Of the approximately 50,000 heavy trucks stopped in Maryland by State Police for random inspections last year -- only a fraction of the total on the road -- more than half were deemed unfit to continue driving. Police marked them "Out of Service."
And most of those, police inspectors say, were put out of service for having brakes out of adjustment.
Yet, as alarming as that may seem, police inspectors say accidents involving tractor-trailers are much more often the result of driver error than equipment failure. As for poorly adjusted brakes, police say that can be a minor offense that most truckers can fix with a wrench in about 15 minutes.
State truck inspectors and safety experts concur that nearly 80 percent of truck accidents are caused by human error, such things as speeding, driving erratically and drunken driving. And half of the time, according to state highway records, it's not the trucker's fault.
"It's a rare accident where a mechanical failure is the cause of an accident," said 1st Sgt. R. Scott Mergenthaler, an administrator with the State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.
Two fatal accidents last month involving dump trucks with brake problems prompted some truck safety advocates to say Maryland's inspection and maintenance regulations should be stiffer.
In one case, a dump truck carrying 22 tons of asphalt bounced off a Jersey wall near the Harbor Tunnel, causing a chain-reaction accident involving 11 vehicles. The dump truck ran over a compact car, killing the car's driver and crushing the car beyond recognition. The truck was later found to have a cracked and leaking air line and three out of four air brakes out of adjustment.
Last week, Baltimore prosecutors said the trucker, John Willie Buie, of Baltimore, was speeding at the time of the accident. They also charged him with manslaughter in the death of Kimberly Ann Schroeder, 23, of Eastpoint, driver of the compact car.
In the other recent case, in Howard County, the driver of a dump truck with brakes that apparently failed was killed when the rear wheels of the truck ran him over after he had jumped from the cab to escape.
State Police and trucking experts say that if a truck with air brakes has a leak and loses air pressure, the truck's brakes will automatically lock, causing the vehicle to screechto a halt. But if the truck is speeding and the brakes are out of adjustment, it will stop more slowly than normal, the experts say. Heavy trucks take longer to stop than do cars.
Horrible accidents involving tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks draw a lot of publicity -- and put the trucking industry on the defensive.
Rita Bontz, the wife of a veteran trucker and the president of Independent Truckers and Drivers Association of Maryland, says frustrating that the reputation of all truckers is hurt by a few irresponsible drivers.
"We need to be paying attention to equipment, of course, but we also need to pay attention to drivers. Give me a bad truck with a nTC good driver over a good truck with a bad driver, if you know what I mean," she said, stressing that she wasn't trying to minimize the accidents.
"I wish the public understood how hard we are trying to make things safe," she said. "It's not all bad. It's getting better."
Accidents involving heavy trucks were down last year -- from 8,500 in 1989 to 7,700 in 1990, State Police reported. The total number of trucks on the road wasn't known. There were also fewer fatalities, down from 122 to 96.
For cars and light trucks, there also were slightly fewer accidents, down from 104,000 in 1989 to 99,000 last year, and slightly more fatalities, from 627 in 1991 to 631 last year, police said.
State Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, wants the state to have a mandatory inspection program for trucks. Truckers would have to have their rigs inspected annually by a licensed third party under her proposal.
Currently, under state law, trucks heavier than 10,000 pounds must be self-inspected by the trucker or trucking company every 25,000 miles or once a year.
Mandating that each truck be taken to a inspection station would be impractical, Bontz said, because there are not enough repair garages for heavy trucks. Most trucking companies have their own mechanics and garages.
Ruben said her bill would first apply only to smaller-fleet trucking companies, those less likely to have their own repair facilities. She also said she believes most trucking companies and truckers are safety-conscious and doing a good job.
Both police and Bontz said state inspection efforts have increased greatly in recent years.
About 50,000 trucks were randomly inspected last year, compared with 12,000 trucks inspected in 1987, said Sgt. Mergenthaler. He said the number of police inspectors has grown in the last five years to 42 full-time positions. The six Baltimore metropolitan area jurisdictions and the state Toll Facilities police also have truck inspectors, he added.