Fuel truck spills too frequent

There have been too many major fuel truck spills snarling commuter traffic on Bay Area roads in the last 18 months. Only this week the major corridor between San Francisco and Silicon Valley was crippled in both directions for most of two days. The tie-up began at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Redwood City when a northbound minivan on U.S. Highway 101 suddenly veered rightward and clipped the rear tire of a big rig towing two fuel-tank trailers.

The tanker flipped onto its side and spilled some 2,000 gallons of gasoline over 200 feet of highway, overflowing into a drainage pipe at the center divider and then across to the southbound lanes. Because the highly flammable fuel could have easily ignited, even from normal friction of vehicular tires, lanes were shut down in both directions and an estimated 200,000 daily vehicles had to crawl along inadequate detours.

Rush-hour delays tripled the road time of thousands of drivers, while dozens of firefighters, police, hazmat personnel and public works repair crews worked around the clock to reopen traffic. Due to the extreme fire danger, Caltrans could not use grinding tools to remove the gas-soaked road surface. Instead, crews used a large tractor with a front scoop. A second day of northbound lane closures became necessary when the asphalt actually had to be repaved. Spilled gasoline was dissolving the rubber that holds the pavement together.

This particular incident is still under investigation. But so far it appears to have been unavoidable and in no way the fuel trucker’s fault. The minivan driver insists that she was forced to veer right to avoid rear-ending another vehicle. However, the fuel truck owner, KAG West of West Sacramento, was involved in a spill mishap last year while hauling 8,600 gallons of gasoline through Golden Gate Park. And KAG West was also reportedly cited 17 times in California between January and May 2007.

Tuesday’s accident was not unlike a fatal crash on Highway 101 near the Woodside Road exit last May. In last year’s accident, a southbound big rig swerved out of control and burst into flames on the highway. Debris from the crash damaged three other cars and killed a driver. At least nobody got hurt in the latest Highway 101 accident.

But of course the highway gasoline spill that really got the Bay Area’s attention was last April’s MacArthur Maze crash, when an inexperienced tanker driver who was reportedly speeding shut down the eastern approaches to the Bay Bridge for 10 days.

The question raised by all this is: Who’s in charge and are they doing enough to keep the highways safe? Gasoline tanker trucks delivering to the pumps at gas stations will be a necessary feature of existence for some time to come. But does California maintain high enough standards of regulating fuel truck companies and drivers? We would like to know much more about this before some future road spill results in a massive death count as well as a regional traffic paralysis.

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