Time for lawmakers to act on truck safety

Overdue: Bills that would push truckers to make their vehicles road worthy must pass this year.

February 19, 2002

PRUDENT DRIVERS remember the words of their parents:

Drive defensively. Expect the other guy to do something foolish.

But sometimes it's not enough. You see some loads on trucks - new cars chained to bouncing transports or heavy cargo lashed to flatbeds - and wonder what evasive action you might take.

What can you do when a 12-ton coil of steel flies off a truck and heads your way?

What can you do when poorly loaded cargo collapses a bridge while you're under it or when faulty brakes send a truck into the school bus you're driving?

Not much.

Some of these accidents are accidents, of course. But some amount to reckless endangerment: truckers could have done something to prevent fatal crashes and didn't. A quarter of the 315,849 vehicles inspected on Interstate 95 between 1998 and 2000, for example, were ordered off the road until they addressed various safety infractions.

In a recent catastrophe, a Howard County man was killed on his way to work when that roll of steel slammed into his car on Route 108. He didn't have a chance.

We read about such things and know it could have been us. We feel angry - and helpless.

But state legislators can help. They can make the odds of driving safely a little better. A bill before the General Assembly would increase fines and in some cases impose jail terms on truck drivers - and truck owners - who fail to keep their vehicles in good repair.

The bill would hold owners and drivers responsible for improperly secured loads, carrying too much weight and a number of other potential hazards. Companies that knowingly put unsafe vehicles on the street could face increased fines if an accident resulted in serious injury or death - four times the current penalties.

In one recent fatal truck accident attributable to defective brakes, the driver paid only $1,600. Under the pending bill, fines could be as high as $10,000 for a first offense, $25,000 for a second.

In fatal accidents, drivers who had failed to meet safety requirements could face time in prison.

Maryland's Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari had it precisely right last week when he testified before a House committee. Innocent lives are being callously traded away by those who fail to demand scrupulous attention to safety measures.

The assembly should turn aside those who say truckers shouldn't be inconvenienced or put at the mercy of overzealous inspectors.

"No truck is perfect," Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said during a hearing on the bill before his commitee. "I'm sure that there are inspectors out there who could come up with a problem on any truck."

That objection is bogus. If we can regulate auto emissions, can't we regulate truck safety?

Another legislator said no further regulation is needed because the possibility of civil law suits is sufficient incentive for truckers to inspect. The studies show this is simply wrong.

As always, the trucking lobby wields enormous power in Annapolis. But legislators shouldn't leave voters vulnerable, particularly in an election year.

The assembly can shape a law that truckers - and the rest of us - can live with.

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