Dina Velazquez loved to drive. It was the one thing she could do by herself in a life dependent on others ever since muscular dystrophy robbed her of the ability to walk when she was still in her teens.
That need for independence pushed Velazquez, who uses a wheelchair, to buy a specially equipped van in 2012 that allowed her to drive.
Velazquez said that sense of independence ground to a halt the December 2012 day the brake system failed while she was behind the wheel on Interstate 80 near Richmond, returning to her Bay Area home. Her husband, Miguel, and newborn child, Dominick, were also in the vehicle.
Velazquez blames Sacramento Van Conversions, the family-owned firm that installed the air pressure-controlled braking and accelerating system in 2012, and equipment manufacturer Creative Controls Inc., which sold the equipment, for the Richmond wreck. A settlement conference was held Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court in the product liability and negligence suit filed in 2013 against the firms. Velazquez is seeking damages.
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“Dina deserves to get a new van with mobility equipment appropriate for her disability. Her mobility equipment is obsolete. She doesn’t feel safe driving it,” her attorney, Joseph Brent of the San Francisco firm Brent, Fiol & Pratt, said before the hearing.
Sacramento Van Conversions officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday. A call to Michigan-based Creative Controls after business hours was not immediately returned.
As Velazquez waited outside the courtroom for the conference to start, she recalled how her husband tried to stop the van speeding down Interstate 80 after she couldn’t. Their efforts failed and the van slammed into the car ahead, then collided with a second in another lane before the shaken family could pull off the roadway.
Velazquez escaped with a fractured back and bruising, she said. Her husband had cuts and bruises. Dominic, named for Velazquez’s brother who died in a 1985 car crash when Velazquez was 10, emerged unhurt.
Velazquez said the brakes again failed during a Mother’s Day trip to Santa Cruz in 2013, just months after repair work was performed by Creative Controls and Sacramento Van after the narrow escape near Richmond. Velazquez said husband Miguel was able to stop the car safely that time.
But Velazquez, an Alameda County crisis support services technician, rarely drives now, so profound is her anxiety, she said, and says the shoddy repairs and equipment on her specially equipped van have robbed her of her independence
“The one thing I’ve strived for is to live independently. I need help with everything. Driving the van was the one thing I could do by myself. It opened up the world to me being able to drive,” Velazquez said.
She said that has changed.
“I have an exit strategy – what if my brakes fail again. I still experience nightmares. I don’t know if they understand the impact. It’s not just a vehicle,” said Velazquez, 40. “It’s my life.”
Editor’s note: Previous versions of this story mispelled the name of Dina Velazquez. We regret the error.
Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.