The Real Highway Hazard

Congratulations. You and your fellow truck drivers are delivering the nation’s goods more safely than ever before. Fatalities involving large trucks dropped in 2002 for the fifth straight year to 4,897, a 4.2 percent decline from the prior year.

Four-wheelers earned no such kudos. NHTSA estimates there were 42,815 traffic fatalities last year, up from 42,196 the year before. Alcohol-related deaths and young driver deaths account for much of that and are on the upswing.

Yet when it comes to highway safety, the focus remains on truck drivers, including increasingly tough regulations. Even violations that occur in a car can now lead to the suspension or revocation of your license. Tougher training requirements for entry-level truck drivers were proposed last month. And the National Transportation Safety Board wants more rigorous health requirements.

But while truck safety regulations continue to tighten, the facts remain unchanged: More than 70 percent of all fatal car-truck crashes begin with car driver error. Nearly 90 percent of all highway fatalities don’t even involve a large truck.

Imagine how safe our highways would be if car drivers faced laws that were half as tough as those truck drivers deal with every day. Truck safety regulations need to be strict, but to make our highways truly safe we need to take a harder look at four-wheelers’ reckless driving habits.

This month, Overdrive launches a three-part series, Licensed to Kill, which does just that. What we learned will make you angry.

Take, for example, teenage drivers. More than 5,500 young drivers died in car crashes in 2001 and the number is on the rise. Graduated driver license programs have been proven to reduce teen accidents by as much as 83 percent. Yet six states have no GDL program and 16 states were given marginal or poor ratings in younger driver licensing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Then there is the elderly. Accidents such as the one in California this summer, where an 86-year-old driver killed 10 people, raise questions about the need for age-based licensing restrictions. Yet 37 states have no such provision for license renewal, mainly because of effective lobbying by senior citizens.

Commonsense laws can help solve these and other highway safety problems. But it’s easier – and more politically expedient – not to alienate the votes of four-wheelers, all the while continuing to make truckers play the bad guy. Until federal and state governments look at the driving habits of car drivers and truck drivers with equal scrutiny, four-wheelers will continue to be the true hazards of our highways.