What if Bigger Trucks Were to Barrel Down the Interstate?

A mother driving a carpool grows apprehensive as her car becomes positioned between two large, fast-moving trucks. Yet this woman eagerly awaits a new refrigerator and kitchen cabinets being shipped to her by truck.

This is precisely the dilemma facing the American motoring public. Polls of AAA members show that a strong majority are afraid of driving alongside large trucks. Yet they also want what the trucks are delivering to homes and businesses.

That demand is pushing more trucks onto highways. And trucking advocates in Washington and in state legislatures are discussing the pros and cons of expanding the use of longer combination vehicles (LCVs).

The question is whether to lift the freeze on these vehicles and to expand their use. Current federal law limits to 80,000 pounds the maximum weight for trucks that use the interstate highway system. A grandfather clause in the law, however, permits 16 states to allow heavier vehicles if they were in operation before July 1956.

It's in these mostly western states, and on selected turnpikes, that triple trailers up to seven car-lengths long and weighing as much as 35 automobiles are allowed to operate. The trucking industry has taken advantage of this grandfather clause by steadily increasing triple trailers on the road. Overall, truck traffic has increased 25 percent since 1990.

Measured by vehicle miles traveled, the trucking industry fatality rate decreased 40 percent during the past decade. But, while trucks represent only 7 percent of total miles driven in the United States, they're involved in 12 percent of fatal accidents.

LCVs have large blind spots, take longer to stop, and have an even wider turning radius than their five-axle tractor semi-trailer cousins. In addition, LCVs, especially triples, are susceptible to fishtailing.

Are they therefore less safe? It would seem so. But more research needs to be done.

The trucking industry may seek congressional action this year or next to increase allowable truck sizes. Rep. James Oberstar (D) of Minnesota already has introduced a bill that would actually roll back truck size and weight restrictions in some instances and freeze size and weight at their current levels in others. The AAA strongly supports this bill.

TRUCKS are a vital part of our economy, but the case for even bigger and heavier vehicles has not been made. The trade-off between a small increase in shipping capacity offered by LCVs and an unknown effect on highway safety and mobility may not be a great bargain for the American public.

If the choice is between increasing driving anxiety and forgoing small consumer savings, we think most motorists would choose the latter.

* James L. Kolstad is vice president of the AAA, the 40-million member auto club.

Most Americans don't like driving alongside these behemoths, yet they want what the trucks are delivering to homes and businesses.

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