Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Activist presses to end trailer fatalities

By Eric Heyl
Friday, December 19, 2008

When he heard about Michelle Kott's death, Ron Melancon understandably was horrified.

But after spending more than five years documenting accidents involving passenger vehicles that tow trailers, the Glen Allen, Va., man wasn't surprised.

"I've seen this happen way too often," said Melancon, 43, a retail sales manager. "Until we get some meaningful safety standards in place nationally, it's going to continue to happen."

Kott, 36, of Ellsworth was killed Monday on Route 19 in North Strabane when a trailer came loose from the truck that was towing it, crossed into oncoming traffic and crashed into the car she was driving.

The tragedy was similar to a horrific April 2006 incident in which a wood chipper detached from a truck and slammed into a minivan on Route 8 in Richland. The crash claimed the life of teacher Spencer Morrison, 37, of Cranberry and two of his 4-year-old triplets.

Freak occurrences?

Not according to federal statistics and the Web site Melancon maintains, www.dangeroustrailers.org, which keeps a running tally of such incidents.

In 2005, the most recent year information was available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 64,275 such accidents causing 425 deaths and 16,482 injuries.

Between 2003 and 2007, according to Melancon's count, 2,000 people have been killed and 120,000 injured in accidents involving passenger vehicles towing trailers.

Melancon took up the safety cause after rear-ending a small trailer at night in 2003. Because the rear of the trailer lacked reflective material, he failed to see it attached to the back of a truck.

The minor accident prompted Melancon to successfully lobby Virginia legislators in 2004 to pass a law requiring trailers to be fitted with either two reflectors or 100 square inches of reflective material.

While researching the issue during the lobbying effort, he discovered how common such accidents are.

According to Melancon, the problem is that safety standards vary from state to state for large trailers and are virtually nonexistent for smaller trailers.

He noted that many states -- including Pennsylvania -- don't require trailers under 3,000 pounds to be inspected. "And guess what kind of trailers are most commonly involved in accidents?" he said.

Melancon applauds local programs such as Operation SOAR (Safe Operations Are Your Responsibility) -- a joint venture of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the Allegheny County Police and Pennsylvania State Police and the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

The annual one-day safety seminars, initiated after the Morrision accident, provide driver training in securely connecting trailers to vehicles and properly attaching safety chains.

But Melancon believes such training should be mandatory before people are permitted to take to the road with a trailer.

"Why do people have to keep dying before we act?"

Eric Heyl is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at eheyl@tribweb.com or 412-320-7857.

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