High Truck Deaths a Preventable Tragedy

June 3, 1999

High Truck Deaths a Preventable Tragedy

Statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook
Washington, D.C., Press Conference

Each week in America, more than 100 people die on our roads and highways in crashes involving big trucks. Imagine if we had an airplane crash that killed 100 people every week throughout the year. There would be public outrage. There would be congressional hearings. It would be on the front pages of every major newspaper and every evening news show. The Department of Transportation would be closing down airlines and scrambling to solve the problems.

Yet, with truck crashes, tragedy strikes community by community, family by family. These crashes don?t make national headlines. They barely make the local newspaper unless they cause traffic congestion. But make no mistake, this is a national tragedy. A national scandal. It is preventable. And it must stop.

We are here today to talk about the agency that is supposed to regulate truck safety — the Office of Motor Carriers. The OMC has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the trucking industry. It has utterly failed to do its duty under the law. The carnage on our highways continues unabated while the OMC delays, demurs, ignores and obfuscates. The facts have been documented again and again in the past six months by the DOT inspector general, by the General Accounting Office, by the National Transportation Safety Board and in four congressional hearings.

Would we let the alcohol industry write the rules intended to reduce drunk driving? Would we let the tobacco industry write the rules intended to abate teenage smoking? Of course not. But that?s essentially what the OMC allows the trucking industry to do with the rules of the road.

This is an agency that bases important safety standards on flawed research that it pays the trucking industry to conduct. This is an agency that has significantly reduced the number of inspections, compliance reviews and fines imposed even as the number of truck miles traveled and deaths and injuries have increased.

This is an agency that employs “partnering” and education efforts in lieu of aggressive enforcement and regulatory efforts. This is an agency that completely ignores new technologies — like black boxes that could collect crash data and ensure that drivers don?t log too many hours in a day. This is an agency that has refused to issue training standards for drivers of larger combination vehicles, or entry-level truck driver training, eight years after being told to by Congress. Would we let rookie pilots fly our airliners without training?

OMC has systematically undermined safety protections through inaction and delay. The agency took five years to require $100 worth of reflective tape on trucks to improve visibility at night and gave some trucks up to 10 years to comply. It has ignored the current problems and the coming onslaught next Jan. 1 from motor carriers crossing the border from Mexico without effective inspections.

Just yesterday, a tractor-trailer hauling 34,000 pounds of explosive black powder overturned on an I-95 exit ramp leading to the Beltway — right in the middle of one of the region?s most notorious traffic bottlenecks. It was a miracle that the black powder did not explode. But the fact is that we are sitting on a powder keg of dangerous trucks every day throughout our nation’s road system. Over 5,300 people died last year in crashes involving large trucks. These are not accidents. These are crashes that are entirely preventable.

Fatalities from large truck crashes increased by 10 percent from 1995 to 1997. In 1998, the deaths were down slightly, but injuries were up by 8,000, to 141,000. The GAO recently estimated annual deaths will increase to 6,000 by 2000.

Truck driving is the most dangerous job in America. Last year over 700 occupants of big rigs died. What other profession loses 700 people a year? But where is the OMC?

I?ll tell you where. The OMC is asleep at the wheel.

Ten months ago, Rep. Frank Wolf took the lead in proposing that the OMC be moved to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This is the only solution for fixing this broken agency and making our highways safe for our families.

The OMC?s dismal record requires a dramatic change. The agency should be transferred to NHTSA, which understands regulatory responsibility, has the research and analytical skills and the rulemaking expertise to handle life-and-death decisions. It also recognizes that loved ones are at risk if the agency fails to perform.

Some have suggested that a new agency should be created. Under this scenario, the OMC would be a separate, independent agency within the DOT. All I can say about this is, if you dress Homer Simpson up in a business suit, only the exterior looks different. It doesn?t change anything.

This is all about how to make our highways safer. And the only way to do that is through effective regulation. Yesterday, a trucking industry official tried to counter our critique by producing a couple of thick books of regulations showing how much trucks are regulated. Well, the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are some pretty potent documents that don?t take up a lot of pages. It?s not the number of pages that counts, it?s what?s inside.

This agency has proved it cannot effectively regulate. That?s the bottom line.

It?s time for a change.

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