Monday, February 18, 2008

Glen Allen man seeks federal trailer rules

Glen Allen man seeks federal trailer rules
Safety quest continues up ladder four years after collision with dark trailer
Tuesday, Dec 25, 2007 - 12:08 AM


Sometimes Ron Melancon thinks about giving up his four-year fight for safer trailers on the road.

Melancon, a 42-year-old manager at Macy's in Regency Square mall in Henrico County, successfully lobbied the General Assembly in 2004 to require trailers of less than 3,000 pounds to have two or more reflectors or 100 or more square inches of solid reflective material in the rear.

He says the trailers are unsafe because without reflectors, drivers can't see them at night. They can also come loose and cause wrecks.

"When I want to give up, I always go back and say, 'Ron, you always fought back,'" he said. "So, how callous of me would it be if I chose to stop and something happens to my family? How hypocritical would that be?"

Melancon now wants the federal government to set national standards, which currently vary by state. He also wants the government to require a class on safe towing for trailer owners and inspection for trailers less than 3,000 pounds, and to set standards for homemade trailers.

"A trailer in Virginia should be a trailer in New York and a trailer in Massachusetts," he said.

Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, added some amendments to tighten the legislation passed by the assembly. He said the federal government should be doing an investigation and collecting data on trailers coming loose and causing wrecks.

"I've not seen anybody come up with the technical changes that would be needed to change or require change in those trailers' hitches," Watkins said. "I'm not sure whether they are being improperly hitched to the towing vehicle, or whether the flaw is in the engineering or the design of hitches."

It would be difficult to enforce state restrictions, or mandate a safety course or inspections, because trailers are universal, Watkins added.

"I think [Ron] is a man with a cause," he said. "It is obviously important to him, and it should be important to anybody."

Melancon, who lives in Glen Allen with his wife, Dawn, and children, Zachary, 8, and Megan, 3, began his battle on trailer safety after he hit the rear of a trailer with his minivan at night in 2003.

"I was paying attention," he said. "I wasn't on the cell phone. I was looking ahead of me. I saw this truck, but I didn't see the trailer."

Melancon contested the following-too-closely charge that resulted from the collision, and a Henrico County judge dismissed it.

Since then, he has spent thousands of dollars and countless hours -- sometimes until early morning -- maintaining a Web site on trailer crashes and disseminating information about trailer hazards to public officials, newspaper editorial pages and anyone else who will listen.

. . .

In Virginia, trailers weighing more than 3,000 pounds are required by state law to have brakes and to be inspected, but those weighing less are not.

The Virginia Crash Investigation Team, based at Virginia Commonwealth University, issued a detailed report last year of a trailer that came loose and killed a driver in 2003 in Virginia and urged training for law enforcement to identify violations on trailers.

It also advised the Department of Motor Vehicles, state police and members of the General Assembly to review the current administrative code.

State troopers get some training in identifying obvious violations and hazards. A specialized unit also assists troopers in accidents involving trailers.

"However, the Virginia code is silent as to any design or construction specifications for these vehicles or for towing chains and hitches," the report states.

Worn tires and lights that don't work are common problems on trailers, said Trooper A.J. Puckett with the Crash Investigation Team. "There are a lot of problems with them."

Statistics on the number of accidents and deaths specifically caused by trailers are not collected.

But in 2004, the most current year for which statistics are available, there were more than 65,000 crashes in the nation involving passenger vehicles towing trailers, which resulted in 358 deaths and 17,617 injuries, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. The number of accidents, injuries and trailer-related incidents resulting in property damage increased by 20 percent from the previous year.

Melancon gathers news reports from across the country about trailers coming loose and causing fatalities.

Manufacturers recall food, vehicles and tires when they cause deaths, he said.

"Excuse me: 400 people are killed a year due to a manufactured product that comes unhitched, runs along the highway and kills people," he said. "How many more people have to die for you to do something?"

John Slavnik, who has been a salesman at Trailer World in Gloucester Point since it opened 10 years ago, said visibility at night is a big issue for trailers. They should have reflectors on the side too, in case a back light is burned out, he said.

"The more reflectors they have, the better," Slavnik said.

Dawn Melancon has mixed feelings about her husband's cause. It takes a lot of his personal time, she said.

"It's a good thing if it makes a change or saves somebody's life," she said. "But a lot of times he keeps going and going, and you say, 'Oh my gosh, is he going to get anywhere?'"

Contact Juan Antonio Lizama at (804) 649-6513 or

He speaks his mind

He speaks his mind
A Glen Allen man has lots of ideas to better the world, and he's not afraid to share them


Apr 13, 2006

Ron Melancon calls himself an idea guy.

Solutions to everyday problems fill his head, from constructing a Ukrop's drive-through lane for fried chicken and pizza to improving the safety of trailers to using cell phones to find missing children.

Melancon calls radio stations. He lobbies state legislators. He sends out e-mails, sometimes at 2 a.m.

He has at least two Web sites. And a video.

"I am not looking for gratitude," the Glen Allen resident said. "My son will tell you, 'Daddy is trying to save the world.'"

He's flamboyant. He's opinionated. He's chatty. Some would even say he's a tad over the top.

But one thing is for sure. Melancon, 41, speaks his mind -- to anyone who will listen.

"A lot of people go through life saying someone else will do it. Well, that someone else is me," Melancon said.

Many know Melancon, a manager in the Hecht's suit department at Regency Square mall, from his public crusade against unsafe trailers.

Melancon keeps a digital camera in his car to snap pictures of dangerous trailers on the road. He sends state legislators daily e-mails, including news stories about accidents involving trailers and "Jeopardy!" questions he makes up about trailers.

He even put together a video of dangerous trailers set to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and is distributing it to news agencies nationwide.

Not everyone appreciates Melancon and his messages.

Del. Harvey B. Morgan, R-Middlesex, sent Melancon this e-mail response last year.

"There are appropriate avenues to approach a problem. A daily barrage of pictures and e-mails is not productive use of anyone's time," Morgan wrote in the October e-mail.

But Melancon, a father of two, also has his supporters.

"Ron is an active citizen who advocates for the issues he cares about from the heart," Bill Dolbow, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Eric I. Cantor, R-7th, said in an e-mail response to The Times-Dispatch.

"He is very forthright with his input to the office, he works hard to improve our com-munity and country, and I appreciate his dedication."

Melancon believes his passion stems from his rocky childhood.

"It made me more sensitive," he said.

Melancon was born 3 pounds, 2 ounces in Houston.

Although he is now Catholic, Melancon said he was raised Jewish. Melancon said that when his family moved to New York, he attended Catholic school but felt out of place.

Mary Ann Stonehouse, Melancon's mother, gave birth to Ron when she was just 16. His father left when he was 1.

"Ronnie saw a lot of things. He tried to protect me," said Stonehouse, who lives in Richmond. "He really cares about other people."

But long before questioning flatbed towing devices, Melancon successfully lobbied the General Assembly for a license plate to commemorate Sept. 11 victims and another plate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

He also designed a Web site filled with helpful hints for tying bow ties (with step-by-step pictures) and is pushing plans to build a monorail system in Richmond.

But his main issue is trailers.

Melancon has spent nearly $10,000 and three years trying to bring the dangers of trailers to the public's attention, he said. These dangers include the tendency for the trailers to become unhitched if not secured properly and appear transparent if not lit properly.

Melancon's campaign, which he conducts from his upstairs home office called the "war room," stems from an accident three years ago. Melancon rear-ended a trailer and was issued a ticket.

He said the trailer was so low-slung and transparent that he looked right through it and saw only the truck towing it.

After enrolling in an online safe-driving course to avoid conviction for causing an accident by following too closely, he took his case to the General Assembly. He has since approached members of Congress.

But Melancon's work hasn't been all talk.

Two years ago, the assembly passed a law that requires drivers to have two reflectors or 100 square inches of reflectorized tape on the rear of every trailer that weighs less than 3,000 pounds.

Melancon said he has consistently lobbied against efforts to dilute the law, saying more should be done, including requiring trailers to pass an inspection process. He said too often they are homemade and operated dangerously.

Although Melancon has received a number of terse e-mails from state delegates asking him to stop contacting them, other people admire his devotion.

Rick Gunn, a technician at Village West Auto Care in Henrico County, is one of them.

"I think it's an excellent effort," Gunn said. "I think something should be done about it myself. There are too many of those trailers around, and no one bothers to check them."

Melancon said he is not fazed by his detractors.

"A lot of people are afraid to take up causes," he said. "If I'm right, I'm going to go for it. I'm a guy who cares."

Contact staff writer Meredith Bonny at or (804) 649-6452.

Sunday, February 3, 2008




Q.I disagree with your comments about reflectors on small trailers. A woman clumsily burns herself on coffee and sues McDonald's, causing a law requiring all coffee cups to have warning labels that coffee may be hot. Chesterfield County resident Ron Melancon rear-ends a trailer and a state law is enacted requiring additional reflectors on trailers. What happened to personal responsibility?

-R. Dave

A.So you're saying I can mount something that is very hard to see on the back of my vehicle, and it's your fault if you run into it?

That's great. I'd love to add a long pole with a boxing glove on the end and give tailgaters a big surprise.

But seriously, a caller who did not leave his name had this differing opinion:

"Your trailer piece was very informative. On U.S. 360 near state Route 288, a woman was killed when a trailer came loose and went across the median. Your piece brought back the memory that it's not just a problem with debris hitting your car but actually someone's life being taken."

Indeed. I passed the wreckage after that Oct. 2 accident. Police say a homemade trailer came loose from a pickup driven by Benjamin J. Frazer, 25, of the 3400 block of Oakmeadow Lane, crossed into the westbound lane and hit a Cadillac driven by Elaine Lois Decker, 51, killing her.

Chesterfield police have charged Frazer with reckless driving. In addition, he was charged with eight other violations relating to defective equipment and licensing.

This isn't like someone burning herself with her own coffee. Let's make these things safe.



Q.It seems that every pickup driver with a lawn mower has a flatbed trailer attached. These stupid contraptions never have working lights, plus they're wider than the truck itself.

Instead of having DUI checkpoints, why don't the police stop every one of these to check on working lights?

- Annie P.

A.Annie, meet Ron Melancon.

He is a local driver who got a ticket in May 2003 after rear- ending a steel-mesh trailer. He said he couldn't see the empty trailer.

He then persuaded the General Assembly to pass a law requiring trailers weighing less than 3,000 pounds unloaded to have two reflectors or 100 square inches of reflectorized tape on the rear.

The law is on the books. But take a look when you're driving, and you'll see that a lot of trailers are not in compliance.

And it gets worse.

A study this year of different types of trailers found that the lights they're equipped with often don't work.

"More than 50 percent [53 percent] of towing vehicles and trailers received only moderate or poor rankings on their electrical systems, which means that brake lights, turn signals and reverse lights may not work properly," the study found.

The study, by Customer Profiles Ltd. and Master Lock, involved inspections it did in June and July on more than 500 trailers, campers and other items.

The study also notes one of my pet peeves: that 44 percent of bungee cords studied were in poor or moderate condition and improperly placed, meaning they could fail and dump cargo on the road.

Melancon, who has become an activist on this issue, forwarded the study to me.

In addition to not enforcing the reflector law, "why are we accepting a failure rate of 50 percent" on the lights, he asks.

Good question. It's not that I want a lot of tickets handed out. But perhaps our traffic officials can keep a sharper eye on trailers.



Ron Melancon complained to a lot of people about the ticket he got for rear-ending an empty, steel-mesh trailer in May 2003.

The trailer was so low-slung and the mesh back of the empty trailer so transparent that he looked right through it and saw only the truck towing it, he told them.

Nobody wanted to hear him, Melancon said. "You hit him in the rear. Pay your fine and move on" was the message he consistently received.

Melancon took an online safe-driving course to avoid a conviction for causing an accident by following too closely.

But he didn't just move on.

Instead, he went to his representative in the General Assembly, Del. John S. Reid, R-Henrico, "who gave me an opportunity to vent," Melancon said.

Reid also agreed to sponsor a bill that would make the trailers, which are often used to haul landscape equipment, more visible.

"We decided that the way to do it was to outline the rear of the vehicle of the trailer with reflective tape or reflectors, so there'd be no depth perception problems," Reid said.

'Hopefully, this will help'

"Some of those vehicles [extend] as much as 2 feet from the little fender over the rear wheel, where in most cases there's a reflector mounted, and the end of the trailer itself.

"So someone who's fixated on the reflector and maybe has a depth perception problem or not really looking can be in the back of one of those things without realizing it," he said. "Hopefully, this will help."

The bill passed the General Assembly without a dissenting vote and awaits the signature of Gov. Mark R. Warner. It would take effect July 1. New trailers sold after then must have the reflectors, but the law does not provide a penalty for not having one on an older trailer.

The law requires two reflectors or 100 square inches of reflectorized tape on the rear of every trailer that weighs less than 3,000 pounds.

Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Powhatan, lent his support to the proposal and helped defeat a suggestion that would have required as much as two years for a study of its impact, Melancon said.

Used insurance payment

Melancon didn't just make the suggestion to Reid and depend on him to carry the bill. Instead, he used the $2,400 his insurance company paid him for repairs to his minivan to buy 19 ink-jet cartridges and print 5,000 pages promoting the bill.

Melancon, manager of the men's department at Hecht's Regency Square store, also led the successful effort to get a specialty license plate for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Carter Hill, the organization's state chairman, said the group had considered such a plate for years, but winning approval for one "takes a lot of time and energy" and the group had so many other projects that it never made the plate a priority.

Melancon certainly doesn't lack for energy, Hill said. "He's very thorough; he's very tenacious. . . . We're glad we've got him."

The plate has the MADD acronym on it with the "no" symbol over a car key and a martini glass.

"Once we get those plates out, maybe it will remind people not to drink and drive, just by seeing that plate," Hill said.

The MADD plate was the second effort by Melancon to win approval for a specialty plate. He and Christopher Mingus, a Boy Scout from Virginia Beach, combined their ideas in 2002 for a "United We Stand" plate remembering Sept. 11.

Melancon has a "United We Stand" plate on his minivan. It was crumpled in the collision with the trailer.

Credit: Times-Dispatch Staff Writer