Safety of bigger trucks may be matter of perspective

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

A rather disturbing news item came across the Associated Press report last week.

The National Research Council, a group of government advisers, is recommending that trucks weighing 90,000 pounds - 10,000 pounds more (yes, that is five tons more) than the current limit and as much as 10 feet longer (five feet more per tandem trailer) be allowed to use the nation's interstate highway system including deteriorating Interstate 70 through central Missouri.

The root of the conflict is that the federal government sets weight and length limits for interstate highways while some states allow vehicles exceeding those limits to use other highways. The matter will likely be before Congress next year when highway and transit programs are up for renewal.

Heavier, larger trucks would probably get goods to markets in a slightly more cost-efficient manner. And some states might see benefits in shifting large trucks to the interstate system from other U.S. or state highways. But the interstate highway system is hardly uniform in its ability to handle more vehicles or heavier loads. Our stretch of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis should provide ample evidence of that.

Both sides also cite statistics, with proponents saying the number of fatalities resulting from crashes involving large trucks was down .4 percent - to 5,211 (about 80 percent being the drivers of other, smaller vehicles) - in 2000 and opponents pointing out that trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds account for 9 percent of all fatal accidents, 7 percent of miles driven and only 3 percent of the registered vehicles on the road.

What we think the government's advisers should have done before making their recommendation was get behind the wheel of a regular family sedan, maybe loaded with two kids in the back seat, and then take a spin along the majority of interstate highways to see just how safe they feel under current rush-hour conditions, let alone bigger trucks sharing the road.

When the large truck is in the rear-view mirror, it's a whole different perspective than looking at it as part of a pie chart.