Resident Gil Martin reviews a new trailer law with Henrico Police Officer A. J. Gordon at a trailer safety program July 17. The new law requires Martin to outline the rear of the trailer with reflectors or reflective tape. (KALI D. FOXMAN/STAFF PHOTO)
When Henrico police ticketed Ron Melancon for a rear-end collision last year, he wasn't angry, just embar-rassed. The 40-year-old said he has perfect vision, but Melancon didn't see the mesh utility trailer in front of him. He was concen-trating on the red truck that was towing it.
"I'm a very good driver - I wasn't on a cell phone or listening to the radio," he said.
Melancon spent several days thinking about how he could have prevented the accident. He remembered that there was nothing on the trailer's rear end to alert him to the fact it extended about one foot past its taillights.
"I was trying to figure out how to make these trailers safer for other people," he said. "I researched the law, and there was no law for these trailers."
Melancon decided he would rally for a new state law.
And one year later, his efforts have paid off.
What has evolved is House Bill 429, which requires that reflectors or 100 square inches of reflective tape be affixed to the rears of trailers. It passed in the Virginia General Assembly this spring and went into effect July 1.
The new law applies to all trailers that have an unloaded weight of 3,000 pounds or less. A previous law required that trailers weighing over 3,000 pounds have regular state inspections, which typically means they must have working brake lights. Trailers under 3,000 pounds are not subject to inspection.
On May 17, 2003, Melancon was on his way home from Glen Allen Branch Library with his 4-year-old son. At noon, he turned left from Staples Mill Road onto Springfield Road and collided with a utility trailer that had a body and tailgate made of metal mesh.
No one was hurt in the crash, but the accident caused about $1,200 worth of damage to his tan-colored minivan.
After the accident, Melancon, a manager at a department store, took the $2,400 his insurance company paid him and bought color ink cartridges and paper. He printed hundreds of fliers with photos he took of the accident and his proposal to increase trailer visibility.
"I'm just a regular Joe Shmoe," Melancon said. "People warned me that nothing would happen.
"I said, 'I want this to happen.'"
Melancon said he campaigned for six months at such places as beauty salons and grocery stores. He contacted Delegate John S. "Jack" Reid, R-House District 72, which includes parts of Henrico County, and asked if he would sponsor a bill to improve the visibility of utility trailers. Reid said he would.
"What you've got on a lot of those vehicles are reflectors only on the back, but the end extends 12 to 18 inches beyond that," Reid said. "If someone has a depth perception problem, they might not see that.
"The potential was there for accidents, and there seemed to be a pretty inexpensive way to deal with the potential problem."
State Sen. John C. Watkins, R-10th District, which also includes parts of Henrico, got involved as well. A member of the Senate transportation committee, he suggested that reflective tape be used on trailers to combat poor visibility.
"My intent was to simplify it," Watkins said. "You just want something that's inexpensive and easy to purchase."
He said people who own utility trailers, even if they bought them before the law went into effect, are responsible for purchasing reflectors or reflective tape. Trailer manufacturers will also be required to comply with the law.
Reflectors and reflective tape cost between $2 and $10, depending on size and color, according to several area hardware stores. The law states that the reflectors or reflective material be applied so as to outline the rear ends of the trailers.
"The bill passed because of the network of people who called [to support it], and it just makes sense," Melancon said. "People complain their delegates don't do anything, but look what happened here."
It's been one year since the accident, but Melancon still hasn't had his minivan fixed.
"It's the principle of it," he said.
Melancon said he wants Virginia citizens to know about his accident and that he helped create a law to make trailers safer for drivers. He recently created a Web site, www.helpgetmyvanfixed.com, for that purpose, as well as to ask those who support his efforts to improve vehicle safety to contribute one dollar toward his van repair.
Melancon said many of the people he's talked to in the last year have told him they have almost collided with utility trailers and had to "take action to avoid hitting them."
"This isn't about me. I want other people to avoid my embarrassment in court," Melancon said. "I'm not looking for a profit. My job is to reduce accidents. I thought, 'If I hit a trailer, someone else will.'"