Nothing's more intimidating on the freeway than finding yourself boxed in between two Titanic-size trucks at rush hour.
Roaring down the 710 alongside your small subcompact, these large commercial trucks can seem like herds of metal monsters.
And if you are unlucky enough to get surrounded by them, you can't help but fear the worst: Gasoline tank trucks overturning and bursting into flames, drivers falling asleep at the wheel on a cross-country haul or faulty equipment causing a semi to careen out of control have led to many tragic accidents.
Last year, 4,871 large trucks were involved in fatal accidents across the nation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, leading to one in eight traffic fatalities in the U.S. Although it's a small increase from 1996, the number of fatal truck accidents has dropped from a decade ago, when such accidents reached 5,108.
In California, the Highway Patrol reports that of the 3,555 fatal collisions throughout the state in 1996, 373 (10.5%) involved trucks. Of those fatal crashes, 116 were ruled the fault of the truck drivers.
In the interest of improving highway safety, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently introduced a toll-free number for truck drivers nationwide to report alleged safety violations or unsafe practices by commercial and owner-operated trucking companies.
The hotline--(888) DOT-SAFT, or (888) 368-7238--is being promoted by the Federal Highway Administration as a way to crack down on commercial or owner-operated companies and drivers that violate federal motor carrier safety regulations.
Drivers being forced to operate trucks with bad equipment or pressured by companies to drive longer than the mandated limit are among the public safety concerns.
The toll-free access to the FHA's Office of Motor Carriers is designed to encourage truck drivers or others to report violations without fear of losing their jobs. The agency is responsible for enforcing truck safety regulations. Car drivers could also use the number to report violations.
"Every valid report will be vigorously followed up, and corrective action will be ordered when necessary," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater in his announcement.
But the FHA's commitment to improving trucking safety was challenged in a recent analysis by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Stephen Oesch, senior vice president of the institute, said that despite some of the positive steps taken by the FHA, he is concerned about a proposal to relax regulations that limit the number of hours truckers can drive and work without an eight-hour break.
"While there are many causes in truck accidents, driver fatigue is one of our main concerns," Oesch said in interview. "We have been encouraging the Federal Highway Administration to do a better job of monitoring and enforcing hours of work rules. But we are concerned that they are going in the wrong direction."
Although new on-board computer technology and global positioning satellite navigation systems are available to help monitor truckers' deliveries and hours on the road--and would be highly effective in enforcing safety regulations--federal highway officials "don't show any inclination to require this technology," Oesch said.
The institute blames the government's reluctance in part on pressure from the trucking industry, which says the technology would be too costly.
But some in the industry welcome measures like the hotline to improve safety and argue that truckers too often get blamed for accidents or safety violations that are not their fault.
"Our truckers say it's a jungle out there," said David Barnes of the American Trucking Assns. "They're concerned about how horrible driving has become with all the road rage and aggressive driving on the roads."
In fact, recent national statistics from the highway traffic safety agency show that in car-truck accidents in 1997, the drivers of the automobiles involved were at fault 68% of the time.
"We are very pleased. Too often, enforcement efforts simply target drivers, when someone else is the cause of an unsafe situation," said Jim Johnston, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. "This hotline will help identify those parties that deserve government scrutiny."
Barnes contends that shippers and receivers who may delay drivers or pressure them to make faster deliveries also share some of the responsibility for the existence of unsafe conditions.
"Our professional drivers work too hard for too little in a business that is hard enough without having to tolerate increased risks from those few who foster unsafe practices," said Marianne Peterson, president of the Assn. of Professional Truck Drivers of America.
And for those of us in cars who share the road with these massive trucks, Barnes advises that car drivers stay out of the truck's blind spot; keep a safe distance from them, because trucks can't stop on a dime; and don't drive aggressively.
Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W., No. 1100, Washington, DC 20006. Via e-mail: email@example.com.