Several months ago, two staff members were discussing the merits of a congressional proposal to add 10 feet to the allowable length of twin 28-foot trailers. One opposed the measure. The reason? He didn't want to suffer the inconvenience of maneuvering around a longer tractor-trailer.
The rationale is striking, and it is held by millions of motorists, most of whom are perfectly law-abiding. For many, sharing the road with trucks effectively means challenging them if the rigs seem to be impeding their progress. The results can be disastrous, and if the findings of a landmark study from the University of Michigan are accurate, motorists mostly have themselves to blame.
The study, conducted during 1998 and 1999, analyzed 8,309 fatal car-truck crashes on U.S. roads between 1994 and 1996. The researchers did not cite a "critical reason" for each incident, but they did assign "driver factors," such as driving too fast for road and weather conditions, failure to stay in lanes, and improper following. In 81 percent of the fatal crashes, driver factors were assigned to the motorists. Truck drivers were assigned factors in 26 percent of the crashes.
What if the attribution of driver error just reflected the stories told by crash survivors, of which truck drivers were the overwhelming majority? The study looked at 1,245 fatal crashes—15 percent of the total—where both drivers survived but a third party, such as a passenger, was killed. In 73 percent of the cases, the motorist was cited with a factor, while in 34 percent, the truck driver was cited.
The researchers also examined the physical location and configuration of each crash, noting that the vehicle at fault could be reliably determined from the crash configuration at the scene. In two-vehicle car-truck crashes, the motorist was at fault in 89 percent of head-on collisions, 88 percent of opposite-direction sideswipes, and 80 percent of rear-end sideswipes, the study said.
The findings of the study, one of the most exhaustive of its kind, have never been challenged in its 18-year history. Human nature being what it is, it would be surprising if the same behavior didn't carry on to this day. There may be fewer total accidents, but we would hazard a guess that the ratio of culpability between car and truck remains the same.
That begs the question as to where the focus of road safety awareness should lie. It is the pros, not the amateurs, whose drive time is regulated and restricted. The pros are required to take rest breaks. The amateurs are not. The pros are told how to regulate their circadian rhythms. The amateurs are not. Yes, an 18-wheeler is a lethal weapon in the wrong hands. But the same could be said of a minivan hurtling down the highway at 80 mph.
John R. Bagileo, a Washington transportation attorney who has practiced law for decades and is hardly an off-the-cuff thinker, said at the SMC3 JumpStart conference in January that little time is spent educating motorists in the dos and don'ts of interacting with commercial motor vehicles. We would say there is no time spent educating motorists. (Can you remember, perhaps in driver training, being told or shown how to happily co-exist on the roads with a tractor-trailer? We cannot.)
Better education aside, perhaps a good first step in improving things would be to permanently reverse the Obama administration's edict sidelining truck drivers for two consecutive 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. cycles during a work week. This would allow truckers back on the road during times of sparse traffic and avoid pushing them onto the highways during rush hour. Another would be to allow the truck drivers themselves to determine when they need rest.
Perhaps the best form of education would be to videotape motorists accompanying drivers on a 150-mile trip, and watch how many times other motorists perform daring feats of near-suicide that put the motorist, the driver, and others in harm's way. If that doesn't give motorists religion, nothing will.