Investigators have not determined what caused a fatal accident last week between a semitrailer truck and a sedan on Interstate 75 near Tampa. But the tragedy calls attention to how easily commercial truck drivers in Florida can obtain and retain their professional licenses even with a long history of bad driving. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would improve public safety by following through on his intent to toughen standards for commercial drivers.
The Florida Highway Patrol said the accident occurred early Wednesday when the semitrailer driven by Wayne Damari Waldon pulled out to pass a slow-moving BMW and clipped the rear of the car. The impact caused the semi to overturn and plunged the BMW into the Alafia River, killing its driver.
Waldon managed to keep a valid commercial license despite a terrible driving history. Records show he has more than a dozen infractions over the past decade. But under Florida law, a poor previous driving history does not disqualify an applicant from seeking a separate license to drive commercial vehicles.
Waldon held a commercial permit despite multiple citations for speeding — five since 2002 that recorded him driving at least 15 miles over the speed limit. Only two of Waldon's infractions involved his commercial permit, and those were minor. While state law allows some leeway to use a driver's personal history to sanction a commercial license, a truck driver generally has to operate a commercial vehicle recklessly on multiple occasions before authorities even begin to remove that person from the road. And the penalties are light: Two serious offenses within a three-year period bring a 60-day suspension, and a third only extends that suspension to 120 days.
The circumstances of this case are unclear. The sedan driver who was killed had four traffic citations since 2010. The investigation of the accident could take months. But the state clearly needs to toughen standards for commercial drivers.
Brandes, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is right that truck drivers should not get a pass on their personal driving histories. He wants his committee to examine ways of closing the loophole so that Florida considers the totality of a truck operator's driving record — not merely the citations racked up while operating a commercial vehicle. This would be a sensible change that would improve safety on Florida highways. Brandes should also look to increase the penalties for commercial drivers who regularly commit serious traffic offenses. The current laws do not deter aggressive driving, and they do not reflect the heavy presence that commercial trucks have on Florida's roadways.