Highway roulette

In Texas, more people die in truck crashes than any state in the country. It's not an accident.

The ATA argued its position with the help of a study it conducted with funds from the highway administration, which concluded that it was the time of day truckers worked, rather than the amount of time on the road, that caused driver fatigue. An independent panel of experts hired by the administration however, concluded that the study had several serious flaws.

The trucking industry does have a valid point when it claims that present laws may actually promote fatigue. Take, for example, the driver who puts in 10 hours on the road and finds himself at his next destination at 4 p.m. He is expected to sleep for the next eight hours, which many find difficult to do in daylight hours. So after a few fitful hours of sleep, he hits the road again at midnight. He has taken his obligatory eight hours off, but he is hardly rested.

The trucking industry's solution would be to allow truckers to drive more hours. Safety groups agree that truckers should not have to work at times that are odds with natural circadian rhythms--the body's natural tendency to be awake during the day and sleep at night. But driving longer hours is not the answer, they say, pointing to numerous studies that show truckers who drive more than eight or 10 hours increase their risk of a crash two-fold.

Izer is growing weary of trying to convince legislators and regulators to make the changes common sense and decades of science and statistics so obviously dictate.

"When 100 people die in a plane crash, changes are made immediately," Izer says. "Well, 5,000 people die each year in truck crashes, but they die one, two, three at a time and no one notices. There is no public outcry. Nothing gets changed. Who's to blame? The federal government. Congress needs to intervene. We are with the issue of fatigue where MADD was 10 to 15 years ago with drinking and driving, but it's an uphill battle. The trucking industry has multimillions of dollars to shove down the throats of congressmen."

Calling it his "waving the American flag speech," David Stopper makes a strong argument for the need to improve enforcement of truck safety laws nationwide.

"There are a lot of trucking companies that try to stay in compliance," he says. "But with so many others getting away with it, how can you compete? If you don't have strong enforcement, not only are you endangering the public, you're penalizing honest people."

Stopper spends much time in Texas, teaching at A&M, investigating truck crashes, and testifying in lawsuits, so he has first-hand knowledge when he says, "enforcement of trucking laws in Texas is a joke. You're understaffed and there are no facilities. It is one of the few states where you cross the line and there is no 24-hour weigh station to check paperwork and logs. It amazes me that there is no serious enforcement going on. Across this great state, the chances of running across a motor carrier inspector is very slim."

Strong words, but the facts bear them out.
In Texas, the license and weight division of the Department of Public Safety is responsible for enforcing the state and federal trucking laws, but the Texas Legislature does not provide the funds the department needs to do an adequate job. There are 323 troopers specifically assigned to inspect trucks traveling across the state's highways. Last year, they inspected almost 126,000 trucks to make sure they were not overweight and that the vehicles were properly maintained and the drivers in compliance with the laws governing how long they could be on the road. But for every truck they stopped, another 1,000 drove by unchecked, according to DPS officials.

Some of these inspections are done at the state's 40 permanent weigh stations, sheds with permanent in-ground scales. Troopers toting portable scales do the rest in parking lots or the proverbial wide spots in the road--a time-consuming process and one not conducive to doing a thorough inspection. In fact, of the inspections done last year, only 19 percent were what the DPS terms level one, the most complete inspections in which troopers crawl all over the truck checking for bad brakes and loose lug nuts, and look at the driver's log book and supporting paperwork. Less thorough inspections might include just weighing the vehicle or just checking the logbook.

In addition, none of the weigh stations in Texas is permanently manned, even those at the state's borders. The theory is that once truckers know where the permanent weigh stations are, they'll find a way around them.

"Clearly, we do not have enough people or facilities based on the number of commercial vehicles in the state," says Maj. Lester Mills, director of the DPS division responsible for truck safety. "But that's all the money allocated by the Legislature."

Forty-two troopers are assigned to audit the state's trucking companies, looking at logbooks, checking preventive maintenance records and employee histories. Last year, the DPS audited only 2 percent of the state's trucking companies, up from 1 percent the year before.

Compare these numbers with California, and the differences are staggering. California has three times the number of people inspecting trucks on the road, and all of the inspections are level one. Six times the number of people conduct audits of the state's truck carriers--enough to hit 50 percent of the truck terminals each year.

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