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From the March 21, 2005 Virginia Lawyers Weekly.
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News Story


Richmond Man's Activism Gets Trailer Safety Law Passed

By Brent Baldwin

Many people have wanted improved traffic safety laws, but a Henrico County man actually did something about it.

A part-time paramedic and ambulance driver, Ron Melancon was involved in a minor fender bender in May of 2003 when he ran his mini-van into the back of a wire-mesh trailer attached to a truck. There was only minor damage to both vehicles and nobody was seriously injured.

But considering himself a good driver, Melancon, a fast-talking New York native, couldn't stop thinking about the accident. He concluded that it was caused because the wire trailer was see-through, which distorted his depth perception. The trailer didn't have reflector lights on the end.

Melancon soon learned that many small wire trailers weren't required to have reflective material on back, and that it was up to most owners to make them safe considering there were little standards.

Having seen plenty of bad accidents on his ambulance job, Melancon couldn't get the issue out of his head and began taking photos of trailers and studying the safety problems. He founded a Web site, and began calling insurance companies and trailer makers about his concerns.

When he finally went to court in Henrico County for his accident, he represented himself and pled not guilty, showing the judge the large amount of information he had gathered on the topic.

"The judge found my argument so convincing that he told me, 'You won, go home'," said Melancon via phone from his retail job at Hecht's. "I told the judge that I was going to get something done about this."

That was when Melancon stepped up his efforts and, using thousands of dollars of his own money, began a personal lobbying crusade to get a bill passed that would raise the safety level for all trailers in Virginia.

House Bill 429

The first step for Melancon was to contact his own representative, Del. John S. Reid, with the growing pile of data he had collected on the problem.

After Reid agreed with him, the resulting legislation was House Bill 429, which said that two or more reflectors of a type approved by the Superintendent of State Police or at least 100 square inches of solid reflectorized material must be affixed to the rear end of every trailer that has an unloaded weight of 3,000 pounds or less (the reflective material must be applied so as to outline the rear end of the trailer).

The bill passed last year. Melancon said he had spent almost $5,000 of his own money on printer cartridges and color photocopies of pictures of different trailers. He explained that he had become well-versed in areas he could never have imagined—such as problems with rust on the back of a trailer hitch that can lead to faulty wiring/ bad lights. Still, he was having no luck getting a response from insurance companies and the makers of the trailers.

This past General Assembly session, Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. introduced House Bill 2690 that essentially said if the lights were "within 18 inches of the back" there was no need to have reflectors.

"[Melancon] got a good law passed that was poorly written so that it applied to all kinds of trailers," said Pollard. "This kind of thing happens a half dozen times every year and we put in a bill … but this guy was obsessed."

Melancon said that he felt the aim of HB 2690 was to weaken his previous bill, so he became a lobbyist once again.

"I knew I was going to lose unless I went down and spoke to [the Senate Transportation Committee] myself, and so I got up there after Pollard and said, look, for $14.40 you can apply this tape," noted Melancon.

The senators agreed after seeing the photos from Melancon and Pollard's bill was amended to define a utility trailer as a non-inspected trailer with the mesh component.

Subsequently, Virginia will become the first state in the country to require that "reflectors or reflectorized material be required on rear end" of these specific trailers. The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Mark R. Warner.

For his part, Melancon remains an outspoken activist for his own safety cause.

"These companies should be doing a recall, this is a class action suit waiting to happen," said Melancon. "None of them ever called me back when I approached them … they now have a duty to take care of their products."

Melancon added that his main motivation to spend so much of his personal time and money was in ultimately reducing injuries.

"People always say something should be done but they never act," explained Melancon. "I'm just a guy who sells suits in a department store—but I wanted to make a difference, and if it could save one life it was worth it."

© 2005 Lawyers Weekly Inc., All Rights Reserved.

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