Runaway Trailers Kill: Safety Advocate Pushes For New Trailer Safety Laws

Runaway Trailers Kill: Safety Advocate Pushes For New Trailer Safety Laws
Rick Shapiro
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Posted by Rick ShapiroSeptember 26, 2009 9:52 AM

After my colleague Wayne Parsons posted a blog article touching on a runaway trailer death case and then I posted a story on a trailer injury case, I received a phone call from Ron Melancon, a Richmond, Virginia area man who has a strong interest in the lack of appropriate safety for vehicle trailers on highways and including regular state inspection, reflectorization and adequate safety chains or connecting devices. Have you ever witnessed a runaway trailer, or seen a trailer fall off a vehicle? They injure and kill innocent drivers every week around the nation and can shoot across traffic lanes like a missile. Melancon has made trailer safety regulation his passion after a personal incident he was involved in with a poorly illuminated trailer.

A group of my Injuryboard attorney colleagues are also interested in improved safety on vehicle trailers, and will be addressing runaway trailers and general trailer safety issues in a series of trailer safety articles: Michael Bryant of Bradshaw & Bryant PLLC in Waite Park, Minnesota, David Mittleman and Devon Glass of Church Wyble, PC in Lansing, Michigan, Pierce Egerton of Egerton & Associates P.A. in North Carolina, Steve Lombardi of The Lombardi Law Firm in Des Moines Iowa, Wayne Parsons of The Parsons Law Firm in Hawaii, Rick Shapiro of Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton, P.C. from Virginia and Northeast North Carolina (the author).

One big problem according to Melancon is that trailers that weigh less than 3,000 in gross weight are barely regulated by the Federal Government Department of Transportation. Individual states, such as Virginia, North Carolina and others, must decide whether to regulate trailers that weigh less than 3,000. And therein lies the problem: many of the trailer manufacturers around the country don't want regulations. They argue that it will take away jobs and cost a certain number of dollars per trailer. Melancon feels like this is a minimal issue because very small safety changes on trailers that weigh less than 3,000 pounds can make huge differences in health and safety of persons traveling on our nation's highways and interstates. And, he cites tragic injuries and deaths to prove it-like a recent Dinwiddie, Virginia(Va) runaway trailer that killed a young mother-a senseless death easily preventable with some basic trailer towing regulations and laws.

What got Melancon interested in this issue? Well, according to his injury blog on trailer safety, he actually was in an accident where he rear ended a person who had a trailer of the kind you see with lawn maintenance trucks or just other utility companies - it has the wire mesh or steel edges and is sort of a low profile trailer.

According to Melancon many of these smaller trailers towed behind cars and trucks have reflectors and safety lights, which are normally hooked to the car's brake light system-but often are not working. Further, these lights/reflectors often are not mounted close to the back edge of low profile trailers. In other words, at dusk or at night a driver approaching one of these trailers can be confused about where the rear of the trailer actually is-even if the taillights are working. One of the solutions Melancon lobbied for in the Commonwealth of Virginia was to require that reflectorized safety tape or actual reflectors be placed along the back edge of a trailer. VA's then Governor Warner (now U.S. Senator) signed the bill into law in 2004. That VA law reads:

There shall be affixed to the rear end of every trailer that has an unloaded weight of 3,000 pounds or less either two or more reflectors of a type approved by the Superintendent or at least 100 square inches of solid reflectorized material. The reflectors or reflective material shall be applied so as to outline the rear end of the trailer.

Melancon explained that several large trailer companies then lobbied for an amendment to the new law, to water down the safety regulation. The amendment removed reference to trailers 3,000 lbs or less and added:

For the purposes of this section, "utility trailer" means a trailer whose body and tailgate consist largely or exclusively of a metal mesh and whose end extends 18 inches or more beyond its taillights.

Melancon was astounded that Virginia legislators went along with this "legislative fix" which completely diluted trailer safety-it exempted all trailers that were equipped with “taillights” (that often may not work) within 18 inches of the rear. Also, taillights may not work may not be as effective as the reflective tape requirement. The new amendment excluded hundreds if not thousands of trailers. But its not just reflectorization involved, even more injuries and deaths are caused by inadequate or improper safety connections/safety chains between the trailer and the car or truck.

Runaway Trailers Injure and Kill Innocent Drivers

There is a picture in the link that follows of a car tragically crushed by a runaway trailer, the runaway trailer barrelling into the opposite lane ended the life of 20 year old Dinwiddie, Virginia (Va) mom named Caitlyn Johnson, who was simply driving her car lawfully down a Virginia highway.

Currently, Melancon is urging Virginia legislators to restore some reflectorized tape requirement, but also to require that a suitable strength safety chain or similar reliable device always accompany a trailer being pulled by a car or truck, even if weighing less than 3,000 pounds. Runaway trailers are instruments of interstate death and often kill innocent drivers, like the young mother in Dinwiddie Virginia who just recently suffered a preventable wrongful death due to a runaway trailer in Virginia.

Melancon explained to me that if a person in North Carolina or Virginia takes a fishing trip up to Canada that the Canadian police or sheriffs will pull over the vehicle and impound it if it does not have a safety chain connecting the car or truck and the trailer. He says its plain absurd that we don't have a requirement in Virginia (or many other states) that meets the same standard that Canada or the US government requires of trailers over 3,000 lbs!

A runaway 2,900 lb trailer going the wrong way on an interstate can and will cause death and airbags may not prevent you from being killed-especially by an oncoming missile like trailer heading the wrong way on an interstate. Trailer safety pointman Melancon is enlisting the support of every Virginia State delegate or Senator he can for new legislative remedies on regular, meaningful state inspections, on reflectorization, and probably most importantly: new safety chain connector laws. I note that Melancon is not a lawyer and is not in any official paid position on his trailer safety mission. He is simply an advocate speaking logic. These are the best safety people out there because they don't come to the table with any obvious bias one way or the other. Maybe not pure as driven snow, but about as strong a safety advocate as exists.

My take: visit the trailer safety blog that Melancon has been writing and blogging on for years at and send him a message if you would like more information about promoting trailer safety in Virginia or your state along the lines of the logical measures that Melancon has been backing.

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