We’re home again, after spending several days in Washington DC. We spent the time with other families that have suffered loss and injury in crashes with big trucks. The conference we attended is called Sorrow to Strength because, though many of us come to the weekend drowning in sorrow, we almost always leave feeling stronger, energized, even hopeful.
This year the issues were many; longer trucks, heavier trucks, teenage drivers, the minimum insurance that truck companies must carry, the fact that they want to hide crash data from the public, the rollback of mandated sleep breaks for drivers. Each of these issues is complicated; it’s a fine line to balance the safety of all of us with the need for commerce in this country.
Most of these issues are part of both the House and the Senate Transportation Bills. The Senate bill has already passed and contains many anti-truck safety provisions. The House bill was in committee this week and will be on the floor the House for a general vote very soon. We were successful in getting some anti-truck safety amendments removed from the bill, but we expect they will be introduced on the House floor during debate.
FedEx, UPS and a few other truck companies are fighting to put double 33 foot trailers on our roads in all states. Currently 39 states limit double trailers to 28 feet. In the bill being voted on are amendments that would make it federal law to allow double 33s across the country regardless of state law. Double 33 foot trailers are harder to drive, the back trailer doesn’t track around corners, meaning it will ride up over curbs if the driver isn’t careful, and take longer to stop. Drivers don’t want to drive them. Many large truck companies don’t want to have to purchase new trailers. The 33 foot trailers don’t fit on current container ships or railway cars. They will cause more damage to our roads and bridges. It seems that a few companies with a lot of money want these trailers, and expect the rest of us to just let it happen.
There was a press conference on Wednesday with a double 33 foot trailer, I put the photo of it in my header above. Think about it…would you want to pass this truck on a dark highway in your home state? Would you want it coming up behind you? No Senator or Representative we visited thought these were a good idea, yet there it is in the bill.
Every truck company has to have liability insurance. The minimum level of $750,000 was set in 1980 and it has never been increased. Most companies carry at least $1M, but in a crash where there are injuries even $1 million won’t be enough to cover hospital expenses. The liability insurance is paid out per incident. So if there is more than one person injured or killed, the insurance has to be split up among the victims. Think about that. Suppose two or three or more families have been injured or killed. The company writes a check, it gets split up by a judge, and the company walks away. Sure you can sue them in civil court, but small truck companies don’t have much in the way of assets, they file bankruptcy and open up the next day under another name. The families are left to pay the bills on their own. They often have to file bankruptcy too, and eventually tax payers pick up the tab in the form of disability and other kids of state or federal aid.
In the Transportation Bill are more hurdles for the DOT (Department of Transportation) to even study the need for an increase in mandatory liability insurance. They say they need to do a cost/benefit study on this issue; they want to study how much would it costs to mandate more insurance coverage v.s. what the benefit would be. Really. Even if the limit was increased to the cover the cost of living minimum insurance requirements would be over $2M. And that still wouldn’t cover the medical costs of someone injured by a big truck.
And let’s talk about teenage drivers. I know this is very controversial. Some states allow people 18-21 to drive an 18 wheeler within their state lines. The House and Senate bills have different versions of this issue, but in effect they’d like to do a pilot study to allow teenage drivers to cross state lines. At first this sounds innocent enough, if a teenage driver can drive anywhere in his/her own state, what’s 100 miles across state lines? But we know that pilot studies never stop and they never go away, they just expand. And what was once 100 miles across a few state lines will shortly become permission to drive across the country at the wheel of a truck weighing at least 80,000 pounds.
Teen drivers are less likely to stand up to truck owners demanding that they drive more hours than are safe, that they bend rules, that they drive trucks in poor repair. Many large truck companies say they won’t hire teenagers to drive, they understand that teen drivers have a higher crash rate than the general population. Rental car companies often won’t rent to a driver under the age of 25 because of the liability. Why would we want teenagers driving big trucks? It’s a deadly combination and something we’d like to stop now. I understand young people needing to make a living. But they don’t have enough driving experience to handle an emergency effectively. And an emergency in a big rig is a big emergency, one that can kill drivers as well as other people sharing the road.
There are several other issues that we talked about in meetings with the DOT and other regulators, as well as Senate and House members and their staff. Telling our stories, asking for safety to be made a priority made us all feel stronger. Every family at the conference wanted to make a difference. They didn’t want another family to go through the heartache that they’ve been through. And after spending three days on the Hill we feel like our voices were heard.
Safety can not be partisan. It just can’t. Trucks kill nearly 4000 people every year. They injure another 100,000 annually. They irreparably damage Democrat and Republican families, people of every religion, every nationality. This is one issue that should be first on the minds of everyone regardless of beliefs.
I’ll keep you updated as the bills move through Congress. We are at the edge of a very large cliff, and some truck companies seem willing to nudge us over that edge. You can help by calling your House of Representative member (they will be voting soon!) and telling their office that you do not want the Reauthoriation Bill to contain any anti-safety truck provisions.