Safety experts are shifting gears in their perennial battle to curb the hazards posed by big trucks. After years of focusing on the size of trucks and the condition of equipment, such as brakes and tires, concerned people are placing increased emphasis on the competence of drivers.
President Reagan recently signed legislation that for the first time will establish national licensing standards for commercial truckers. The law also sets new penalties for those who take the wheel under the influence of drugs, including alcohol.
``Most accidents are caused by driver error,'' says Thomas Donohue, president of the American Trucking Associations. ``This law will allow us to get those few off the road who are driving unsafely.''
The new initiative comes at a time of growing concern over truck safety.
Truck accidents on interstate highways rose to more than 39,000 last year, up 26 percent over 1983. More significantly, big trucks - while involved in about the same number of accidents per mile as automobiles - are nearly three times as likely to be involved in fatal crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Some critics charge that rising competition in the wake of deregulation is pushing truckers to cut corners on safety, including hauling overweight loads and driving too many hours. During the first half of this decade, the number of trucking firms in the United States nearly doubled to 33,000, while the volume of freight carried has decreased slightly. A number of trucking companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.
``If everyone else is violating safety regulations [to cut costs], the individual trucker can't afford to do anything else,'' says Patricia Waller, a truck-safety expert at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
Meanwhile, roadside inspections show that many trucks are not being maintained or operated according to federal standards.
Two-thirds of the 10,000 trucks recently inspected in Missouri were yanked out of service because of mechanical problems such as worn brakes. But the American Trucking Associations' Mr. Donohue says such figures are distorted by the fact that inspectors target trucks that appear to be in the worst condition.
While such problems persist, safety experts - as well as many in the trucking industry - are hailing the new legislation as ``an important step forward.''
The law's primary objective is to close the loopholes that exist in state licensing regulations. In 19 states, for example, anyone who can pass a driving test in a subcompact car is eligible to drive an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. Some drivers carry a fistful of licenses, allowing them to spread violations out across many jurisdictions. This has allowed some to keep on rolling, even after having their licenses suspended or revoked in one or more states.
Under the new legislation, a single, national driver's license will be required and multiple licensing will be outlawed. Other provisions of the law provide for a central computer to track violations, more funds to states for truck inspections, and new sanctions and standards for alcohol and drug abuse.
But some observers worry that the benefits of the new legislation could be lost through lackluster implementation.
Virtually every special-interest group concerned with highway safety and the trucking industry supported the law. The only opposition came from regulatory agencies, which argued that the measure was an infringement on states' rights.
``So what you have is a situation where splendid reform has been opposed at every level - federal, state, and local,'' says John Archer, government affairs director of the American Automobile Association. Groups such as the AAA plan to push for the most stringent interpretation of the law as possible.
One area of concern, Mr. Archer says, is licensing standards. The bill, while requiring drivers to be tested in trucks, does not specify that the test be done in the same kind of truck the driver intends to use on the highway.
There are several types of big trucks, such as double tractor-trailers and tankers. Archer would like to see a system established in which there are five categories of licenses, including one especially for drivers carrying hazardous materials. Regulatory agencies and trucking companies are almost certain to oppose such a move.
The Department of Transportation has until mid-1988 to hash out such details. States that do not comply will have their federal highway funds cut, beginning in 1993.
While some observers criticize this schedule, calling it ``leisurely,'' many experts say that the new law opens the way for dealing with other safety problems.
For example, the industry has long grappled with the problem of drivers who operate too fast and for too many hours. New electronic equipment, the rough equivalent of an airplane's black box, could soon be used to limit speed and record truckers' driving habits.