Car drivers on America's highways often view large trucks the way many people regard broccoli: It may be good for you, but you still don't like it.
It can be pretty intimidating to have an 18-wheeler looming in the rear-view mirror. On the other hand, cars cutting too close in front or tailgating in a truck's blind zone can lead to a lot of white-knuckled truck drivers.
Happily, despite more traffic on the roads, the number of truck-related accident fatalities is falling. Still, the trucking industry, Congress, and the administration agree more can be done to increase road safety.
The administration has released proposed legislation, while Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona are shepherding their own bills in the House and Senate transportation committees they chair. Among the most useful ideas from each proposal:
*Create a new Motor Carrier Administration in the Transportation Department to regulate the trucking and bus industries and improve safety. That task is currently filled by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which has been criticized as too lax and is not organized to regulate the nation's largest freight sector.
The new office would beef up oversight and put trucking on a par with aviation, railroads, and maritime shipping, each of which have their own agency within the Transportation Department.
*Tighten up on issuance of commercial driver's licenses, recording all traffic convictions on a driver's record, not just those violations committed in commercial vehicles. This would make the information available at license-application or renewal time. Ban the use of temporary permits and force drivers to serve out the entire time when a license is suspended. Require drivers to have alcohol- and drug-free driving records for at least three years before obtaining a commercial license.
*Provide the states modest additional funding to beef up roadside truck-safety inspections and get unsafe vehicles off the road.
It's also past time to amend the out-of-date rules on the number of hours a trucker can drive before he or she must take a break. Current regulations, dating from 1939, limit drivers to 10 hours, after which they must stop, no matter where they are. New rules should instead guarantee that drivers get eight hours of rest, use a normal 24-hour day, and be based on the latest science, not politics.
The administration wants to reduce truck-related fatalities by 50 percent over the next 10 years from last year's estimated 5,302.
Enactment of the proposals above would go a long way toward meeting that goal. It would also reassure the public that while trucks aren't getting any smaller, they are getting safer.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society