YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

National Perspective | UPDATE

Plans Aimed at Halving Truck Fatalities Unveiled


WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, responding to widespread criticism that his agency neglects truck safety on the nation's highways, Tuesday announced a program of stronger enforcement and technological innovation aimed at cutting crash deaths by half in the next decade.

But safety advocates and industry representatives questioned whether the program can achieve its intended goal. And safety advocates argued that it does nothing to change what they see as a cozy relationship between the trucking industry and its regulators. The lukewarm reaction increased prospects that Congress will tackle truck safety in coming months.

About 5,300 people now lose their lives in accidents involving large trucks each year, with more than three-fourths of the victims in passenger vehicles. In California, 409 people were killed in truck crashes in 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Slater pledged that the department would reduce the national death toll to fewer than 2,700 lives a year, an ambitious goal that, he said, "will require us to change our thinking." But safety advocates, industry representatives and even some Transportation Department officials wondered whether the goal is real--as Slater insisted--or a sound bite.

"Ten years from now, [Slater] is not going to be here," said one department official involved in safety issues, who declined to be identified. "It would have been more dramatic if he had said we're going to reduce it by 20% next year and started shutting down firms that are in violation."

Among the measures Slater announced Tuesday: more inspections, higher fines, more federal truck safety inspectors at the Mexican border and an effort to speed up new rules to prevent driver fatigue--a project bogged down for a decade.

He also pledged an aggressive study of the latest technological innovations that would improve truck safety. The department is looking at recorders that automatically document hours driven, allowing regulators to enforce limits and prevent overworked drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. And it also is looking at speed-limiting devices that prevent trucks from being driven too fast. Some companies already use such devices.

Addressing the recent collision of an Amtrak train and a truck at an Illinois rail crossing, Slater proposed stricter licensing requirements and a new regulation that would bar drivers who try to beat a railroad signal from holding commercial licenses.

His plan calls for $56 million in additional federal truck safety spending--a 37% increase. But it is unclear whether Congress would agree to divert the money from other programs.

Yet the proposal left a critical issue unaddressed:

Safety advocates, industry representatives, members of Congress and the Transportation Department inspector general all have called on Slater to move the federal truck safety agency--the Office of Motor Carriers--out of its current bureaucratic home in the Federal Highway Administration, whose primary mission is not truck safety but road building.

Safety advocates want it placed in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while the industry wants a separate agency modeled on the Federal Aviation Administration.

"There is no credibility in the existing agency," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs a transportation funding panel in the House. While pleased with the new emphasis on enforcement, Wolf noted that it would make up only for cuts in inspections in recent years. The department acknowledged that Slater's plan merely would return the number of inspections to the 1992 level.

The American Trucking Assns., an umbrella trade group, said that it welcomes additional enforcement and wants to work with the government to weed out unsafe trucking companies. But spokesman Mike Russell said that he believes the industry is being unfairly singled out.

"There's an attitude about trucking that has resulted in a blanket indictment of all motor carriers," he said. "In fact, safety is No. 1 on the list when our people are on the job."

Los Angeles Times Articles