While statistics point to growing highway carnage caused by trucks, Congress talks about weakening truck safety regulations
It happened nine years ago but it still evokes horror.
At midday on a Saturday, northbound vehicles were stopped on I-43 a few miles north of Port Washington waiting to exit at Belgium to begin a detour around freeway lanes closed for construction.
A semi-trailer truck, its driver oblivious to signs warning of lane closures and to clear views of the stationary cars, drove his 80,000-pound rig into the line of stopped vehicles, killing two people in separate cars and seriously injuring two others.
A photo in Ozaukee Press showed the cars as compressed masses of mangled metal barely recognizable as motor vehicles.
Investigators determined that the 37-year-old driver from Missouri, who had been behind the wheel for many hours, made no effort to slow the truck—it crashed into cars at its maximum governed speed of 70 mph.
Two years later, in 2011, the driver was sentenced to five years in prison for his negligence.
The accident was horrific, and tragic for several families, but it was not the least bit unusual. Every year, on highways all over the country, people are killed or maimed by semi-trucks crashing into vehicles stopped or slowed on highways. They are among the many victims of the growing number of highway crashes involving large trucks.
Deaths from truck-related crashes increased by 17% from 2009, the year of the Belgium crash, to 2013. During the same period, deaths in car crashes decreased 3%.
In a single year—2013—deaths in truck crashes in the U.S. totalled 3,964.
According to the National Traffic Safety Board, one in eight of all fatal road accidents and 25% of fatal crashes in work zones, involve trucks. The numbers become more impressive when measured against the fact that trucks account for less than 10% of the miles traveled on U.S. roads.
So what is being done to give the American public additional protection from the growing menace of trucks operating dangerously on highways? As things stand, less than nothing.
Efforts to weaken federal safety regulations for trucks have been started in both houses of Congress. One bill would increase the number of hours truckers are allowed to drive from 70 hours every eight days to 82 hours in a week. Another provision would allow truck companies to seek exemptions from federal rules governing the amount of rest drivers must get. (In the case of the Belgium crash, prosecutors said the truck driver had falsified his log to hide the number of hours he had gone without sleep.)
Another measure in Congress would forbid the U.S. Department of Transportation to publish safety ratings of trucking companies. And then there’s the one that proposes to lower the minimum age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18.
There is also a move afoot to allow longer, heavier trucks.
It is no surprise that these attempts to weaken federal safety rules for truckers come at the behest of lobbyists doing the bidding of the trucking industry. They are finding a fertile environment for their solicitations in a Congress in which so many members have demonstrated contempt for federal regulations as needless inhibitions on the market.
It would be comforting to think the anti-regulation crowd learned something last week about the need for regulation and the folly of corporations being allowed to make their own rules concerning safety and the environment from the Volkswagen scandal in which the world’s largest automaker installed software to disguise the polluting emissions of its diesel vehicles.
A sign of a waking-up Congress would be passage of a comprehensive highway funding bill that includes more stringent truck safety regulations instead of the watered down measures currently proposed
Huge trucks in large numbers are a reality on our highways. They are an economic necessity—they transport more than two-thirds of all domestic freight—and they are inherently dangerous. The federal government owes its citizens effective regulations to counter the increasing highway carnage for which trucks are responsible.