Commercial truck drivers will soon be under a more watchful eye as the Oakhurst California Highway Patrol plans to increase its enforcement efforts May 1, Public Information Officer Kaci Lutz said.
“An event with a logging truck could be catastrophic, no doubt about it,” Lutz said. “At the end of the day, it’s our job to make sure the roadways are safe.”
The increased patrols aren’t directly related to three truck crashes that took place in a single week on Highway 49 from April 5-12, which forced brief to extended closures and long delays. Instead, Cal Fire forester Len Nielson said May 1 marks the time when commercial logging will transfer out of the winter season, meaning more drivers and more trucks on the road.
“There’s heightened awareness this year, as there has been in recent years, to go with the tree mortality crisis,” Lutz said. “So we’re obviously going to look for extra enforcement on the trucks in this area.”
To that end, Lutz said the recent addition of Sgt. Chris Finnegan, and his six years of experience in commercial enforcement, will prove a valuable asset.
“He’s very much an asset in other ways as a sergeant,” Lutz said, “but especially on the commercial end given his background.”
Lutz said the primary problem behind the rise in truck crashes may be an influx of drivers from out of the county or state, who aren’t familiar with Mountain Area roads.
“Those are the ones we’re typically seeing involved in these collisions,” Lutz said. “The truckers from here, who are local drivers, are not a problem.”
All three drivers in last week’s wrecks were from outside Madera County.
On April 5, Jonathan Costello, 28 of Bakersfield, crashed into an embankment near Harmony Lane possibly due, as he told officers, to a cable that snapped and caused a load of logs to shift and throw his truck off balance.
April 10, Justin Bennett, 30 of Missouri, told officers his brakes gave out, causing him to barrel off the highway near Knickerbocker Road. That forced closures of the highway as well as extended one-way traffic controls.
Then, two days later, the boom of a truck driven by Brian Kopka, 47 of Paradise, struck power lines near the Ahwahnee fire station.
The cause of all three crashes remains under investigation. In each, no injuries were reported, and no drugs or alcohol were suspected.
Despite that, Lutz said added enforcement will help ensure safer roadways.
“Given our situation right now, with all the dead trees, we want to make sure logging trucks, and trucks related to the logging industry, are operating safely and legally,” Lutz said.
Lutz said officials have also discussed setting up checkpoints to inspect commercial vehicles for safety defects or other related issues. Many dead or dying trees - of the more than 100 million in California - are being transported to a logging compound on Highway 49, across from the Oakhurst CHP office, to be ground into mulch for use in bioenergy facilities.
While checkpoint discussions are underway, Lutz said drivers should take extra caution around logging vehicles, and exercise patience.
“They’re trying to do their job in a safe manner and clean up trees in our area,” Lutz said. “So exercise caution and patience when you’re on the roadway with them. They’re trying to do a good thing. But on the same note, they’ve got to be safe and in compliance with the law.”