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January 07, 2008

The Truth About Trucks

Two years ago, in my very first “Talking Transportation” column, I tried to dispel the myth that our highway problems are all caused by trucks. “Let’s Blame the Trucks” attacked that common wisdom with facts that didn’t win me many friends. But that’s hardly my goal in these musings.

Hardly a week goes by without some spectacular highway pile-up involving a truck. But check the facts and you’ll find most of those accidents were caused by motor cars, not the trucks drawn into the incidents.

Do trucks drive too fast? Sure, but don’t we all? Next time you’re on I-95 check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.

Should there be better safety inspections of trucks? Absolutely! And Senators Duff and McDonald deserve kudo’s for their long fight at keeping the Greenwich inspection station open more hours. So too do my friends at the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby deserve credit for forcing better reporting on what those inspections turn up in the way of violations and fines ($2 million between July and December 2007).

But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.

Truckers drive for a living. They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else. And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers. When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like many soccer moms?

And remember… they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us. We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns. Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper you hold in your hand, was delivered by trucks. Want fewer trucks on the road? Just stop buying stuff.

By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles. Compare the energy efficiency of a truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid. Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.

Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour? Because selfish merchants required them to drive then to meet their delivery timetable. If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow must better at rush hour.

Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes. Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just eleven miles? Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.

If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (ie return tolling) we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.

I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby. But neither will I allow us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion. It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. Excessive speed and drinking cause most accidents, and the majority of accidents involve cars, not trucks.

Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat. As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

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