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Putting the Brakes on Truck Highway Deaths

June 25, 1996|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The decade since a truck accident ended the life of Helen Shanbrom's son hasn't eased her pain or her resolve to attack the problem of truck-related highway deaths. David Shanbrom was killed in 1986 when a speeding truck jackknifed and crossed six lanes of traffic on the Foothill Freeway, slamming head-on into his car. Since then, Shanbrom, of North Tustin, has carried on a campaign against heavy trucks.

After a decline in the 1980s, truck-related highway fatalities have been on the upswing for the last five years, accounting for 5,013 deaths in 1994, or 12% of all traffic and pedestrian deaths in the nation. Tractor-trailers were involved in 2.9 fatal crashes per 100 million miles versus 1.9 for cars in 1994, according to U.S. figures.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, funded by the insurance industry, has petitioned the government repeatedly to require tractor-trailers be equipped with anti-lock brakes, said spokesman Chuck Hurley. The trucking industry lobbied successfully against the requirement, Hurley said.

But earlier this year, after years of prodding by the insurance institute, Shanbrom and others, the government ordered that new trucks be equipped with anti-lock brakes as of March 1997. Evidence from Europe and Japan indicates that the systems should greatly reduce jackknife incidents, according to the institute.

It will be more than a decade before the nation's fleet of tractors are fully converted, since the existing 1.7 million tractors need not be retrofitted. A representative for the American Trucking Assn. said the group supports anti-lock systems now that technical issues have been resolved that will make the cost more bearable.

Among Shanbrom's other successes was her lobbying to double the monetary penalty for truckers caught speeding and to require stronger truck safety inspections under California law. But she is far from rejoicing. She said the industry has succeeded in blocking a number of proposals by her organization--Families Against Speeding Trucks. Among those is a black box recording device that would record a truck's speed, direction and duration on the road, providing investigators improved evidence about an accident.

Trucking interests insist that their drivers are among the best on the road. Even so, when trucks and cars collide, 98% of the people killed are occupants of cars. The trucker who survived the accident with her son, a UCLA graduate, walked away with a $300 fine, Shanbrom said.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, DC 20006 or e-mail Ralph.Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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