The Courier-Journal

June 11, 2015

Congress should halt erosions to truck safety

By Roy Crawford

After a horrendous truck crash that results in deaths, injuries, and destruction, messages of sympathy and condolences from politicians are often scattered around like leftover debris at a crash scene. Unfortunately, seldom do we hear from our elected officials, “We should have done more.” This is especially the case with large truck crashes which kill about 4,000 people annually and injure 100,000 more.

The inaction and indifference after several recent fatal truck crashes in Kentucky should serve as a loud wake-up call. Instead of responding with measures to improve safety, there is a reactive cycle of inertia or, worse yet, efforts going on right now in Congress to roll back lifesaving truck safety laws.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairs one of the most important committees in Congress, the House Appropriations Committee, which provides funding for all federal agencies and programs. As of now the House is debating the annual spending bill for transportation programs drafted under his leadership. The bill includes numerous anti-truck safety provisions pushed by well-connected and well financed corporate trucking lobbyists. None of these changes in current law were subject to any legislative hearing, agency review, or public debate.

These include a FedEx proposal to overturn the law in 39 states, including Kentucky, and force every state to allow extra-long trucks exceeding 84 feet in length pulling two 33-foot-long trailers.

Furthermore, the bill continues the “Tired Truckers” exemption that took away truck drivers’ vitally important weekends off and allows them to work and drive as many as 82 hours a week. The bill also stops an on-going rulemaking by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure adequate insurance requirements for trucks and passenger carrying buses.

Increasing the size and weight of trucks is unsafe and unpopular. Companies like FedEx pushing for bigger trucks are misleading Congress and the public by suggesting that trucks pulling two longer trailers are safer and will result in fewer trucks on the roads. That is wrong. The recent multi-vehicle crash in Kentucky involving a FedEx double tractor-trailer truck and causing the needless death of two people is evidence of how dangerous these big trucks are.

Unfortunately, I know firsthand the dangers of truck crashes. My 16-year-old son, Guy Crawford, was killed on Jan. 12, 1994, near Isom, Ky. He approached a grossly overloaded coal truck traveling at only about a third of the speed limit, a situation that violates the expectations of other drivers. The truck did not have proper rear lights and reflectors or any underride guard at all.

As of now, in fatal truck crashes involving a car and a truck, 96% of the deaths are the occupants of the car. Although I am a forensic engineer I don’t need to rely on my professional expertise to know that longer trucks are more difficult to maneuver in traffic, resulting in loss of ability to avoid collisions and sometimes causing rollovers; have increased blind spots; when overloaded travel dangerously slowly on high-speed highways, especially here in Eastern Kentucky where we have such long, steep grades; run away with overheated brakes, and cause much more serious crashes.

Fatigued truck driving is a serious problem in the trucking industry, yet the bill in the House of Representatives will, against all logic, make things worse. An average work week for most Americans is 40 hours, but Congress is considering extending the already long work week of a trucker to more than double that amount of time — almost all of it surrounded by traffic.

From 2009 to 2013, large trucks have been involved in nearly 40,000 crashes on Kentucky roads, killing almost 500 people and injuring more than 9,000. And, truck crashes, deaths and injuries are on the rise compared to the drop in overall traffic fatalities and injuries.

Another provision in the bill would stop a public rulemaking to review minimum insurance requirements for trucking companies. The current federal minimum is only $750,000 and has not been changed since 1985. This is grossly inadequate to cover the medical costs of severe and often lifelong debilitating injuries or death in a crash when there are multiple victims.

In the next few weeks the U.S. Senate will take up this spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is a member of the Appropriations Committee. I urge him not to support these provisions, and I also call upon Rep. Rogers and the rest of the Kentucky congressional delegation to put the safety of Kentucky families first.

Kentucky families will pay the price if these measures become law.

Roy Crawford is a retired forensic engineer living in Whitesburg, Ky.

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