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

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