Wearing jeans, black boots, and a gray T-shirt that reads ARMY, Gail Averett may not look like an expert on truck safety. But the young trucker eating at a dusty rest stop here has plenty to say on the issue, and whips out a tattered flier advertising a July 5 truckers' strike to improve safety.
In the polished halls of Washington, the conversation is much the same: how to cut the number of accidents between truckers and car drivers. Indeed, truck safety has suddenly become a Peter Built-size issue in Congress and some state capitals as the United States heads into the big summer driving season.
Everyone is fixated on a single digit - 5,398 - the number of people the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) says were killed in crashes with trucks in 1997, and an increase over previous years.
Critics such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia want to tighten inspections and oversight, and say the regulatory agency responsible for trucking is too cozy with the industry.
Trucking organizations say the number of fatalities is deceptive, because the increased number of truck miles driven each year must be taken into account.
The one thing everyone agrees on is that deregulation, a booming economy, and changing business practices are putting more trucks on the road. A strong economy is also putting more cars on the road, triggering the potential for more mishaps between 18-wheelers and four-wheelers.
Preliminary figures for 1998 actually show the number of deaths involving truck crashes down slightly, by almost 100, says FHA spokesman David Longo. But government, interest groups, and the trucking industry are still pushing to cut the number of fatalities. And disagreements and finger-pointing remain. Truckers, for example, often blame reckless car drivers for causing accidents.
"There's stupid people that pull in front of us, and we can't stop," says Mr. Averett, who had just dropped off a load of Dreyers ice cream in Denver.
Taking the cap off fines
Last month, US Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater announced the ambitious goal of cutting the number of truck-crash fatalities in half within 10 years. His raft of proposals includes stiffer penalties for scofflaws. Previously, fines were capped at $10,000, no matter how many safety violations. Now, that amount can be charged for each violation, according to FHA officials.
Mr. Slater also says safety investigators will double the number of yearly inspections, from 24 to 48. But with that mandate, officials with the Office of Motor Carriers (OMC), the trucking regulatory agency, say other tasks will be left undone.
"There's something that's falling out of the bottom, no doubt about it," says program manager Julie Cirillo.
Because exact details will be left up to officials in each state, she could not say which areas would suffer.
Slater also wants more money for enforcement - $55.8 million - but that request is still pending in Congress, Ms. Cirillo says.
Congressman Wolf wants a more fundamental change. He proposes moving the OMC out from under the highway administration and giving it more teeth. He argues the administration's mandate is to build roads, not ensure truck safety.
He also cites a report by the Transportation Department's Inspector General showing that OMC officials strategized to have the trucking industry lobby against the move. "Once you do that, it's incestuous," Mr. Wolf says.
One possible home for OMC, he says, is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, because it focuses on safety. That idea, too, is winding its way through Congress, officials say.
One point of agreement is the need for more rest stops. An advocacy group called Parents Against Tired Truckers has even sprung up. Steve Izer helped found the group after his son Jeff was killed in a collision with a truck when the driver fell asleep in 1993.
While many trucks today have sleeper cabs, observers say it's increasingly difficult for truckers to find a place to park and rest for a few hours. Truck stops and rest stops fill up quickly, or truckers are booted out after a couple hours. Most can recount instances of being shaken from sleep by state troopers banging a fist on their doors and telling them to move on.
No room at the rest stop
By most estimates, tens of thousands of rest stops costing millions of dollars are needed. But how much should state and federal governments contribute? Cirillo of the Federal Highway Administration was at a forum in Atlanta this week discussing the issue. She says one solution may be to allow truckers to use park-and-ride sites at night, after commuters have gone home.
One reason truckers are criss-crossing the country in greater numbers is the declining use of warehouses, experts say. A company, for example, orders goods from manufacturers just in time to hit the shelves. This turns trucks into 55-mile-per-hour mobile warehouses.
Another solution: amending a federal law that now requires drivers to take eight hours off after trucking for 10. Drivers say they should have more freedom to choose when to sleep. "I know when to pull over," says trucker Averett, as he wolfs down milk and a burger in Denver. "That's where you can say the professionalism comes in."