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Are Drivers Facing a Triple Threat?

Safety Advocates Want to Put the Brakes on an Effort to Get Mega Trailer Trucks on California Roads

May 13, 1997|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trucking industry is seeking to partly lift the ban on triple trailer trucks in California in legislation pending in Congress, a proposal that has alarmed some safety advocates.

California, along with 33 other states, is off limits to triple trailer trucks, which can weigh more than 64 tons and stretch 120 feet--longer than a Boeing 737 jetliner.

As part of this year's reauthorization of the federal highway program, trucking interests in California are seeking permission for a demonstration project that would allow these trucks to operate within San Bernardino County, east of the Cajon Pass.

Truckers say that despite the trucks' intimidating presence, triple trailers have proven to be among the safest vehicles on the road and a boon to trucking industry productivity. The trucks are assembled from three trailers of up to 28 feet each, dollies that connect the trailers and a standard cab that pulls the train of vehicles. Under federal law, triple trailers can operate in only 16 states, mainly in the West.

A truck at the current 80,000-pound federal limit takes about a football field to stop from 65 mph. Triples, with weights up to 129,000 pounds, could take an additional 50 yards to stop, truckers acknowledge.

In addition to the California demonstration project, the American Trucking Assns., a trade group, is pressing for the federal government to drop all limits on truck length and weight and allow states to individually regulate the vehicles.

"It is being interpreted as the trucking industry's diabolical scheme to introduce triple tailers everywhere," said Chris Hoover, an association spokesman. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

But safety advocates assert that over the last 40 years, the trucking industry has pushed up the limits of size and weight by seeking to introduce bigger vehicles into selective markets and then arguing for uniformity in the rules, said Michael Scippa, executive director of the San Francisco-based Citizens for Reliable and Safety Highways (CRASH).

Truckers counter that CRASH is funded by railroads as a way to block productivity improvements in the trucking industry, and that triple trailers operate far more conservatively than other trucks. (Scippa denies the former allegation, saying he does not accept money from railroads.)

CRASH is not the only group troubled by the prospect of bigger trucks. Helen Shanbrom, head of the North Tustin-based Families Against Speeding Trucks, argues that the San Bernardino County highways designated for triple trailers are crowded with vacationers headed from Southern California to Las Vegas.

"Bigger trucks are bigger profits, but they are also bigger accidents," Shanbrom said. "It is pretty scary to think we will have that size trucks on the highway with little cars. It is a threat to all motorists."

* 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., No. 1100, Washington, DC 20006 or e-mail to Ralph.Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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