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Clamor for Action on Big-Rig Safety Heats Up

April 22, 1999|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you panic at the sight of a gigantic 18-wheeler in your rearview mirror barreling up behind you at breakneck speed, you're not alone.

The proliferation of big trucks has become so intimidating that drivers and consumer advocates are increasing their demands for tougher safety measures.

A reader, a retired trucker from Whittier, wrote to Your Wheels to bemoan the unsafe driving he sees by some of today's big-rig drivers: "I've seen the image of [truckers] go from knights of the highways to speed hogs."

In California, which ranks as the nation's leader in truck-related fatalities, complaints about big rigs top the list of concerns expressed by the public, said Anne Richards, a spokeswoman with the California Highway Patrol in Sacramento.

"People complain trucks are tailgating them, going by at high speeds or changing lanes unsafely," Richards said.

In 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available, 409 people were killed in truck accidents in California.

Armed with a $100,000 federal grant, the CHP began addressing the problem last year through an enforcement program that targets unsafe drivers and trucks and adds extra officers to the state's highways.

One area of concern is fatigued truck drivers at the wheel of giant rigs. Under the enforcement plan, Richards said, the CHP is checking logbooks to determine if truckers are driving without adequate rest.

Educating motorists about how to share the road safely with trucks is also important, the CHP says, especially because the other drivers are most often at fault in truck-involved accidents.

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Although such efforts are laudable, safety advocates such as Joan Claybrook of consumer group Public Citizen complain that at the national level, officials have become too cozy with the trucking industry to regulate it effectively.

"Enforcement has been pitiful," Claybrook said. "The public is so scared of big trucks."

The clamor for action on truck safety is nothing new. And that's what is so disturbing.

Despite public fears and statistics showing that more than 5,000 people were killed in truck-related crashes nationwide in 1997, the Federal Highway Administration and its Office of Motor Carriers have done little to improve the situation, according to critics such as Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Committee.

Allegations that the OMC is too close to the trucking industry surfaced in January, when a Department of Transportation report indicated that the agency had violated federal rules by asking trucking companies to lobby Congress on its behalf.

Wolf and others are concerned that efforts to strengthen safety laws have been forestalled by the industry and its federal regulators.

Since 1986, for example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has petitioned the Federal Highway Administration four times to mandate on-board electronic recorders to combat fatigue by tracking truckers' hours.

Last September, Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told an American Trucking Assns. conference that "driver fatigue plays a significant role in truck accidents." He said it is time for the industry to "embrace the use of on-board recording devices to capture crash information and to monitor hours of service."

Despite broad concerns that drivers are violating the rules limiting them to 10 hours of driving before they rest, the Federal Highway Administration and OMC have shown little interest in requiring the on-board monitoring systems, Claybrook says.

"Driver fatigue is our No. 1 safety issue," said Mike Russell, spokesman for the American Trucking Assns. He and other industry representatives believe that remedying the problem involves more than just relying on monitoring systems.

Russell said the industry wants the driving limits to be revised to allow drivers more flexibility to accommodate their delivery schedules. In addition, he said, more resting places need to be provided for big rigs along the nation's highways.

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When you hear about horrific accidents such as the truck crash, attributed to driver fatigue, that took the lives of six members of a New Mexico family on their way to Disneyland last summer, it's no wonder the roar of a big rig on the freeway causes anxiety.

Perhaps as public fears increase, the industry and its regulators will work harder to address safety issues. Just last week in Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted hearings on truck safety and heard input from representatives of federal agencies, the trucking industry, consumer safety groups and citizens.

Although there was no wholesale agreement on whether on-board monitors should be mandated, "there was at least willingness to sit down and talk," said Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman with the NTSB.

That may be an important step toward keeping our roads a little safer.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

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