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Big trucks continue to tax the limits of safety

It was about 3:30 p.m. on May 6. William Pyers, 77, and his wife Iona, 72, were driving their 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass along Interstate 4 from their home in Lakeland to Tampa International Airport. The highway, always overcrowded, now had an added danger. A light rain was falling. The usual number of fast-moving, heavy trucks pounded the roadway.

Suddenly, the trailer of a flatbed truck jack-knifed across both westbound lanes. Pyers and other drivers swerved to the right to avoid it. On the shoulder, the Pyers car was rammed from the rear by a semitrailer truck hauling eight automobiles. Its weight slammed the Pyers' car into the rear of a Volvo truck, crushing the car between the two trucks.

The impact killed the Pyerses instantly. Rescue workers spent more than two hours removing their bodies from the wreckage. The three truck drivers were not seriously hurt.

That terrible accident, and thousands of others involving cars and trucks, brought to reality the fears of many motorists who have experienced the terror of a tailgating 18-wheeler.

Already there are too many oversized trucks on America's highways, and there's a move afoot to make them even bigger.

In Washington, Congress is preparing a five-year reauthorization of the nation's surface transportation law. It is complex legislation covering many matters, including highway funding, transit funding, clean air compliance and a congestion management plan.

The trucking lobby has seized the moment to try to get still bigger trucks on the roads.

The lobby is pushing for authorization of double trailers each as long as 53 feet and triple trailers each 28-feet long. These giants would be as long as a 10-story building lying on its side, weighing as much as 67 tons and moving only the Lord knows how fast.

The issue is described by the trucking industry as a question of productivity. It's also cast in terms of competition between trucks and trains, and it's true that two of the main lobbyists are the American Trucking Associations and the Association of American Railroads.

But to me and many other drivers of ever smaller cars battling for space on the highways against ever bigger trucks, it's purely and simply a safety issue.

I agree with John Archer of the American Automobile Association, who told a House subcommittee: ". . . The present legal size and weight limits applying to trucks and combinations of vehicles already tax the limits of safety."

Garth Dull, the state transportation director in Nevada, where triple trailers already are allowed, told a Senate committee that they are a real safety problem. He opposed any increase in truck size or weight.

The most promising way to stop the push for bigger trucks has been offered by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. His amendment would ban the bigger doubles and triples from any states that don't presently allow them.

"We don't want these big rigs to expand into any more states," he told Congressional Quarterly. "They're unsafe, bad for the environment and hard on our roads."

Trucks with a combined weight of 41 mid-sized cars, the weight proposed, are too big and heavy for today's highways.

I know the trucking industry performs a valuable national service. I know that practically everything I buy, eat and use is delivered by truck. I know there's keen competition between the trucking and rail industries. I also believe that as long as trucks share the highways with family automobiles they should be kept to a safe size, which in my opinion is smaller _ certainly not bigger _ than many of the monsters already on the road.

Lautenberg's amendment is expected to be voted on the Senate floor, along with the entire bill, within two weeks. Before they cast their votes, senators should try to imagine what William and Iona Pyers and other victims of car-truck accidents might have thought.

Robert Pittman is editor of editorials and vice president of the St. Petersburg Times.