By Joan Claybrook
Imagine that U.S. airlines had suffered four crashes in four weeks, killing a total of 330 people. Congress would be panicking, holding hearings to demand explanations and find a fix. Passengers would be cancelling flights, and the airlines would be scrambling to increase aircraft inspections and scrutinize pilot qualifications.
Thankfully, of course, this hasn’t happened. But on highways across the country, large truck crashes continue their mayhem, one crash at a time, community by community. Officials and trucking companies pay little heed — it’s business as usual. Some 330 people are being killed each month and nearly 8,000 are suffering excruciating injuries in accidents involving trucks. Truckers aren’t always to blame, but the National Transportation Safety Board says as many as one-third of these crashes involve tired truckers. On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders don’t seem concerned. In fact, Congress is listening to trucking industry lobbyists pressing for larger trucks to carry more cargo and further undercut safety on the nation’s highways, as well as degrade bridges and roadways.
Why the difference? From the beginning of air travel, America made a commitment to have safe skies. But not so for trucks. Truck safety standards have been delayed for decades under pressure from trucking companies. And right now on Capitol Hill, Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, are proposing to increase the size of trucks. Their plan would pre-empt the laws of 39 states, forcing them to allow double and triple trailers of trucks that are 33 feet long rather than the current maximum in those states of 28 feet. The new combinations would be 84 feet to 120 feet long — like trains on our highways.
Key highway legislation is scheduled to be considered this week on the Senate floor. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., want to have the Department of Transportation evaluate these longer trucks instead of recklessly allowing Congress to mandate them.
Senators pushing bigger trucks know that truck crash fatalities have increased 17% and injuries 28% in the past four years. They know that more than 75% of the public oppose larger trucks and longer working and driving hours for truck drivers (who now can be required to drive and work up to 82 hours a week). But they work hand in glove with trucking lobbyists and hope their constituents aren’t looking.
Trucking companies, particularly FedEx and UPS, give large amounts of campaign money to Congress and spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying. Unless individual citizens who pay the price with their lives and wallets call their senators demanding they vote for safer trucks, not bigger trucks, even the current opposition of the White House won’t be enough to stop this dangerous legislation. Let’s make highway safety our first goal.
Joan Claybrook is the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and president emeritus of Public Citizen.