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Summer driving in South is no leisurely excursion

Amazing but true: The summer driving/vacation season is drawing to a close. School bus season is almost upon us. It's already underway in Hillsborough County.

Our family had a hand in the just-ending summertime mix. We picked our way through the reworking of U.S. 301 north of Ocala. We shifted lanes and drove slowly on Interstate 95 in south Georgia, spent some time in the South Carolina low country, then took the ferry across the James River to reach Williamsburg, Va.

The mountain roads of western North Carolina and north Georgia are significantly better now. Biltmore, in Asheville, was even more smashing than the last time we visited.

Athens, Ga., just doesn't seem like Athens with a bypass around it. Even Commerce and little Madison are adjusting to bypasses of their own.

Georgians are just beginning to face the same addiction we feed here: They love their cars too much. This summer's extreme heat helped produce record air pollution levels from Atlanta to Augusta to Macon.

Georgia's governor has responded by assembling a panel of political heavyweights that must approve every new transportation initiative in the region. And when you control the roads, you control development. And property values and tax bases. And jobs. And futures.

So when someone asks what's the big deal about a little dirty air, you can tell them about middle Georgia.

Trucks win

I think the most impressive thing about those crash studies undertaken by government, insurance and academic groups is that they seem to quantify what most drivers have suspected all along.

Here's the latest example. Researchers have found that while commercial trucks are involved in few single-vehicle crashes, their presence in multivehicle crashes greatly increases the likelihood of death, especially for car drivers.

These statistics were compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Watch how the numbers jump.

Big trucks represented only about 3 percent of the total vehicle fleet using the toll roads studied in seven larger states, including Florida. They accounted for 7 percent of the miles driven on those roads.

But large trucks were involved in 22 percent of all passenger-vehicle deaths from crashes involving two or more vehicles. And 98 percent of the time, those killed were in the passenger vehicles.

No, banning trucks from the highways is not a solution, nor is it practical. My recommendation is that car drivers give trucks more room, more respect and more benefit of the doubt.

In the same way that sailboats have the right of way over motorized craft, car drivers should give that extra measure of safety to trucks. Face it; cars are faster, more nimble, have better all-around lines of sight and can stop and accelerate faster.

The only advantage that a big commercial truck has over the average car is what makes it so deadly when something goes wrong: It's much bigger and heavier.

Watching cars closely zip in front of, around and past big semis on crowded I-275 just makes my skin crawl. Turn signals, to warn of lane changes, are rarely used. It's high-speed trauma just waiting to happen.

Oh, and of the seven states in the study _ Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania _ Florida by far was the one where a big truck was most likely to be involved in a multivehicle crash.

Great taste in thefts

The insurance institute also reports that, for the fourth year in a row, sport utility vehicles are dominating the list of vehicle theft losses.

The bit of good news is that the total number of insurance claims for stolen cars has been dropping steadily for 20 years. But during that same two decades, the average insurance payout per claim has nearly doubled, to almost $6,000.

The nastiest claim payout is for late-model Range Rovers, which are 12 times higher than the average for all passenger cars. The long-wheelbase Mercedes S class cars are second, but two of the top five in worst theft losses are two models of the Mitsubishi Montero 4X4.

Another emerging trend in car theft is that newer, more-expensive models are less likely to be recovered. Thieves are shipping those plums out of the country, the Highway Loss Data Institute has found.

Heads up

If you're heading south on I-275 this week, keep an eye out for trucks entering and exiting the highway near the rest area on the south side of the Sunshine Skyway. Arriving trucks will be loaded with riprap to protect bridge pilings from tidal scouring. The work is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

A bit closer to home, county crews are scheduled to clean ditches in and around Weedon Island. East of Park Street along 54th Avenue N and 46th Avenue N, roadside mowing should be under way.

And where Sixth Avenue N intersects with 12th Street N and with Collany Road, be on the lookout for people doing maintenance work on stormwater systems.