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The Region

Tunnel crash blamed on speed

CHP says truck's brake system didn't cause a fatal 2007 pileup on I-5

February 09, 2009|Ann M. Simmons

A trucker's high rate of speed and not a "deficient" brake system is believed to be the overwhelming cause of the driver losing control of his vehicle and triggering a deadly pileup in a 5 Freeway tunnel near Santa Clarita in 2007, a California Highway Patrol investigation has concluded.

Trucker Jose Reyes, 29, was driving south on the rain-slick freeway in excess of 65 mph when he veered to the left and crashed into a concrete barrier after driving through the tunnel, according to the CHP report obtained this week by The Times.

The crash set off chain-reaction collisions behind him that killed a 6-year-old boy and two adults, and injured 23 others.

"It is believed that the initial loss of control of [his vehicle] was predominantly the result of Jose Reyes driving at a high rate of speed and was not the result of any mechanical condition," the report found.

After the Oct. 12, 2007, collision, investigators reconstructed the accident to gauge Reyes' speed.

"Speed is overwhelmingly what we're looking at here as a causal factor," said Sgt. Mark Garrett. "The other factors may or may not have been a contributing factor."

Los Angeles County prosecutors declined to file vehicular manslaughter charges against Reyes after preliminary findings detailed in a memo last year. Cited among their reasons was the finding by investigators that the right-front brake of Reyes' truck was faulty.

The CHP report concluded that the truck had a leaking wheel-bearing seal on the right steer axle, which resulted in a buildup of lubricant on the brake shoes and friction surfaces of the brake drum. "This condition would result in reduced braking efficiency . . . and possible imbalanced braking," the report states.

Last year, prosecutors concluded in a memo that the truck's owner, Saia Motor Freight Line Inc., rather than Reyes, was responsible for the vehicle's maintenance. The prosecutors also determined that a defense expert could use a simulator program to show that Reyes had not been speeding.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said her agency had received "no new information" from the CHP. "As far as we're concerned, nothing's changed," she said.

In a statement issued by Saia, company officials underscored the CHP's finding that "nothing in the mechanical condition of the Saia truck was a contributing factor" in the crash.

They also noted that the CHP found that the accident occurred about "five football fields" south of the tunnel's southbound exit. And the multiple collisions inside the tunnel happened several minutes after the incident involving the Saia truck.

Saia officials said the California Department of Transportation was at fault for failing to ensure that the tunnel was adequately lighted and that hazard warning signs were functioning.

In a statement, Caltrans officials noted that the CHP concluded that "the tunnel was in compliance with all safety regulations." Since the crash, Caltrans has taken steps to improve visibility inside the tunnel, such as coating the walls with reflective paint, and installing a lighting system that simulates daylight, said spokeswoman Judy Gish.

The agency also has reduced the speed from 55 mph to 45 mph at the tunnel approaches and installed speed monitors, Gish said.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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