Motorists can expect far-reaching and dramatic impacts on their safety from the new $216-billion federal highway bill that was signed into law by President Clinton Tuesday.
The bill falls far short of what many safety advocates had hoped for, but it contains some important enhancements to safety and has blocked some highly unpopular ideas that would have had problematic effects on highway safety.
Earlier this year, I warned motorists that the trucking industry was seeking an inclusion in the bill that would lift the ban on triple-trailer trucks in California, which, along with 33 other states, forbids the super rigs.
A triple-trailer can weigh more than 64 tons and stretch 120 feet--longer than a Boeing 737 jetliner.
Such trucks now operate in 16 states, mostly in the West, and the industry wanted to establish a cargo distribution center for the big vehicles within San Bernardino County, east of the Cajon Pass.
The industry claimed these trucks have developed an outstanding safety record, though critics say the low accident rate simply reflects that they operate on uncongested Western interstates during daylight hours.
An outpouring of public sentiment defeated the proposal for triples in California, and the current ban remains in force.
But the trucking industry did win some other exemptions around the country. In New Hampshire, Maine, Louisiana and Colorado, some trucks will be permitted with gross weights of 100,000 pounds, up from the current federal limit of 80,000 pounds.
Now that the trucking industry has higher limits in these four states, it is likely that it will seek to extend those limits in other states, industry critics contend. Truckers say their safety record has improved significantly and the higher limits contribute to efficiency.
One of the most important safety setbacks in the new bill was the congressional rejection of a plan to force states to adopt a .08 blood alcohol level to define drunk driving.
California has a .08 threshold, which is credited with helping drive down highway deaths in the state. Congress rejected a plan that would have withheld funding from states that have higher thresholds and substituted a $500-million incentive program meant to encourage states to lower limits.
"The liquor industry bought off Congress, which is really appalling," said Rosemary Shahan, head of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a small Sacramento-based advocacy organization.
The bill also contains incentive programs worth $568 million to encourage seat belt use.
It will also create strong penalties for the several states that still allow motorists to have open containers of liquor in vehicles, and it requires states to enact tougher laws against repeat drunk drivers or face loss of highway funding.
In total, the bill has roughly $2 billion for highway safety and includes such important measures as widening roads and improving intersections.
"This bill is going to have dramatic effects," predicted Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at the Washington, D.C., consumer group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
* Vartabedian's biweekly "Your Wheels" column is moving to a new autos section, "Highway 1," that will debut June 25.
* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006 or e-mail to Ralph.Vartabedian@LATIMES.COM