ELDs and rolling truck bombs in California

November 7, 2022

John Bendel

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California Highway Patrol wants to mandate ELDs in trucks that operate only within the state. According to CHP documents, the idea is to bring California into compliance with federal electronic logging device requirements.

What’s this? California wants to follow the feds rather than go its own way? Is this the same California that wants to regulate away diesel engines? The same California that’s trying to eliminate trucking’s traditional owner-operators? The same California that consistently enacts laws and issues regulations that strongly separate it from all the other states that it pisses off in the process?

Wait. California Highway Patrol has more to say. Quoting that document again, “ELDs will enhance commercial vehicle safety by improving compliance with the applicable (hours of service) rules and reducing the overall paperwork burden for both motor carriers and drivers.”

Clearly, they have not been paying attention to post-ELD safety stats. ELDs have not made roads safer and may make them more dangerous. And when did the California Highway Patrol start worrying about other people’s paperwork?

So, what’s the real reason for intrastate ELDs in California?

Beats me. But I’m not surprised. After all, we’re talking about the same highway patrol that once proposed we mandate something that was officially called the “Truck Stopping Device.”

The Truck Stopping Device was introduced in November 2001, two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But that was a coincidence. It was actually created in response to an earlier incident.

In January 2001, 37-year-old Mike Bowers, driving for Dick Simon Trucking of Salt Lake City, picked up a load of evaporated milk in Modesto, Calif. At about 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 16, Bowers drove the loaded truck north on 11th Street in Sacramento. He picked up speed, blasting his horn and running red lights to the end of 11th Street. There, he sped across N Street, onto the grounds of the state capitol and directly into the capitol building itself. The violent crash tore off the saddle tanks and ignited a spectacular fire. Miraculously, there was only one casualty. Bowers died in the crash and blaze.

People began wondering what would have happened if the trailer had been loaded with, say, gasoline instead of evaporated milk. All that wondering caused then-Gov. Gray Davis to order the highway patrol to come up with a way to stop a truckload of gas before it could be used as a rolling terrorist bomb. The agency came through for the governor – boy did they ever. Here is how it was described by the highway patrol in the “Truck Stopping Device Fact Sheet:”

“This is a mechanical device attached to the back of a tanker truck, designed to stop a stolen or hijacked truck. When bumped by a CHP cruiser from the rear, a blade on the inside of the bumper sheers the air hose to brakes. The brakes on all such trucks are designed to lock in the event of the loss of air pressure.”

Got that? A California Highway Patrol car drives up behind the dangerous truck and bumps into it. The truck stops and countless lives are saved.

Gov. Davis himself was on hand for the debut demonstration of the Truck Stopping Device on Nov. 18, 2001. Oh, the Truck Stopping Device worked, alright – at least in the empty parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum. A highway patrol car tapped the back of a tanker truck, which came to a very civilized stop. Some people were amazed. Some were stunned. Others thought California state government and the highway patrol had lost their marbles.

A vast, empty parking lot was one thing. Public streets and highways were something else. What if it happens at high speed and the truck, uncontrollable with its wheels locked, skidded into a deadly crash. What if the truck driver – presumably a terrorist who stole or hijacked the truck – tried to evade a California Highway Patrol bump by rapidly changing lanes, swinging the trailer violently back and forth and shoving innocent drivers off the road? What if CHP bumped the wrong tanker truck causing a crash and explosion – just like the one they were trying to prevent?

Or maybe a truck is doing what it was supposed to do and the car that hit it from behind was not a highway patrol officer but a mom who looked away at just the wrong instant. Now there would be a fuel tanker with locked-up wheels blocking the street at the worst possible time. Is there any other time for a traffic blockage?

Almost exactly two years later, in 2003, Gov. Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It should have happened that day at the Oakland Coliseum.

It turned out Dick Simon Trucking had been warned not to hire Mike Bowers, who had a record of crime and mental illness.

They hired him anyway (there was a so-called driver shortage then too). Not surprisingly, the state of California sued for damages to the capitol building, and in 2002 Dick Simon Trucking declared bankruptcy. The company was acquired by Central Refrigerated Lines.

In 2004, the Simon family started a new company called Simon Transport. In a timeline on its website, Simon Transport traces its beginnings back to Dick Simon Trucking in 1955, but for 2001 on the timeline, there is nothing.

No, I don’t expect a timeline entry that says “A bad hire attacked the California capitol building with a truckload of evaporated milk.” I’m just sayin’…

And I’m certainly not maligning the men and women of California Highway Patrol. They do a demanding, essential job, and their predecessors 20 years ago probably had little or nothing to do with the Truck Stopping Device. Hell, they’d be the ones required to chase and run into a rolling bomb.

No, it had to be the upper echelons of California Highway Patrol command, precursors of the folks who now want ELDs in California trucks that never leave the state.

Are ELDs even remotely comparable to the Truck Stopping Device? Of course not.

Except maybe in one regard: they’re both bad ideas. LL

PrePass

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.