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New System OKd for Oversized Trucks

Automated program is expected to prevent accidents caused by misrouting of vehicles.

June 12, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Three years after a state audit recommended it, Caltrans has agreed to set up a fully automated permit system for oversized trucks to prevent accidents such as the 1999 tanker crash that killed an Orange County motorist.

The $5.8-million computer system, which will evaluate highway conditions based on the latest data and issue permits to truck drivers over the Internet, could be operating by fall 2004, Caltrans officials said Wednesday.

"It's been a long and tortured route to get something done that was so simplistic," said state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who has pressed Caltrans to install an automated permit system.

"The sooner we take out the chance of human error, the safer it is going to be for the traveling public. This is long overdue."

For the last 3 1/2 years, legislators, truckers and various state agencies have called for a fully automated system in the wake of government hearings and a May 2000 audit that found Caltrans had misrouted more than 30 oversized trucks on state highways between 1996 and 1999.

The reviews uncovered errors that resulted in serious accidents, including a bridge collapse in Lompoc and the death of Tam Trong Tran, 36, of Westminster in July 1999. Tran was killed when an oversized tanker truck hit an overpass on the Riverside Freeway near Anaheim. Caltrans had granted the 15-foot-high truck a permit to travel that route, although the overpass clearance was only 14 feet, 10 inches.

The May 2000 audit concluded that the permit office was understaffed and the system of hand-processing permits increased the potential for human error. It recommended that Caltrans improve training and devise a computer system to block permits for trucks too big for local conditions.

Drivers with oversized loads or vehicles are required to get permission to use state highways from Caltrans, which reviews construction projects, bridge heights and road conditions to ensure routes are safe. About 200,000 permits are issued annually.

Under the system used in 1999, many applications were sent by fax and had to be processed by hand, a task that could take hours. Computerization has increased over the last few years, but the system is not fully automated.

In February, Dunn convened Senate subcommittee hearings to determine whether Caltrans intended to follow through with the recommendations made three years earlier.

"There was an effort below the management level to undermine the process toward full automation," said Dunn. His office, he added, has received documents and e-mails indicating an effort by the department to resist the recommendations.

David Anderson, a Caltrans spokesman, declined to comment on Dunn's remarks.

Caltrans officials have said that a fully automated system was not in place because an internal evaluation was underway to determine whether it would be safer and more cost-effective than previous improvements.

After that assessment was completed in mid-May, Caltrans Director Jeff Morales decided the department would buy the system, which will cost about $4.3 million annually to operate.

Officials of the California Trucking Assn., which represents 2,400 companies, said Caltrans, in an attempt to make the new system "user-friendly," is meeting with truckers, tow companies, house movers and crane operators for their ideas.

"This is a positive move by Caltrans," said Stephanie Williams, vice president of the trucking organization. "They are listening to our concerns, and it's a much better process for keeping the highways safe. This is the best our relationship has been in five years."

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