Call it mutiny on Interstate 80.
Trucking association officials and police are still trying to figure out what to do about last month's incident during peak holiday time when two groups of westbound truckers challenged Caltrans' authority to hold them in Nevada for tire chain control.
One group of truckers sped by the controls, while the other created a roadblock that caused traffic to back up all the way to downtown Reno.
Officers said the truckers' rebellion poses a serious safety and traffic problem for Caltrans, other drivers and the city of Truckee, which bears the brunt of I-80 congestion.
The crux of the matter for Caltrans is that any solution depends on cooperation among independent truckers and Nevada agencies, neither of which Caltrans has any significant influence over.
In the early afternoon of Dec. 29, with heavy holiday traffic on I-80 and chain control imminent because of snowy conditions, Caltrans officials decided to hold westbound trucks near Boomtown. In an agreement with the Nevada Department of Transportation, Caltrans is allowed to set up chain control on I-80 in Nevada to give vehicles a place to turn around.
"We run chain controls in Nevada because if we let people pass and they get in the (Floriston-area) canyon, they can't turn around," said Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger. "At least in Boomtown, they have a place to pull over and stay a while."
A group of independent truckers, however, saw things differently.
Stan Richins, Caltrans regional manager for the Sutter/Sierra area, said five truckers argued Caltrans did not have the right to hold them in Nevada and stop interstate commerce. They ran the closure point at state line.
The agency notified the California Highway Patrol staff, who waited for the rigs at the Donner Pass inspection facility. Although the truckers pulled into the scales voluntarily, one driver refused to cooperate with an officer who asked to see his license and log book. She had to use pepper spray to restrain him after he assaulted her, said CHP Officer Pete Christoffersen. The trucker was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, failure to stop for inspection and failure to obey a lawful order by a peace officer.
"The vast majority of truckers are extremely cooperative, especially the long-haulers," said Christoffersen. "But there are a few bad apples in any large group."
For Caltrans, there were more than just a few bad apples on the road that day. In an industry in which news can spread like wildfire, 17 other trucks claiming the same grievance staged a rebellion by pulling into both lanes near Gold Ranch to create a barricade. Caltrans called for assistance from the CHP and NHP, but neither was able to respond, according to Richins. CHP was overextended because of the number of weather-related accidents. NHP couldn't get through since traffic was backed up all the way to Keystone in Reno.
After an hour, Caltrans realized it was fighting a losing battle.
Richins ordered Caltrans workers to lift the hold. But before doing so, Caltrans coated the road with more sand and salt to make it as safe as possible for the trucks.
Only one of the 17 truckers was stopped. He was cited and towed for not carrying proper chains.
The ending of an hour-long traffic jam was bad news for Truckee. In similar situations, Caltrans usually releases traffic in phases to allow the city to slowly absorb the cars. Because Caltrans didn't do that Dec. 29, Truckee experienced what one observer called the worst weekday traffic she had ever seen. It took an hour and a half to drive from Estates Drive to downtown Truckee; it normally takes 15 minutes.
Truckers causing the problems for Caltrans were independent drivers, which Richins estimates makes up about 50 percent of the rigs on I-80. Unlike company truckers, independent drivers are small-business owners who don't get compensated for waiting in traffic or a delayed shipment.
"If they're not moving, they're not making money," said Larry Daniel, president of Missouri-based America's Independent Truckers' Association. "Some put the act of earning money over safety."
Once a year, Caltrans meets with the California Trucking Association, which represents small to medium fleets, to discuss policies. Independent truckers, however, tend to be lone wolves with no formal representation. Organizations like AITA and the National Association of Independent Truckers exist mainly to provide services and help drivers earn more money, not to offer oversight or lobby on their behalf.