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Speeding cited as cause of deadly tunnel crash

February 6, 2009 | 10:53 am
A chain-reaction traffic accident involving at least 15 big rig trucks on a rain slicked Interstate 5 freeway in the Newhall Pass caused the closure of north and south lanes on the 5 and Antelope Valley (14) freeways late Friday, October 12, 2007.

A trucker’s high rate of speed and not a "deficient" brake system is believed to be the main cause of the driver's losing control of his vehicle and triggering a deadly pile-up in an Interstate 5 tunnel near Santa Clarita in 2007, the California Highway Patrol has concluded.

Trucker Jose Reyes, 29, was driving south on the rain-slicked freeway at more than 65 mph when he veered to the left and crashed into a concrete barrier after driving through the tunnel, according to a CHP report obtained this week by The Times.

The crash set off chain-reaction collisions behind him that killed a 6-year-old boy and two adults and injured 23 others.

“It is believed that the initial loss of control of [his vehicle] was predominately the result of Jose Reyes driving at a high rate of speed and was not the result of any mechanical condition,” the investigation  found.

After the Oct. 12, 2007, collision, investigators reconstructed the accident to gauge Reyes’ speed.

“Speed is overwhelmingly what we’re looking at here as a causal factor,” said Sgt. Mark Garrett. “The other factors may or may not have been a contributing factor.”

Los Angeles County prosecutors declined to file vehicular manslaughter charges against Reyes, following preliminary findings detailed in a memo last year.

Cited among their reasons was the finding by investigators that the right front brake of Reyes’ truck was faulty. The CHP report concluded that the truck had a leaking wheel bearing seal on the right steer axle, which resulted in a buildup of lubricant on the brake shoes and friction surfaces of the brake drum.

“This condition would result in reduced braking efficiency ... and possible imbalanced braking,” the report said. Last year, prosecutors concluded in a memo that the truck’s owner, Saia Motor Freight Line, rather than Reyes, was responsible for the vehicle’s maintenance.

The prosecutors also determined that a defense expert could also use a simulator program to show that Reyes had not been speeding.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman with the district attorney’s office said her agency had received “no new information” from the CHP.

“As far as we’re concerned, nothing’s changed,” Robison said.

In a statement issued by Saia Motor Freight, officials underscored the CHP’s finding that “nothing in the mechanical condition of the Saia truck was a contributing factor” in the crash.

They also noted that the CHP found that the accident involving their truck had occurred about “five football fields” south of the tunnel’s southbound exit. And the multiple collisions inside the tunnel happened several minutes after the incident involving the Saia truck.

The California Department of Transportation was at fault for failing to ensure that the tunnel was adequately lit and that hazard warning signs were functioning, Saia officials said.

In a statement, Caltrans officials noted that the California Highway Patrol had concluded that “the tunnel was in compliance with all safety regulations.”

Since the crash, Caltrans has taken several steps to improve visibility inside the tunnel, such as coating the walls with reflective paint, and installing a lighting system that simulates daylight, said Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish.

The agency has also reduced the speed from 55 mph to 45 mph at the tunnel approaches, and installed interactive speed monitors at both ends of the tunnel, Gish said.

-- Ann Simmons

Photo: A chain-reaction traffic accident involving at least 15 big rig trucks on a rain slicked Interstate 5 freeway in the Newhall Pass caused the closure of north and south lanes on the 5 and Antelope Valley (14) freeways late Friday, October 12, 2007. Credit: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times

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