Truckers' troubles: safety on a less open road

Driver shortages and stiff competition have intensified a push for speed - and regulation, too.

When he leaves his Edgar, Wisc., home, his '97 Peterbilt rumbling beneath him, Joe Rajkovacz remembers what drew him to the big-rig business: running like a freebird on the open highway, from the two lanes out to Rapid City, S.D., across Wyoming, through the slick rock canyons of Utah, straight to San Francisco.

But these days, it's traffic that dominates as much as the scenery: more congestion, more trucks, and a convoy of tired and inexperienced drivers who cause more accidents than they should. It's a set of problems that was highlighted last week, when one stretch of road in Pennsylvania saw three truck accidents in a single day. And the combination of woes is fueling public resentment of truckers, whose rigs are involved in nearly 5,000 American fatalities each year.

"There's been a fundamental shift in Americans' attitudes toward truckers," says Mr. Rajkovacz, a driver who says he's logged 3 million accident-free miles. "We're no longer the 'knights of the road.'"

In fact, these days they may be feeling more like serfs. As concern grows about safety on the nation's highways, the federal government is considering tapping new technology to track drivers' hours, and educating the public on sharing the roads. There are already federal limits on the length of time truckers can sit behind the wheels of their big rigs, called maximum "hours of service" (HOS) - rules that, truckers admit, are commonly flouted.

Now government officials are pushing for a black box in every truck to ensure compliance. But the truckers themselves, one of the nation's most famously independent groups, are resisting what they see as the government riding shotgun.

To critics, it's not simply invasive; it's emblematic of a system at its wits' end, struggling with high turnover rates and fueled by stiff competition among thousands of companies that have their truckers working up to 100 hours a week. Moreover, companies are relying more and more on inexperienced drivers and new immigrants. As cars and trucks duke it out on asphalt trade routes, the controversy highlights the human costs of delivering goods on the cheap.

How we got here

"The goal since deregulation has been to lower the cost of transportation to drive economic activity," says Peter Swan, a transportation expert at Penn State's Smeal College of Business in University Park, Pa. "That worked fine up to a point. Unfortunately, we're at that point."

While total trucking has grown by nearly 70 percent in the past 15 years, new highway spending has lagged. And while safety has improved dramatically on the whole, growing traffic on the nation's highways is raising new concerns.

"The amount of trucks is tremendous, almost incredible," says John Rudolph, a Virginia motorist who battles I-81 traffic daily. "I've never seen so many trucks."

Other factors are surfacing that could impact safety as well. For one thing, as competition grows, trucking companies are holding down costs in part by hiring more foreign nationals. That could dramatically increase if the US government were to allow more Mexican trucks on US roads, and it's leading to some of the most experienced drivers leaving the industry.

For another, Congress is set to approve more toll roads. In some states, such as Ohio, truckers have gone out of their way to avoid tolls by switching to other highways, where accident rates are up to six times higher than on the interstates.

Incentives to cheat - or change

Truckers themselves also point to the problem of unpaid down time at loading docks, which black boxes won't change. To make up for off-the-clock hours at the docks, many spend more time on the road. Some suggest one solution would be to have retailers pay drivers for time spent loading and unloading: If Walmart and Sears were footing the bill, they might get trucks out of the docks sooner.

"Until a driver is compensated for the time he spends at docks, there will always be impetus to cheat," says Rajkovacz, the Wisconsin trucker.

Governments are trying to deal with truck safety in various ways. Illinois, for example, has increased the speed limit for trucks to match the motorists' rate. While that strikes many as incongruous, some studies have proven it could ease traffic, and thus cut down on accidents, by eliminating the mobile blockades of trucks crawling through slow urban zones.

The outlook for new measures

Yet many experts insist that the best solution is technology. Black boxes and laser-guided crash-avoidance systems are expected to cut fatalities by as much as 20 percent. And on the whole, new HOS rules may be working, with mandated 10-hour breaks between tours and a requirement that truckers are able to return home every 34 hours.

"Black boxes are viewed by many as a step in the right direction," says Dick Henderson, director of government affairs at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) in Washington, a highway safety group.

Yet others are skeptical that trucker regulation will, on its own, improve safety. A University of Michigan study, for instance, found that two-thirds of fatal tractor-trailer-related accidents are caused not by tired truckers, but by passenger cars braking too abruptly or cutting sharply in front of them.

There's some movement on this issue. Congress is considering spending millions in the new highway bill to upgrade driver education and teach more practical advice on how to share the roads - an acknowledgement that overcrowded interstates and highways are a daily American reality.

"You have to learn to drive with trucks on the I-85 and I-95 corridors of the world," says Mr. Henderson at the CVSA. "It's not fun, but you have to really drive out there as if your life depended on it."

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