3-inch margin. Caltrans officials say it is impossible to determine how many times that occurs.

The information about the additional accidents comes several weeks after a union grievance was filed against Caltrans by an agency employee that cited chronic understaffing and unreasonable production standards in the San Bernardino office, where many permits are issued.

Tran's death has focused scrutiny on the permit writing office there, where some employees say the management has ignored problems for years.

"This was truly an accident waiting to happen," said Joe Weber, the permit writer in the San Bernardino office who filed the union grievance 12 days after Tran's death. "If they don't change things, it will happen again."

Weber described a frenetic office where few people last for more than a year or two and employees are often required to work overtime to keep up with the booming truck business.

In a letter to two state senators who called a hearing this week in Sacramento to investigate the troubled operation, Caltrans Director Jose Medina promised to hire more staff and upgrade the equipment. He authorized emergency funds to buy advanced technology capable of catching human error and preventing accidents.

The union grievance and other documents show a history of trouble in the permit office dating to the consolidation of the statewide operation into two regional offices five years ago. Although Medina blamed inadequate safeguards on the Pete Wilson administration in a letter to two state senators, documents show that the problems extended into Medina's watch.

In addition, Caltrans never hired three permit inspectors to double-check each route after saying in 1994 that it would do so. Agency officials say Caltrans did not start double-checking permits until the fatal accident in Anaheim.

In his letter, Medina said permit writers are expected to finish about 25 permits each day, although he said more difficult routes might take more time. But a review of a work schedule the week after the Anaheim accident shows that employees averaged 35 permits a day. One permit worker averaged 78 permits a day, according to the union grievance, creating "unsafe conditions for the general public."

State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) who with state Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) called for Tuesday's hearing in Sacramento, said he is not satisfied with Caltrans' explanations.

"Now, all of the sudden we have evidence that this is not a new issue," he said.

Caltrans spokesman Gene Berthelsen said the agency acted quickly to correct problems after the fatal accident.

"We acted as soon as top management knew there were staffing problems," Berthelsen said.

Medina was not available for comment.

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