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Bald Tires, Bad Brakes

October 06, 2002

Unlikely as it might seem, California law is easier on people who drive under the influence of illicit drugs than under the influence of alcohol.

That's one of the strange conclusions to a horrifying accident in Anaheim Hills last year involving an overloaded big rig with faulty brakes, driven by a man with methamphetamine and morphine in his blood. The truck careened out of control near a school, killing one person and injuring six others.

Truck driver Anthony Saiz, who cut a deal last month, faces just a year in county jail and loss of his commercial driving license. The company that overloaded the truck with 2,000 extra pounds and neglected to take care of problems with seven of its eight brakes faces no disciplinary action at all.

And the family of the 53-year-old optometrist who died?

Stunned, once by his death and again by authorities' weak response when it comes to taking serious steps to solve life-threatening situations.

As it turns out, prosecution for driving under the influence of drugs is difficult in California; the penal code does not define a blood-drug level for impaired driving, as it does for alcohol.

Considering that legislators are finding time to worry about the dangers of heavy school backpacks, they ought to be able to set guidelines for drivers impaired by drug use.

The California Highway Patrol moved quickly to inspect equipment at the trucking company, Peterson Brothers Construction of Brea. It slapped the company with an "unsatisfactory" rating after finding poor truck maintenance and bad record-keeping.

The CHP pulled at least four of the company's trucks from duty because of serious problems.

This on top of 24 citations for safety problems the company received from April to October 2000, and a previous history of brake problems with the truck that crashed.

So what happened to Peterson Brothers? Well, it had to fix the trucks.

That's it. That's what CHP's on-site inspections are aimed at; they don't come with fines or other discipline unless the trucking company flunks three times in a row.

If the worst punishment for failing to keep things safe is that two years later you get caught and then have to keep things safe, what's the incentive for doing it right in the first place?

The CHP generally does on-site inspections no more than once every 25 months. All the more reason to make the inspections count; trucking companies should worry more about what will happen if the CHP finds something wrong.

Until the state takes stronger action on motorist safety, perhaps a new program in Orange County will help. Stymied by a shortage of officers to check on truck safety, several law enforcement agencies are pooling manpower to set up monthly truck checkpoints.

In September, officers handed out 45 citations, along with fines for many of them, and yanked three trucks off the road for such problems as bald tires and bad brakes.

It's a small solution to a big problem, but at least lax truckers feel some pain when they're pulled over.

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