Safety and Big Trucks

Whether on a crowded arterial or in fast-moving freeway traffic, drivers find themselves sharing the asphalt with tractor-trailers and other large vehicles. Beyond occasional annoyance and apprehension, most don’t give it a second thought. Yet every year in the United States, some 5,000 people are killed in car/truck-related crashes (roughly 12 percent of the total annual traffic fatalities). Auto occupants account for nearly all the fatalities.

Sharing the road safely with large trucks is important to all motorists, especially if those trucks are double- or triple-trailer trucks known as "longer combination vehicles" (LCVs). Currently 16 states, including Nevada and Utah, permit LCVs. California prohibits them.

Allowing LCVs on our highways is controversial. Proponents point out the extensive training LCV drivers must go through and that LCVs are permitted only on designated roadways. Some also cite economic advantages: LCVs haul bigger loads, so fewer trucks are required to move the same amount of freight.

Opponents argue that the size and instability of LCVs increase the risk for rollovers and accidents, while their heavier weight causes more damage to roads and bridges. Another concern is that the number of roads currently permitting LCVs would be expanded, perhaps into urban areas.

Will LCVs be allowed into states that presently prohibit them? The answer will have to wait until later this year, when Congress looks at renewing the Intermodel Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), a federal program of maintenance, improvements, and regulations for the nation’s roads and highways. Since ISTEA can greatly affect individual state laws and policies, lobbyists on both sides of the issue will be pushing for or against changes to this mandate. The California Legislature made its position known last July by passing Assembly Joint Resolution No. 8 (AJR 8) urging Congress to maintain the status quo on truck size and weight.

In the meantime, the question remains: What can be done to help reduce car/truck crashes? Though crashes garner a fair share of media coverage, little attention is given to prevention. Blame is not the issue here. Just as there are good and bad car drivers, so it is with truck drivers. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in nearly three-quarters of the fatal car/truck accidents in 1996, the truck driver was not in error.

The No-Zone

Most people will acknowledge a difference between the handling of a car and a truck or bus. Unfortunately, since few of us ever operate a large vehicle, we are not so clear on the specifics. This lack of information puts car drivers at a disadvantage.

In an attempt to fill the gap, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) launched the "No-Zone" Campaign. A No-Zone refers to an area around a truck or bus where accidents have a greater chance of occurring. By educating drivers on the location, and dangers, of these hot spots, the potential for fatal crashes can be reduced.

No-Zone areas include:

Side blind spots: A good way to gauge if you’re in this No-Zone: If you can’t see the driver in his side-view mirrors, he probably can’t see you.

Passing: Always pass on the left, but don’t cut back in too quickly. Large vehicles need more time to stop than cars. Wait until the truck’s cab is visible in your rearview mirror before pulling in front.

Wide turns: To negotiate a right turn, it is sometimes necessary for a truck to slow and swing wide to the left. Never try to squeeze past the truck on the right as it begins to turn.

Rear blind spots: Trucks have a huge blind spot in the rear. Hang back. Avoid drafting and tailgating and you’ll reduce your chances of rear-ending the truck if it must stop suddenly.

Backing up: Never pass behind a vehicle with a rear blind spot while it’s backing up.

These points are especially important to remember when you encounter LCVs on the road. Keep in mind that LCVs have even larger blind spots, require more time to brake, and passing them takes longer than single-trailer trucks. For more information, visit the No-Zone Web site, or contact FHWA, 400 Seventh St. SW, HPS-10, Rm. 3100, Washington, D.C. 20590.

This article was first published in March 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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