Think The Highways Are Unsafe Now?


Once again, profit may very well overwhelm the idea of consumer safety. I say once again simply because, as you already know, every incident of deregulation has eventually produced circumstances where the American people find themselves responsible for either bailing entire industries out of bankruptcy or paying immensely more for far fewer services (S&L's, cable television, airlines, etc.).

This time you will both be placed in far more danger every time you drive and you will be hit very, very hard in the wallet in order to pay the costs caused by this latest idiocy.

All of you have had the pleasure of trying to pass semi truck pulling one long trailer or, worse, two. Being forced to commit yourself to this maneuver in the wind or rain or snow or any other adverse condition only increases the difficulty and danger. Well, guess what? If the trucking industry has its way then those difficulties will increase exponentially.

Currently, federal law limits the lengths of all semi rigs to 48 feet plus tractor for a single trailer and 28 feet per trailer plus tractor for a double trailer combination and limits the weight, regardless of length, to 80,000 total pounds.

What the industry is pushing for is to allow some truly huge combination semis to travel over the same highways as passenger cars and small trucks. The LCVs (long combination vehicles) consist of the 90 foot, tow trailer Rocky Mountain Double, the 105 foot Triple Trailer Combination and the Turnpike Double which, at 110 feet, is as long as a Boeing 737-700 and seven times the length of the average passenger vehicle.

The gross vehicle weight is also going to increase. The Triple Trailer Combination will be allowed to come in at over 140,000 pounds or 40 times the weight of the average auto. (Kind of puts the SUV vs. compact cars in perspective, doesn't it?)

Should Congress force states to allow these three combinations onto their highways, rural roads and city streets, it will cost the American taxpayer literally billions of dollars in road construction and repairs costs. Each tractor trailer rig now on the road causes pavement wear equal to 2,000 to 3,000 passenger vehicles. That damage increases exponentially with the damage done by a 95,000 pound truck causing two to three times the damage as one weighing 80,000 pounds. ( 1 )

That will only be a fraction of the costs to the taxpayer, though. These behemoths will require states and counties to widen intersections to allow for the far wider turning conditions (the Rocky Mountain and Turnpike Doubles take a minimum of two lanes to complete a left turn and the Triple Trailer Combination many times takes at least three complete lanes for the turn) and to strengthen tens of thousands of bridges to expand the safety margins and allow for the huge increase weights. You will become responsible for these through your taxes since, according to the 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study Summary Report which concluded that, "As a group, the heaviest combination [vehicles] may only pay 60 percent of their highway cost responsibility." Unless those costs to the trucking industry is greatly increased through higher fees, you and I will be forced to either pay higher taxes, special assessments or vote for construction bonds with the alternative being driving on vastly substandard and dangerous roads and highways.

The issue of the safety of the general driving public is a major question, as well. With large trucks currently making up only three percent of all registered vehicles, they account for thirteen percent of all crashes involving fatalities. In 1997, 3,505 combination unit trucks were involved in fatal accidents while single unit trucks, which outnumber combination units about three to one, registered only 1,314 fatal accidents. In accidents involving these large trucks, the occupants of passenger vehicles suffer five times as many fatalities.

These multiple trailer rigs also exhibit far more stability related handling problems than single trailer rigs. As Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure states, "The longer the truck and the more the trailers, the less control the driver has over that which follows - and the greater chance of a tragedy occurring."

Even the truckers, themselves, have huge misgivings about these massive rigs sharing their roads. Jim Johnston, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association flatly stated in 1997 that "drivers are adamant that they do not want to share the road with these massive vehicles because they are regularly told by LCV operators themselves that [LCVs] are difficult to control".

The Triple Trailer Combination has special problems in that they exhibit a serpentine motion, swerving side to side a foot or more in the best of conditions. In fact, Caltrans, California's highway department, has evidence that "extended periods of constant whip and sway" occurs for "more than 75% of the total mileage of the test" even under ideal driving environments. Adding wind to the equation can cause the last trailer to whip badly enough that it becomes possible to hit a vehicle in the next lane, be it another truck or a school bus full of children on their way to school.

Thew mere act of passing a triple trailer rig becomes a truly dangerous circumstance, too. First, an effect known as rearward amplification greatly increases the tendency of the third trailer to simply overturn. In the rain, traveling at 65 mph, you will be exposed to the blinding splash for 15 seconds, creating an exposure to on-coming vehicles and generating an exercise in courage or abject terror. Add a 5% grade to the perils caused by rain and you will have conventional rigs taking up any available lanes to pass the far slower LCVs making any passing maneuver nearly suicidal.

Now, with all of the above perils to constantly consider, remember that NAFTA will force American officials to allow poorly trained drivers from Mexico, in particular, as well as Canada, Central America and even South America to travel on our highways, rural roads and city streets.

American drivers must follow very strict guidelines in the amount of time behind the wheel in every 24 hours (10), per week (60) and in vehicle weight (80,000 max.). Canada allows their drivers to work 13 hours per day and up to 100 hours every week. Mexico regulates their drivers through labor laws, laws which can change over night according to shifts in power during and after elections. Fatigue, already a known problem within the American trucking industry, will become a major cause of deaths and injuries from these foreign drivers should they be allowed to continue their national work schedules while crossing our highways. We both know, also, that the American trucking industry will begin buying politicians if it appears that these foreign drivers create more profit due to their longer work shifts, as always preferring to put American workers into dangerous circumstances rather than attempting to restrict the hours of the other drivers

A possible solution to correct the hundreds of poorly maintained vehicles entering America would be to vastly increase the number of inspections performed at the borders. Currently, though, less 0.6% (that's six tenths of one percent) of all foreign trucks crossing our borders are subjected to even a minimal check. In fact, the actual numbers are even more staggering than that simple percentage. Of a total of 9,700,000 trucks entering the US from Mexico and Canada, only 56,000 trucks were given even a cursory inspection. These figures don't reflect the unknown number of trucks which simply by-pass border check points by employing rural and dirt roads between the countries.

While the National Transportation Safety Board wants to increase those inspections to a far higher level by hiring and training the required number of inspectors and support personnel, convincing a Republican Congress to spend money to protect simple human beings is nearly impossible. (If there was some way to show Congress that their owners in Corporate America would benefit then the funds would be on the way the same day, if not sooner.)

The trucking industry assures all that these massive trucks will only be driven on appropriate highways with experienced and fully trained drivers. The problem, as we mentioned above, is that profit will quickly create an atmosphere where the industry will quietly convince Congress and the states to ease the rules for training and experience for the drivers as well as to expand the types of roads that they will be allowed on. All too soon, you will find yourself in the left turn lane somewhere near your home, watching the rear axle of the third trailer of a Triple Trailer Combination climb up onto your hood and head directly at the driver's seat.

Gentle readers, the one and only purpose of attempting to force these massive rigs onto the highways alongside you and your family is the profit motive. Larger and longer trucks equals larger loads and fewer drivers which means lower industry overhead and an increase in profits.

Will you see a decrease in the cost of goods transported by these "cheaper" forms of transportation? Yeah, sure you will! Will you see every single LCV being driven continuously only by highly trained and well-rested operators? Yeah, sure you will! Will you see a dramatic increase in fatalities in accidents involving these rigs and passenger cars? You bet you will! Will you ever hear one word about it in the so-called "mainstream media" (a.k.a. the conservative media)? Not a chance!(2, 3, 4)

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Copyright 12/1/99