Trucks at Work

Stopping the carnage

"Hope is not a method." -- General Gordon Sullivan (Ret.), U.S. Army

I think Sullivan's quote is quite applicable to the siutation we face on our highways. According to preliminary numbers published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), there were 43,330 deaths overall on U.S. highways in 2006, down only slightly from the 43,443 killed in 2005. While there are some positive trends showing up once the statistics get sliced and diced (more on that in a minute) the staggering fact remains that more people are dying EVERY YEAR on our roadways than the population of where I live (Springfield, VA). In a year an half, more Americans die on our roads than in nine years of fighting in Vietnam.

These are frightening numbers -- and the worst part is, most are preventable if we just took the whole business of driving far, FAR more seriously.

But first, let's look at some of the positive signs. Nonfatal crashes are projected to drop below six million for the very first time. Fatalities from large truck crashes dropped by 3.7%, from 5,212 to 5,018, with pedestrian deaths also making a slight decline.

Yet the bad news is BAD. Overall alcohol-related fatalities increased 2.4 percent from 17,525 to 17,941 -- this after years and years worth of efforts to reduce drunk driving in schools, the workplace, etc. Motorcycle fatalities also increased for the ninth straight year and show no signs of easing, largely because mandatory helmet laws remain stalled almost everywhere -- only 20 states have them and Louisiana is the only one that enacted a new one in the past decade.

Aside from the human toll contained within these horrendous numbers, there's a big economic one, too. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters highway notes that highway crashes cost our society $230.6 billion a year, or about $820 per person -- almost three times the amount of money needed to fund our ongoing military effort in Iraq.

There are several problems here, I think. The first is that we seem to keep "hoping" things will turn around. I've been hearing about the evils of drunk driving for 30 years now, yet it is still the leading cause of highway deaths -- responsible for more than 30% of them. Another problem, and one harder to deal more directly with, is that we as a nation take driving for granted -- it just IS, like walking or breathing. And until we realize that, hey, we're accelerating tons of steel to high velocities every time we leave the driveway, making a serious dent in highway fatalities will remain impossible.

Here's what I think we need to do.

Primary seat belt laws. Every state needs them -- and, just like when we boosted the drinking age to 21 years of age, if you don't have them, you lose highway funds. You wear your seat belt every time or your fined $100 or more -- period. No 'I was just going to the store' excuses anymore. Seat belts are the primary safety device in a car; people must use them.

Lower speeds, stronger enforcement. We go back to 55 mph on the highway and if you speed, you get big fines -- $500 or more. Now, truck drivers worry this will cut their pay as slowing down relates to fewer miles traveled and thus less money earned. Fleets must compensate for this. And no, this does NOT mean state troopers get to hand out big tickets for people going 57 mph. Common sense doesn't get thrown out here -- people will need to drive at 60 or 62 mph to pass other vehciles quickly and safely at times. That's a given.

Declare war on intoxicated drivers You drive drunk or drugged up, you are done driving. First offense $1,000 and 30 day license suspension. Second offense $5,000 and six month suspension. Third time, you go to jail for a year plus a $15,000 fine. And yes, your CDL is suspended or removed if you drive drunk or drugged in your personal vehicle. Repeat offenders don't get breathalyzers attached to the ignition of their car -- they don't get a car and get to wear prison orange. Drunk driving kills people, it's a conscious act, and we need to treat it as such.

My feeling is it's time we stop hoping highway fatalities go away on their own and really do something about it. And really, as trucking is a profession that relies on highway safety to get the job done, we as an industry should be taking the lead to see that all the necessary safety measures get put in place to make that drop happen.