Billings Gazette Opinion: Perseverance pays off for teen’s public-safety bill

April 16, 2009

[Note from Representative MacDonald: I was proud to carry Senate Bill 268 on the Floor of the House, where it was passed. Here’s to a big win for Montanans and safer highways.]

At 17, Luke Anderson knows more about how the Legislature operates than most Montanans do. The Billings teen has worked through four consecutive regular sessions to pass a bill that would help spare other people from the type of highway crash that left him with serious injuries. Luke, a home-schooled high school junior and a part-time Montana State University Billings student, finally saw his legislation pass both chambers this session.

Senate Bill 268 is now on Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s desk. It would broaden existing state law that requires people hauling solid waste to secure their load when traveling on public highways. SB268 adds “nonwaste items” to the requirement that drivers “secure the load sufficiently to prevent littering or creating an obstruction dangerous to the public traveling on the highway.”

Seven years ago, Luke was riding in a van driven by his grandfather when the vehicle hit a mattress that had fallen into the driving lane. The resulting crash sent the boy to a hospital with injuries that have necessitated surgery and may require more surgery.

Shortly after the crash, he learned in a conversation with Judge Russ Fagg that state law doesn’t require drivers to tie down their cargo. Doing some research, Luke found out that Montana is one of the few states that doesn’t require secure loads on the highway. He decided to work to change the law, enlisting the support of Brent Cromley, who then was the state senator representing Luke’s neighborhood. Cromley carried the secure-load bill for two sessions with Rep. Roy Brown co-sponsoring it the second session. After Brown was elected to the Senate, he sponsored a secure-load bill in the 2007 session and again this year.

The Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Highway Patrol testified in support of SB286.

“People think of debris and they think of small things,” Col. Mike Tooley, MHP commander, told The Gazette. “More and more it’s not small things. It’s mattresses … sofas. I’ve seen treadmills, all sorts of dangerous things on the highway.” Tooley said MHP supports this bill because everyone needs to “make sure if you’re hauling something, it stays in your vehicle.”

“The biggest benefit I see from this bill is the ability to stop a vehicle that is about to lose something on the highway because it is not secure,” Brown said. “Then we can avoid another accident like what Luke and his family experienced.”

Unfortunately, road debris crashes are common. Just last August, a mattress on Interstate 90 in west Billings caused an accident that destroyed a tractor-trailer rig. The rig ran over the mattress, which caught fire as it was dragged on the highway. The trucker escaped injury, but the rig loss was estimated at $350,000 by the MHP.

Why did the load bill pass this year? It was a combination of things, Luke said. More new legislators voted for it, and some old opponents are no longer in office. More proponents spoke at committee hearings, and more people called their legislators asking for support. As in previous attempts, the bill exempts agriculture, commercial vehicles and construction vehicles.

We encourage Schweitzer to sign SB268 to improve highway safety.

And we commend Luke for his tenacity in pursuing a public policy change that will benefit all Montanans.

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