THE BLOG

Bush's Federal Highway Administration Making Roads More Dangerous

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Steven Hill Senior Fellow at New America, author of "Raw Deal: How the 'Uber Economy' and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers"

The Democratic presidential candidates have made an attempt to show that
they have the average American's interests at heart central to their
campaigns. Most of the candidates are currently serving in Congress, where
they could demonstrate their populism through concrete legislative action.
It is noteworthy, therefore, that on at least one populist issue-the safety
of the nation's highways-all of these candidates have remained silent.

The Bush administration's Federal Highway Administration, which oversees our
nation's highway system, is about to issue a regulation allowing
97-foot-long multi-truck monstrosities to roar up and down our nation's
streets. These vehicle combinations, called "saddlemount vehicle transporter
combinations," or simply, "four-ways," consist of four trucks linked
together, with only the first truck maintaining both its front and rear
wheels on the ground. On the three other trucks, only the rear wheels touch
the ground, the front resting on the truck preceding it. From the side, if
one roars by you on the road, they look like elephants holding each others'
tails with their trunks-only much, much larger and more dangerous.

As one veteran truck driver with 40 years of driving experience put it, in
testimony submitted to the FHA,

The notion that a saddlemount load, 97 feet long and consisting of four semi
tractors, is safe is absurd. All four-way configurations have the tendency
to cause the fourth truck to whip and sway to a certain degree. It can
quickly become a very dangerous situation.

Another driver, who has been driving vehicle combinations for 20 years,
testified, "While driving these setups, the rear truck is unstable and
wanders excessively from side to side. This type of setup is a danger to the
motoring public and to myself."

Many drivers who will have to drive these monster rigs have been outspoken
about the safety risks these vehicle combinations represent. So why is this
happening, and why have Democratic officeholders been silent on the issue?

Certain portions of the trucking industry have long chafed under state
highway safety rules that regulate giant multi-truck combos. Under current
federal regulations, states are allowed to impose an overall length limit of
75 feet on four-ways. Almost every state has imposed such limits.

Last year, however, Congress passed and President Bush signed into law the
"Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy
for Users," known as SAFETEA-LU. With a mouthful like that, one might
expect trouble, and trouble it is. This law permits truck combos nearly a
third of a football field long to sway dangerously down our streets. Not
only that, this federal law is likely to be interpreted as actually
prohibiting any state from protecting its residents by passing a law
restricting four-ways to less than the 97-foot federal standard.

The motive of the trucking companies is clear enough: Longer truck
combinations mean fewer trips and fewer drivers, which cuts their costs and
allows them to add to their profits. For this reason, the National
Automobile Dealers Association, the American Trucking Association and other
industry trade associations and their members have all pushed hard to have
this new regulation passed while no one was paying attention.

But opposition has emerged. Truckers like J.J. Bishop, a longtime Teamster
driver based in Auburn, WA, testified about seeing a horrible accident
caused by one of these saddlemounts, saying: "The general public doesn't
realize what a risk these trucks are. These combinations have a tendency to
sway, making them extremely hard to control and extremely dangerous."

Besides the first-hand observations of the people who ought to know best-the
drivers-the American Association of State Highway and Transportation
Officials has said in its comments to the FHA that the new size limitation
"has raised serious concerns among some state enforcement officials
concerning possible safety and infrastructure issues."

Ironically, a few Republicans have recognized the dangers of the road the
FHA is heading down. Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Wash., wrote to the
Bush-appointed head of the FHA urging him, because of "significant public
policy safety concerns," to at least allow states to enact their own limits
on four-ways. Even Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama has asked the
FHA to investigate these safety concerns.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been entirely missing in action. For all
their populist talk, they appear to have even less of a desire to buck the
trucking industry than some of their counterparts on the other side of the
aisle.

The good news is that the FHA is still considering whether to give the green
light to these behemoths by adopting the interpretation of SAFETEA-LU sought
by the trucking industry. But this interpretation will only be avoided if
the Democrats in Congress, and especially those who command a national
audience, step up to the plate. The safety of the traveling public demands
no less, but it remains to be seen whether actually protecting voters is
truly a priority for the new majority party.

Comments on the proposed rule should be sent to Richard Capka,
Administrator, Federal Highway Administration, at Rick.Capka@dot.gov.

--Steven Hill and Dmitri Iglitzin

Steven Hill is director of the political reform program at the New America
Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy. Dmitri
Iglitzin is a labor law attorney with the Seattle, Wash., firm of Schwerin
Campbell Barnard & Iglitzin and an Affiliate Professor of Law at the
University of Washington School of Law.