Speeding to consensus

John Baxter is senior associate editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail [email protected].

By now, you probably have heard or read the American Trucking Associations’ proposal for a crackdown on speeding by four-wheelers and 18-wheelers alike. ATA President William Canary made that declaration of principle in an early-April speech at the International Truck & Bus Safety Symposium, held in Knoxville, Tenn. “Safe speeds save lives” is Canary’s rallying cry from that speech.

But Canary wasn’t alone in making the point at the Knoxville meeting that moving violations don’t receive enough attention as a safety concern. Another industry leader who has a lower public profile but who speaks from considerable experience also called for greater attention for traffic violations.

“Commercial vehicle enforcement not only includes safety inspections, but traffic enforcement as well,” said John “Jack” Van Steenburg, a major in the New York State Police and a former president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. Van Steenburg views traffic violations as indicative of driving habits and attentiveness. “Available data indicates that driver error was a contributing factor in the majority of fatal and serious injury crashes, not equipment and not weather,” he said.

There is, perhaps, an even more compelling reason to give greater attention to traffic violations. In New York, for example, the majority – 51 percent, in fact – of large truck crashes occur on local roads, not Interstates, Van Steenburg told symposium attendees. “I ask everyone, where are truck inspections occurring?”

The New York data shows that 35 percent of large truck crashes occur at intersections where there is a traffic light or a stop sign, Van Steenburg said. “Red light camera laws have to be implemented throughout the country,” he said. “Technology has to supplement traffic enforcement.” Cameras, he believes, could save lives.

Van Steenburg argued that all troopers – not just those assigned to specialize in commercial vehicle details – must be involved in the commercial vehicle safety effort.

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“In 1995 we implemented a statewide program in commercial vehicle awareness for our patrol troopers,” Van Steenburg told symposium attendees. “Over 1,000 troopers have been provided this training to date and are actively enforcing traffic laws associated with commercial driver violations.”

You might assume that such a program would focus on trucks and how they differ from automobiles. But because driver error is a bigger factor in truck-involved accidents, the trooper training on commercial vehicle safety instead focuses on moving violations, such as speeding, following too closely, unsafe lane changes and driving while intoxicated. Over the past three years, Van Steenburg said, the division of state police issued over 65,000 tickets for excessive speeds and other moving violations to truck, bus and tractor-trailer drivers.

“Nationwide, there are approximately 600,000 cops assigned to the streets and highways,” Van Steenburg said. “Only a few of them – maybe 5,000 or so – are assigned to enforce the federal regulations. I believe we are missing the picture. We need to leverage the resources of all law enforcement, not for inspections but to enforce the rules of the road against the commercial vehicle operator who’s violating traffic laws, and operators of passenger cars who drive recklessly around trucks”

Although Van Steenburg fully supports the vehicle inspection program, he believes better traffic enforcement is necessary to get to the Department of Transportation’s goal of reducing truck-involved fatalities by 50 percent. And just as law enforcement is using technology more to improve the quality of inspections, we should use technology more in traffic enforcement, he argued.

There is mounting evidence that traffic enforcement represents the path to safer highways. A recent study by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center discovered that among the state’s 100 worst carriers in terms of crashes, neither driver nor vehicle out-of-service rates showed a direct relationship to crash risk. Average moving violations per driver, however, represented a direct correlation. It’s hardly surprising that people who drive unsafely are most likely to have accidents. Perhaps it’s time for government to recognize this as well.