Curbs urged for 'monster trucks' in Md.

June 06, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

It was a jet black 1979 Ford F-150 half-ton pickup, a high-riding four-by-four with 36-inch tires, and front and rear lift kits that raised it a good 7 inches over stock.

A real beauty in the eyes of its owners.

A killing machine in the eyes of a Baltimore jury.

After hearing arguments that the truck's modifications allowed it to drive up the hood of an oncoming AMC Pacer -- and smash through the car's windshield to kill a 35-year-old single mother from Linthicum -- the jury returned a $1.7 million verdict May 28 against the distributor of the lift kit used to jack up the pickup.

Similar to another accident that left a Columbia woman paralyzed, it was the kind of crash that has highway safety experts, politicians and lawyers calling for tougher enforcement of stricter laws governing "monster trucks" on Maryland roads.

"Once you raise that vehicle you've made a Frankenstein," said David McAllister, a traffic safety engineer for the commonwealth of Virginia, where, unlike Maryland, statistics are kept on accidents involving modified trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Mr. McAllister's studies show jacked-up trucks are the most dangerous vehicles on the road today -- to their drivers, because the raised center of gravity and other side effects make them more susceptible to rolling over, and to other motorists.

"God forbid if you should be hit by one of them. They're coming right at you at eye level," said Bruce J. Babij, an attorney who represented the Linthicum woman's surviving daughter. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who own these things who think they are completely benign."

On May 11, Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed into law a bill that tightened a loophole that allowed some of these vehicles to remain street legal with lowered bumpers to compensate for their raised frames.

The two state delegates who co-sponsored the legislation hope that police will enforce the amended law, set to go into effect in October, better than they enforced the old laws.

"The eyes of the law enforcement agencies have been closed. It's not been a priority," complained Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

"It really is up to the state police to get those regulations going and enforce the law because they are lethal vehicles," said Del. Jean W. Roesser, a Montgomery Republican. "I will be the first to tell you I don't think the existing law has been enforced."

In 1973, working from a law making it illegal to alter bumpers in a manner that "reduces the effectiveness of the bumpers of the altered vehicle in a collision," state police and motor vehicle officials wrote a regulation that said bumpers could not be adjusted 3 inches up or down from their stock condition.

That law was in effect when the Ford pickup crashed into the Pacer in April 1985; the forewoman of the jury in the civil suit said it was obvious the truck was illegally raised but it had passed state inspection at least three times upon being sold.

In an attempt to give police a well-grounded yardstick for enforcement, state legislators added language saying car bumpers could be no more than 20 inches off the ground, and most truck and utility vehicle bumper heights were limited to 28 inches. That law took effect in July 1985.

Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck, then a state senator, said he pushed for the change after seeing a group of teen-agers use a rope ladder to descend from a monster truck.

But four-wheelers found a way around that law: They continued to jack up their frames and suspensions but added "drop bumpers" that dipped within 28 inches of the road. Although the law still prohibits bumpers modified in a way that reduces their effectiveness, state police, who adhere strictly to bumper height guidelines, say the vehicle owners are successfully skirting the law.

Authorities could not provide statistics on how many repair orders or citations, which carry a $40 fine but no points, have been issued for illegally modifying vehicles. No one has been able to say how many such vehicles are on Maryland roads.

State police and motor vehicle officials now must draft regulations to implement the law recently signed by the governor.

The new law keeps the bumper height measurements, but adds body side frame rails as a measuring point and includes a paragraph stressing that vehicles modified to the point of becoming dangerous are illegal, even if they fall within allowable bumper and frame height measurements.

Capt. Joel Underwood, commander of the Automotive Safety Enforcement Division of the state police, said, "The new piece of legislation, I do believe, will allow us to tighten up our enforcement of these modified vehicles."

'Mixed bag' of laws

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