The tragic 2010 accident described below which occurred in Southern California should serve as a precautionary warning to both motorists and professional commercial truck drivers.
All across America, little white crosses are embedded in fields and roadsides in memorium of victims of tragic auto accidents- lives cut short in an instant, in the blink of an eye. The victims of these accidents were undoubtedly going about their business and certainly never expected to die that day. This recap is presented not to place blame, but rather in the sincere hopes that people remain actively vigilant, conscious and particularly careful when they drive.
Look at this photo. This is what happened when a big rig struck the back of an SUV in heavy traffic. Both vehicles exploded into flames and a family of four, who had simply been going out for a pizza, was trapped in their SUV burned alive. That accident will be summarized here with links to news articles on the matter, followed by some general points to remember.
The accident occurred at approx. 12:30PM on Saturday February 13, 2010 on Interstate 15 just south of Jurupa Ave, in Ontario, California. A family of four from Redlands, CA were killed, including Ryan Villalpando, 32, his wife Veronica Villalpando 29, their son Mateo, 4, and infant daughter Bella Rose. Villalpando was a popular football coach at Moreno Valley High School, which held a memorial at the high school honoring the family following the tragedy.
The Village News reported "The wreck involved three big rigs and three other vehicles, and the Villalpandos' vehicle was trapped between two of the trucks and burst into flames, according to the California Highway Patrol."
This video report from ABC News shows a memorial for the family as well as a brief video segment of the actual accident scene itself, (taken by a passing motorist) of the truck and car engulfed by smoke and flames.
A news videographer filmed further aftermath of the accident and conducted an interview with CHP at the scene. That footage can be seen at onscene.tv. To view it, click on the accident tab and select February 13th 2010.
Two days after the accident, a local blogger at brokencountry.com who travels the I-15 regularly described the problems on that section of the freeway:
"...There is more to this story that I have not seen mentioned in the news reports about this horrible tragedy. There is a huge problem on the 15 Freeway from the 210 Pasadena Freeway, down through the 60 Los Angeles Freeway. Cal-Trans, the freeway maintenance and construction agency run by the state of California, has been running a number of projects on the 15 freeway for more than a year now. There have been a lot of accidents because of their construction. I was in a small accident a couple of weeks ago because of the construction, when a Cal-Trans dump truck came off of the center divider and went across all four traffic lanes causing me to swerve to avoid the debris that was falling off of the back of his truck. I ran over a traffic cone and a piece of concrete form lumber. This flattened two of my tires and ruined the front bumper of the car. The traffic lanes change almost daily, being moved from one side of the freeway to the other, and you never know what to expect one day to the next..."
Nine months later, The Orange County Register reported on the fate of the truck driver:
"George Leslie Pelonis, 60, was charged with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, with authorities saying he was traveling at an "unsafe rate of speed for the conditions that existed" on the freeway when he rear-ended an SUV, pinning its passengers between two tractor-trailer semi-trucks as they burned to death, said David Hidalgo, a supervising deputy district attorney at the San Bernardino District Attorney's Office." [Anaheim trucker charged in crash that killed 4 Nov. 12, 2010]
Nearly a year after the driver was charged, The Orange County Register reported that the driver pled guilty to charges and was sentenced to jail:
Anaheim trucker sentenced for crash that killed 4 [Oct. 3, 2011]
"An Anaheim trucker will serve nine months in jail after admitting to his role in a chain-reaction crash on the I-15 freeway that killed a Redlands family of four, prosecutors said. As part of a plea deal, George Leslie Pelonis pleaded guilty Friday to four counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and is expected to begin his jail sentence later this month, said Alicia Berry, a deputy district attorney at the San Bernardino District Attorney's Office.
....Authorities say Pelonis was traveling at an "unsafe rate of speed for the conditions that existed" when he rear-ended an SUV, pinning its passengers between two tractor-trailer trucks as they burned to death. The fatal accident took place in stop-and-go traffic on the southbound I-15 near Jurupa Avenue just after noon Feb. 13, 2010. While other drivers were traveling between 10 mph and 30 mph, Pelonis reportedly admitted to driving more than 40 mph.
The Orange County Register followed up on Oct. 17, 2011 with an article which included a short statement from the truck driver.
Trucker's email: 'Accident happened so fast'
"...Pelonis said he misspoke when initially telling investigators that he was driving more than 40 mph while other drivers were traveling between 10 mph and 30 mph. He now estimates that he was going between 30 and 35 mph, since the gear he was driving in tops out at 38 mph, and another driver passed him going 40 mph. "I wasn't on my phone, and I wasn't taking drugs," Pelonis wrote in an email to The Orange County Register. "The accident happened so fast that I couldn't stop. There was nowhere for me to go due to the (freeway) construction at the time. I believe that this accident happened in front of me, and I was caught up at the end of it." His truck's "jake brake" � a three-stage brake that slows down the engine � was on full, Pelonis said, but couldn't stop the truck in time. Pelonis says he tried everything he could to save Veronica Villalpondo as she died before his eyes, suffering burns to his hands, arm and face in the process.
..."At the advice of my attorney, I pleaded guilty for the simple reason that had we gone to trial I could have gotten four years in the county jail," Pelonis wrote. "And California law states that the last vehicle is at fault. ... I truly believe that because I was a truck driver, the authorities decided to pursue criminal charges. If I had been driving my car, I do believe that no charges would have been filed."
Another point is to be aware of what is in front of you and behind you while you are already on the road. While it may be your right to drive between two big rigs, it is never a good idea. You may even be behind a big rig with no one behind you, but then a truck may change lanes and get behind you. You are now sandwhiched between two big rigs, even if you did not intend to be. It is in your best interest to get out of that position immediately.
Some big rig drivers are bad drivers. They often tailgate, and exceed the speed limit, which is illegal. They should be cited for these offenses. When the driver of a big rig is tailgating, following too close, that is an extremely deadly and dangerous proposition. However, you as the driver of a passenger vehicle have no control over what a bad driver does, so it is prudent to get the heck out of the maniac's way. You don't want to be sandwhiched between two big rigs. You may even want to call the police to report him. I have done that personally and will do it again if necessary. While I do not support cops acting as mere revenue agents, there are indeed some legitimate duties they should perform, and arresting reckless drivers is one of them. Commercial drivers who tailgate should be off the road.
Most commercial drivers, however, are good cautious drivers. They are hard-working individuals providing for their families, and are oftentimes away from their family and friends for long periods at a time. They are hauling giant trailers, perhaps multiple trailers with all types of freight; these vehicles weigh as much as 40 tons. So for goodness sakes, please be conscious and give them a break if you see that a big rig is trying to merge onto a road, or is trying to exit a road, or if they need to change lanes. If possible and safe, give them the courtsey of letting them merge where they need to go.
One last note: many state laws mandate that vehicles slow down or move over when there is a vehicle stopped on the side of the road. This is good policy. So if you ever see any vehicles stopped on the shoulder of the road, whether or not the vehicle has its emergency flashers on, please use your blinker and safely change lanes to the left of the stranded vehicle. Remember that big rigs practice this maneuver as policy, so if you have a big rig in front of you and you're both approaching a stranded vehicle or a cop giving someone a ticket etc, be aware that the big rig is probably going to need to signal and change lanes to the left before passing the stranded vehicles. Don't be a selfish moron and try to pass or block the truck as he is changing lanes. The truck will most likely return to his right lane as soon as he gets past the hazard.
Years ago I read about an accident on the 60 freeway in Southern California in which a woman was standing outside of a stalled car on the right shoulder of the freeway and a big rig came by and stuck her, killing her immediately. The driver was not charged in that case. If you're ever driving and have car problems, do everything you can to avoid stopping on the freeway. I tell my wife that if she ever gets flat tire, better to drive it on the rim, but do not stop on the freeway for any reason; it is extremely dangerous and you are taking your life in your hands. You are a breath away from instant death every time you stop your car on the freeway.
Note: I am not in law enforcement or a traffic engineer; I am a commercial truck driver who drives in all 48 states, in all types of weather. I have seen many accidents. I have a clean safety record and hope these observations have been helpful.