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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tougher Truck Regulation Sought by Activists

Over 100 People per Week Killed in Truck-Related Crashes, Mostly Due to Driver Fatigue

According to safety groups calling for changes in how long big-rig drivers can work without rest, over 100 people a week are killed in large truck crashes in the United States.

The deadliest states for big truck crashes are Wyoming, Arkansas and Oklahoma; the safest are Rhode Island and Massachusetts, according to The Truck Safety Coalition. Recently it released state rankings, based on the number of fatalities per 100,000 residents during 2005, the most recent year with complete figures.

The federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, created by Congress in 1999, "has failed miserably," said Joan Claybrook, chair of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways. "It is shortchanging safety for the productivity and economic interests of the trucking industry," he added.

When the agency was created in 1999, 5,380 people died in crashes with big trucks. "That figure has barely budged," said Claybrook.

In 2005, deaths in crashes of large trucks numbered 5,212, plus 114,000 injured. Large trucks were responsible for 3 percent of registered vehicles but 12-13 percent of traffic fatalities.

The motor carrier agency cited more favorable results over a longer time period.

"The truck fatality rate is 16 percent lower today than it was 10 years ago largely because we have invested millions of dollars working with the state and local law enforcement community to do more safety reviews and roadside inspections of trucks and buses than ever before," said Administrator John Hill, noting that traffic on U.S. highways had grown by more than 24 percent over the same period.

Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said that the truck safety effort is insignificant when compared with federal food safety regulation.

"Nearly 61 people die from E.coli (infections) each year, which is equivalent to the four-day death toll from truck crashes," Gillan said.

"Anytime there is an E.coli outbreak, the federal government uses every resource available to stop this public health threat," she said. "Yet, unsafe big rigs kill and maim tens of thousands each year because truckers are pushed to drive long hours under unsafe conditions while the federal response has been silence and indifference."

Gillan and Claybrook criticized the motor carrier administration for increasing the number of hours a driver can operate a truck by 28 percent since 2003, up to as much as 88 hours over an eight-day tour of duty.

Motor carrier administration spokesman Ian Grossman said the agency did increase the permissible number of consecutive driving hours from 10 to 11, but it also increased the time off between shifts from 8 to 10 hours in the first revision to the rules since the 1930s.

But some say this doesn’t matter.

Nikki Hensley, of Fostoria, Ohio, whose husband was killed in 1997 when a semi trailer ran a stop sign and broadsided his car, said "Many (trucking companies) are already blatantly breaking the already too lenient hours-of-service laws." The driver reported he had been working 19 hours at the time.

Jane Mathis, of St. Augustine, Fla., lamented that the motor carrier agency is aiming to require on-board electronic recorders that monitor hours of service on only about 465 of the more than 702,000 registered interstate motor carriers.

Mathis, whose son David, 23, and his bride of five days were killed in 2004 when a Winn-Dixie tractor trailer driver fell asleep at the wheel and rear-ended their car, said, "This absurd proposal shows that the administration is not really interested in reducing hours-of-service violations and stopping truck drivers from regularly falsifying their paper logbooks."

According to Grossman, the agency concluded the cost of installing monitors in all trucks would outweigh the safety benefit. "But we found benefit if we targeted those who have violated the hours of service rules before," he added.

Daphne Izer, of Lisbon, Maine, said, "No load of freight is worth a human life." She founded Parents Against Tired Truckers after her 17-year-old son, Jeff, and three friends were killed on the Maine Turnpike in 1993 when a Wal-Mart truck driver fell asleep at the wheel of his rig and ran over their vehicle.

Speakers at the event also demanded that the agency increase safety inspections of big trucks, require trucks to have governors that limit top speeds to 68 mph. and supply better driver training.

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