The Truth about Trucks

May 17, 1993

If you've ever driven your car on a highway, odds are you've had the nerve-jangling experience of looking in your rear-view mirror and seeing a 15-ton truck on your bumper. The big rig gets so close you can just about make out the dead bugs in its grillwork.

And you think: I hope I don't have to stop suddenly. Or else I'll be keeping those bugs company.

Concerns about truck safety were raised anew by recent Howard County Police Department inspections of dump trucks and tractor-trailers on two busy county roads. Of the 21 trucks randomly stopped and tested by police, 14 had defective brakes. Six of those were removed from service because of severely bad brakes or failed brake lights.

Those don't sound like heartening results. Nor do the findings from State Police inspections of 65,000 trucks last year, in which 39 percent of the vehicles were taken out of service for having faulty brakes.

The recent inspections by the Howard police came nearly two weeks after an accident in which a dump truck with bad brakes collided with several cars at a crowded Columbia intersection. A 43-year-old woman was killed in that accident, and her 12-year-old son remains hospitalized in critical condition.

According to police and trucking industry officials, this tragic occurrence was caused by mechanical error. The great majority of truck-related accidents, they say, result from driver error. In fact, officials add, a perfectly sound truck in the hands of a reckless operator can be more dangerous than a impaired truck with a good driver in the cab. The good driver will tend to notice defects and correct them. But the reckless person's ways are made even more perilous by the mechanical flaws of his vehicle.

Since a federal law tightening restrictions on commercial driver's licenses took effect a year ago, police report a decrease in the number of tested trucks with major defects.

Also, figures from the National Safety Council show that while truck mishaps get a lot of media play, passenger cars are involved in about seven times as many fatal crashes as are trucks weighing five tons or more.

Police want to do more inspections, but fiscal restraints hinder them. They'd settle, though, for people driving as carefully as possible -- whether they have four or 18 wheels under them.

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