Tough enough?

“He looked pretty good for a dead guy.” That might have been a headline in Chicago papers Aug. 8 when the driver of a truck that crashed on the Dan Ryan Expressway was found to have been dead since 1994. In reality, the driver – 29-year-old Fernando Ruiz – walked away from the accident unharmed. The long-deceased owner of the driver’s license Ruiz presented to police was actually a shipping clerk named Daniel Malarin. Ruiz was charged with possession of a fraudulent license and making a false license application.

This is an extreme example of a larger problem: It’s too easy for unqualified, unsafe people to get – and keep – a commercial driver’s license. That’s why the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is proposing new, tougher CDL standards. Under one proposal, individual states must check CDL applicants’ driver records in all states where they have held licenses to drive any type of vehicle. The proposal would also disqualify drivers convicted of causing a fatality or driving while suspended or disqualified. An earlier FMCSA proposal would revoke licenses of drivers convicted of drunk driving and other serious traffic violations.

It’s hard to argue with the need to overhaul the CDL system. There are too many examples of just plain bad drivers obtaining new licenses because of holes in the reporting of violations. The problem is, the focus is too narrow. According to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the rulemakings will “enhance highway safety by ensuring that only safe drivers operate large trucks and buses.” Large trucks and buses? What about unsafe drivers operating cars, pickups and SUVs?

Granted, a fully loaded big rig can do a lot more damage than a Volkswagen Beetle. But consider the facts: Trucks were involved in just 13 percent of more than 41,000 highway fatalities; and 68 percent of fatal accidents between cars and trucks begin with the car driver.

There’s no question that we need to make it harder for unsafe truckers to mask their bad driving records. But we won’t make any real progress toward safer highways until we implement tougher standards for everyone who shares the road.

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