Big wheels turning

Accidents happen. More often than not, at least in the Sacramento area lately, they seem to involve large trucks, trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds. A tractor-trailer driven by a mentally unstable man who probably should have never been issued a carrier’s license plows into the state Capitol building. A big rig chugging down I-5 near the southern outskirts of the city crosses the center divide and crashes head-on into a truck traveling the opposite direction. Not a month seems to go by here lately without some major, fiery truck crash.

Anyone who’s driven the freeways of Northern California can attest to the growing number of trucks clogging the veins and arteries that feed our cities, suburbs and towns. There’s no question that we depend on these vehicles to transport our goods and services to and from the market. But we’ve been neglecting infrastructure for decades, and thanks to deregulation, there are no uniform standards governing the safety of the trucking industry. The result? Too many trucks. Too many cars. Not enough road. Thus, accidents happen, and will continue to do so, as long as big wheels keep on turning.

What’s being done about all this? Well, to paraphrase our most recent ex-president, that depends on how you define the word “done.” According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the government agency that works to prevent commercial vehicle accidents, an estimated 5,300 people were killed in accidents involving heavy trucks (vehicles with a gross weight of more than 10,000 pounds) last year, the same amount as the previous two years. FMCSA has proposed new regulations designed to reduce the number of truck/car collisions by 50 percent, but the new rules wouldn’t take effect until 2010. The big wheels of government turn somewhat more slowly than those of a White Freightliner. The trucks just keep movin’ on.

Things travel with slightly more speed in Sacramento. The Motor Carrier Safety Evaluation Act, SB 1171, introduced to the Senate by Jack Scott (D-Pasadena) in April, could go a long way in reducing trucking-related accidents on our roads and highways. The bill, crafted with the cooperation of the California Trucking Association and the California Highway Patrol, would, among other things, establish a universal criteria to rank a carrier’s performance: Premier, Satisfactory, Conditional, Unsatisfactory and Entry Level based on its actual safety record as well as the CHP’s current biennial inspection program.

The catch? The bill is still in committee, and if passed, wouldn’t go into effect until 2003. Well, better late than never, though. Let’s hope the discussion of the Motor Carrier Safety Evaluation Act isn’t lost in the furor over the energy crisis, leaving the safety of California’s truckers and motorists in the dark.