Road and rail traffic, a potential problem rolling through your neighborhood. Trucking deregulation has created safety concerns

A series of accidents involving trucks -- including one in Oklahoma last week in which exploding military bombs left a 20-foot-deep crater in an Interstate freeway -- has refueled a drive in Texas for stricter trucking safety standards. The push in Texas comes amid continuing federal efforts for adoption of consistent truck safety standards across the United States.

Officials say the need for stricter state standards is particularly great in a large state like Texas, where many truckers operate without ever crossing state lines -- and thus do not come under federal regulations.

Concern over dangers posed by unsafe trucks is not confined to Texas, however. Officials in the New York City area, troubled by truck accidents there, have conducted spot-checks whose findings were eye-openers: Better than 1 in 4 of the trucks stopped were ordered off the road, either because of unsafe equipment or because the drivers were not properly licensed.

In Houston, where the Texas campaign is focused, city officials were disappointed by the state Legislature's inaction on the issue this year and have taken steps of their own. Last week the Houston Police Department announced a 50 percent increase in traffic patrol units, and it is planning to set up new truck scales around the city.

``We want to see the unsafe trucks stopped and the speeding trucks slowed down,'' says Eleanor Tinsley, a Houston City Council member who unsuccessfully lobbied the Texas Legislature for adoption of federal truck safety regulations.

Ms. Tinsley says her concern has grown as the number of fatal accidents involving trucks has increased. She noted that Houston last year had 233 traffic fatalities, 14 in accidents involving trucks. So far this year, she said, 24 of 150 fatalities have occurred in truck-related accidents.

In the past few weeks Houston has witnessed a half-dozen truck accidents, including one in which a container filled with 5,000 gallons of flammable liquid rolled off a truck and burst into flames. The truck's driver was killed and a major road had to be closed for repairs.

Officials say a nationwide deterioration in trucking equipment and driving standards can be tied in part to deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980.

According to John Danks, director of safety and maintenance at the Texas Motor Transport Association, deregulation has led to ``cost-cutting and corner-cutting'' in both maintenance and driver standards to help meet increased competition. The TMTA is the state's major trucking association and is very active in promoting safer commercial trucking.

``One of the keys to better trucking safety is tighter driver qualifications and limits on a driver's hours of service,'' says Charles Nesmith, officer in charge at the Texas office of the federal Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety. ``But right now, no laws in Texas address that.''

Texas has yet to adopt truck safety standards to meet requirements of the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program signed last year by federal Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. Under that program, states that have not adopted truck safety standards consistent with federal regulations by 1989 could be required to do so.

As of July, 34 states and possessions had adopted regulations meeting the federal standards, while 21 had not.

There is evidence that state adoption of federal regulations leads to better safety records. Mr. Nesmith points to Utah, which saw its commercial vehicle accident rate drop by 37 percent during a five-state, three-year, federally financed demonstration project. Utah had no truck safety laws, but federal regulations were applied at highway inspections.

``Unfortunately the state decided at the end of the three years that it didn't have any available money, so it dropped the program,'' added Nesmith. ``In one year the accident rate was back up to where it had been.''

TMTA's Mr. Danks, whose organization supported the Texas legislation to adopt federal standards, says the bill died in committee because of legislators' concerns about the costs of enforcing new trucking regulations.

But state Rep. Ed Emmett of the Houston area, who sponsored the bill, noted that some federal money would have been available for enforcement. He says lobbying by the cement industry killed the bill. In any case, the Texas Legislature holds regular sessions only once every two years, so it will be 1987 before the state can again take up the issue.

Ms. Tinsley says this is one reason the Houston legal department has been asked to determine whether the city can adopt federal standards on its own.

Danks says TMTA, in addition to working for legislation in the next session to adopt federal regulations, will continue its own in-house safety patrol programs to help increase trucking safety in Texas.

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