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Truckers Say Motorists Are the Real Menace

September 06, 2000|Jeanne Wright

Our recent Your Wheels column on truck safety ("Truckers Are Caught Up in a Battle Over Regulations," Aug. 23) generated spirited responses from readers, in particular from truck drivers.

Those who have made a living behind the wheels of big rigs were quick to offer their opinions on trucker fatigue and government efforts to regulate the number of hours they can drive in a day.

Many truck-involved accidents can be blamed on the reckless habits of automobile drivers, our trucker-readers argued--and as we took care to point out in that column. They also contended that proposed laws limiting the number of hours they can drive would hurt truckers, the trucking industry and consumers.

Like it or not, large trucks are indispensable in today's society, wrote Victor Van Tress of Malibu:

"Look around you right now as you read this. Nothing within your view was not brought by truck. The material to make the roads, to build the buildings, to make the products, to get to the store to be consumed by you--all come by truck."

He contends that most truck-related crashes can be attributed to jackknifing and rollovers caused by automobiles cutting in front of big rigs.

"Why do people pull in front of trucks just to get off the freeway at the next exit or to make a turn? If I am in a car, the last thing I'd want to do is pull in front of a truck," wrote Van Tress, who has worked as a professional truck-driving instructor. "Don't want trucks on the road? Say goodbye to the world as we know it."

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We reported in that column that government estimates show that truckers who doze off at the wheel account for about 750 deaths a year and 20,000 injuries. In all, U.S. accidents involving big trucks killed more than 56,000 people from 1988 to 1998, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Though current federal work rules allow drivers to log as many as 16 hours a day under certain circumstances, the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed rules that would limit truckers to 12 hours behind the wheel within a 24-hour period.

In California, Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) recently introduced a bill that would increase the number of hours from 10 to 12 per day that gasoline tanker truck drivers can log behind the wheel. The extra two hours of driving time would be allowed only for empty tankers. By comparison, other truckers in California are allowed to work 15-hour shifts, with up to 12 of those hours behind the wheel. Granlund's proposal was tabled for further study but could be reintroduced next year.

Tami Friedrich of Pomona, who lost four family members nearly 11 years ago in a crash involving a gasoline tanker truck, criticized Granlund's proposal, which is sponsored by the California Trucking Assn.

Friedrich, a volunteer with CRASH--Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways--questions Granlund's stated rationale for the bill: "Allowing more driving time will not stop speeding truckers, nor will it make it easier for truckers to take more breaks. Instead, they will be pushed that much harder to make more deliveries. . . .

"This will put the drivers as well as the rest of the motoring public at greater danger. The only thing longer driving hours will achieve is more productivity and money for the trucking companies and more danger for the rest of us."

Gary Williams of San Bernardino, a retired trucker with 15 years' experience, challenged Granlund's belief that trucks are now so comfortable to drive that "it's a lot like sitting in an easy chair," and his statement that today's fuel trucks are like Cadillacs, that "you can do 12 hours in that truck standing on your head."

Wrote Williams: "I think Mr. Granlund has been hit on his head with something. When was the last time he drove a truck? Comfort in trucks does not make up for fatigue--in fact, I would say it increases it."

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Trucker Mike Dannan of Tustin set the record straight by informing us that the weight limit for gasoline tanker trucks is 80,000 pounds, not the 100,000 we stated.

Dannan, a Teamster, also addressed concerns that many truckers violate hours-of-service laws by altering their logbooks. The Department of Transportation, through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, seeks to require electronic recorders in long-haul trucks to monitor compliance with such laws.

"I believe . . . that nonunion companies force their drivers to disregard the hours-of-service rules," Dannan wrote. "There is no mechanism to complain about forced hours. It is too easy to fire a complainer for any other small infraction or mistake.

"Violation of hours-of-service regulations occurs because there are not enough federal inspectors to review drivers' time cards or manifests. The violations are probably most often caught when a driver is involved in an accident."

Rick Cleveland of Anaheim, who identified himself as a trucking professional, expressed concern over the potential financial effects of drive-time reforms. He quoted a recent industry newsletter projecting that reducing the number of hours truckers can drive could cost the industry $19 billion--in large part to train and hire additional, presumably less-experienced drivers at a time when "we as an industry already have 8% to 11% of our trucks unseated."

"We need to change things, but the industry needs to play a part in what and how to change," Cleveland wrote. "After all, the current hours-of-service rules have been in effect for 60 years--before . . . safety features, monitoring devices and amenities that have made trucks safer than ever."

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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