Can't avoid jack-knifing? Don't be a truck driver

February 08, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

Allow me to nominate an official Public Enemy No. 1 from the weekend's Super Bowl of Snow: tractor-trailer drivers who can't keep their rigs from jackknifing.

Driving a truck is a hard job, and those who do it deserve respect. But when a truck jack-knifes in the snow, it almost always means the driver was going too fast for the conditions.

Marylanders and those traveling through the state got a close-up look at the havoc a jack-knifed tractor-trailer can wreak several times this weekend, most notably when such an incident on southbound Interstate 95 on Saturday turned the most important travel artery into a parking lot for the entire afternoon.

All of the people who froze, starved and crossed their legs for hours can thank one individual. Those who waited for a lesser time Sunday after two tractor-trailers did the jackknife thing at almost the same spot at I-95 and Route 175 in Howard County also lost part of their weekend to errant truckers. (State police say there are a limited number of cases in which a tractor-trailer jackknifes while taking an emergency evasive action. But in most cases, they say, speed is the culprit.)

Sorry if I seem unsympathetic, but letting one's tractor-trailer jackknife is highly unprofessional. Airline pilots are expected not to overshoot runways. Surgeons are expected to remove all the clamps before they suture patients. Lawyers are expected to not miss court filing deadlines. Police officers are supposed to avoid shooting unarmed, law-abiding civilians.

And truck drivers can reasonably be expected to drive at an appropriate speed in severe weather so they don't jackknife and tie up important travel corridors at critical times. It's like an entry-level requirement. If one can't attain that goal, one should find another line of work.

It's not just this weekend spent at the State Highway Administration Operations Center in Hanover that inspires this rant. It seems that every time there's a major snowfall in Maryland, some truck operator decides to make up a little lost time by going faster than road conditions permit. One of the last times I spent a snowstorm here, it was the Bay Bridge the driver chose as the venue for that stunt.

One person who's all too familiar with this phenomenon and its costs is Neil J. Pedersen, Maryland's state highway administrator.

"I'm just passed by tractor-trailers all the time during snowstorms," Pedersen said. "You are required to drive at speeds that are appropriate for conditions."

Pedersen said the state can recover costs from trucking companies if their equipment damages state property. But if a trucker's poor driving simply wastes state resources, the taxpayers are out of luck.

"If it's just an incident when they're on the road and being disabled, we do not recoup costs," he said.

That, he said, is a matter of state policy set by the General Assembly.

In the case of Saturday's monster backup, the costs to the state of unplugging I-95 easily ran into tens of thousands of dollars, Pedersen said.

Heavy equipment had to be diverted from other parts of the state, delaying snow clearance on other roads. Getting that equipment to the scene of the mess was an ordeal because the shoulders of the road and most of the lanes were piled high with snow. Hundreds of hours of labor were thrown at the fiasco.

For those stuck on I-95 - most of them truck drivers who managed to avoid calamities - the costs were equally high. Thousands of gallons of fuel were wasted as vehicles idled. Trucking companies paid scads of overtime to delayed drivers. Independent drivers lost time that translates into money. Many lost time with their families.

I'm not sure there's a quick and easy solution to this problem, or any solution at all. But at least we can enjoy the catharsis of sending a heartfelt statewide razzberry to those speeding, jackknifing truckers out there.


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