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Truckers, once knights of the highway, are too often black knights

August 17, 2003 1:07 am

THE LIVES of Emily Cella, 19, and Patricia Hines, 38, and Stephanie Hines, 10, and all the others who have fallen victim to tractor-trailers shouldn't be lost in vain.

Maybe their names should be memorialized on highway billboards, so tractor-trailer drivers could see them and be reminded of the carnage they can cause.

Just the day before the car Mary Washington College student Emily Cella was driving back to Fredericksburg was obliterated by a tractor-trailer on Interstate 95, my own trip along that same stretch of I-95 had me outraged at the driver of a big rig.

Driving along in one of those little Dodge Neons you've seen with "The Free Lance-Star" painted on the side, I'm in the center lane and keeping an eye on the tractor-trailer that's filling up my rearview mirror. Every driver knows what an unnerving feeling that is. I'm already doing 70 in a 65 mph zone, passing slower traffic in the right-hand lane, but this trucker clearly wants me to move faster.

Before I can move to the right to get out of his way, he beats me to it and hits the gas, passing me on the right and leaving me in the dust. He's got to be doing 80 or more as he pulls away.

I've just related an episode that might repeat itself hundreds of times a day on this one stretch of I-95 alone.

That visibility is part of the industry's perception problem: When people see so many speeding truckers, and find themselves tailgated so often by those highway monsters, it's hard not to fault the industry as a whole.

So here's the obligatory "Not all truckers" part: Not all truckers are idiots, jerks, and maniacs. I'd venture to say that a relative few are. Most of these guys are out there trying to make a living like any of us, keeping their speed in check, not knowingly driving unsafe rigs, obeying the rules about consecutive hours on the road without rest, and generally sharing the road safely.

You have to sympathize with the frustrations they face, especially the long-haulers who are away from family and friends for extended periods. And we all know there are few things we eat, use, or count on to be there, that haven't been transported at some point by a tractor-trailer. So we have a lot of reasons to be appreciative of truckers.

But it took only one tractor-trailer driver to end the young and promising life of MWC junior Emily Cella, who was a sitting duck as she came upon traffic slowed for construction. What was his excuse? Maybe we'll find out, maybe we won't.

In the accident that killed Patricia and Stephanie Hines in May 2002, a tired trucker ran the light at U.S. 17 and Hartwood Road, wiping out the family's pickup truck with a rig that weighed 77,000 pounds. That is a lot more tonnage--and responsibility--than the average driver is hauling around.

After the Hartwood accident, Sgt. David Feather, who oversees the state police's Northern Virginia Motor Carrier Safety Division, said that in 80 percent of the 6,000 fatal crashes between big rigs and passenger cars each year, the auto driver is at fault.

But then consider also that in those fatal crashes, the person who died was 5 times more likely to be the driver of the car. In other words, the danger truckers present just by being on the road--not to mention the added risk they take by speeding or driving too long or driving a questionable vehicle--is not to themselves, but to the other guy. As professionals, they have to be held to a higher standard.

When a trucker falsifies his log book and drives too long either to make a delivery in time or just to get home sooner, it's no different than any other sort of on-the-job cheating--except he's in charge of a 30-ton vehicle barreling along at breakneck speeds. He may also fear that his job depends on timely deliveries, and his supervisor's boss and his boss might be under pressure to make sure drivers and goods are on time.

The federal government claims to be sensitive to all the issues--from the fatigued trucker who poses a threat on the Interstate, to the overall health of the U.S. economy as it depends on products getting from here to there.

In April, the federal Department of Transportation issued new hours-of-service rules for truck drivers that took years to produce and used up 63 pages in the federal register, covering every imaginable scenario, and including scientific data about human sleep requirements.

While law enforcement does what it can, these rules will make little difference unless they are taken to heart by the entire trucking industry, from the CEO to the newest young trucker.

Emily Cella's loved ones are simply left to wonder why her life needed to end so senselessly on a routine 45-mile trip down I-95.

Tell them that her death will help prompt the trucking industry to better police its own. Tell them that her death will help all truckers understand the risks and responsibilities they assume when they get behind the wheel.

But don't tell them she died because a load of frozen food needed to be somewhere on time.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.