Big trucks remain a major safety problem

Dangers that lurk along interstate highways are evident to all who travel.

There is an element of risk whenever anyone gets into a vehicle and sets off to reach a destination. Even the most skilled, experienced, cautious, patient and courteous drivers are exposed to those risks. Drivers may be able to control their own vehicles and navigate the inherent hazards. But they can't control or always avoid the consequences of what's going on around them.

Accidents happen. Sometimes they can't be avoided. Sometimes, they aren't accidents at all.

It's also a fact that not all traffic incidents/crashes/mishaps are created equal. There's a difference between crashes involving cars and those involving larger vehicles. A 40-ton semi truck traveling at 65 miles per hour down a highway will cause far more damage than that of a 2-ton car.

Crashes occur with all types of vehicles. Those that involve the big trucks, however, command extra attention and concern.

West-central Indiana has been hit especially hard by the devastation and tragedy wrought by crashes involving vehicles and large commercial trucks. The worst have occurred when traffic is stopped or slowed for whatever reason, and a truck smashes into the traffic ahead, sometimes without seeming to slow down at all.

Such incidents have resulted in multiple deaths in recent years. The worst of them have caused multiple deaths in the same crashes.

Public awareness of this issue is an important first step. Distracted driving is the most serious traffic safety problem that exists today. It comes in three forms — visual, manual and cognitive — and ranges from cell phone usage to eating and drinking to basic inattention. Texting incorporates all three kinds of distracted driving and is the most alarming and dangerous single activity for a driver.

Still, the tendency of a driver to become complacent behind the wheel and allowing for their mind to wander leads to the most traffic crashes.

When driver inattention leads to tragic crashes, there is a tendency to dismiss the results as an accident. And accidents, as they say, happen. In cases where the criminal justice system gets involved, as it has in recent local cases, the most serious consequence has been a civil violation such as following too closely or driving too fast for conditions. For any driver, whether in a small car or a big truck, that's not much deterrence in a traffic citation.

But there is more that can be done. Technology is a major key to cutting down on these types of devastating crashes. Already, some vehicles are equipped with a technology known as an automatic emergency breaking system. Such a feature is beginning to appear as a standard element in safety packages of new vehicles, including trucks.

That's good news. But it won't solve every potential crash. The feature can be expensive. What's more, there are at least 2 million semi trucks in operation in the U.S. The vast majority of those will not contain an emergency braking system.

Federal transportation safety officials have been researching and testing high-tech safety systems on big trucks for several years now. Safety advocates have been pushing trucking companies to upgrade their fleets to contain the systems, and for federal officials to mandate their use on all trucks, not just new trucks.

Lives would be saved if both public and private sectors moved more quickly to ensure these important safety measures were implemented. It will take much more time, we fear, for such features to become standard on big trucks. Meanwhile, our highways, and those who travel them, will remain vulnerable to traffic dangers and the havoc they cause.

Published editorials are the collective opinion of the Tribune-Star's Editorial Board and are independent of the newspaper's news gathering and coverage.