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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2005
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Scared, angry drivers weigh in on Alabama’s truck problem

By Greg Cusimano
Special to THE DAILY

When my law firm and the Alabama Watch consumer group launched "Roll On Safely Alabama," we knew we would get a lot of comments — but did not expect several hundred calls in just 72 hours. Little did we suspect that by far the most calls would come from 18-wheeler truck drivers, who were extremely upset about the rumors they had heard, and once again thought they were being "singled out as the bad guys."

In fact, for a week in March their phone calls to our law office overwhelmed us. Instead of talking to Alabama citizens, we fielded calls from truck drivers all over the country who filled our ears with reactions to our "Roll On Safely Alabama" campaign." We learned a lot.

The campaign, launched through media stories and billboards March 17, urged drivers to call (888) 883-ROAD and report large trucks and 18-wheeler trucks that were being driven unsafely or carrying unsafe loads. We would then take those reports and forward them to the Alabama Department of Public Safety, Department of Transportation, and Gov. Bob Riley's office, as well as send a copy to the trucking company if one were identified. Our goal was to give Alabama drivers a way to be heard in the debate regarding what to do about Alabama's atrocious safety record when it comes to large trucks.

Heard we did.

First from "4-wheeler" drivers who told us about trucks tailgating, speeding (lots of those), spewing gravel, cracking windshields and abruptly changing lanes. Most were angry; some were still shaking from a near miss. A few we advised to hang up and call 911 immediately. (Some of these comments are posted on our Web site, www.un
safetrucks.org.).

Then we heard from truckers — 500 of them in five days. They, too, were angry. When we explained we weren't trying to initiate law enforcement action against them (as a practical matter anyone can call the police and report a crime) — that we were trying to provide real stories from real people to politicians and regulators — they began filling our ears with their fears and suggestions about unsafe trucks and truckers, as well as unsafe four-wheel drivers.

We responded by opening a space on our Web site where truck drivers could post their comments as well.

We heard a lot about cars abruptly slowing down causing truckers to nearly jackknife in their attempts to stop. We were told more than once that truckers are by and large safe drivers. (We agreed, but pointed out that when a truck and a car collide, the car passengers are five times more likely to be killed). We fielded several questions about the status of foreign trucks, and received information about what and how other states address safety issues. A few truckers reported other trucks speeding or tailgating. Generally, by the time we got off the phone with a trucker, we were impressed by how courteous, helpful and knowledgeable they are about making roadways safer for everyone, and they understood and agreed with our efforts.

One of the best suggestions came from a commercial trucker who praised the campaign and offered the following:

"As far as I see it as a commercial driver for almost 20 years, regulations need to be stricter, more enforcement, and tougher exams for qualification. Maybe we need to lower the reckless driving speed from 15 mph to 10 mph over the posted limit. Maybe Alabama can get a law passed, such as if a driver receives more than a certain number of tickets (moving and non-moving) in your state, before being allowed to drive in your state again he/she must attend a state approved safety class before being reinstated. Just a thought."

Car drivers had good ideas too. They included common sense requests that gravel companies be required to cover their trucks with tarps and all trucks be equipped with mud flaps. (These standards exist, but they are not always followed.)

In my 35 years of practice, my firm has handled numerous truck fatalities and injury cases — all of them involving truck drivers who have been overtired, under-trained, reckless, impaired, driving dangerously unbalanced loads or mechanically unsafe trucks. Truckers who called in confirmed that indeed particular trucking companies are often to blame for much of the problem by hiring untrained, unqualified drivers and by pressuring good drivers to work too long, deliver loads unreasonably fast, and putting them in unsafe trucks.

My firm will be working with lawmakers during upcoming sessions to take these suggestions and others and turn them into solutions. We appreciate Sen. Larry Means for his interest.

By listening to the people — truckers and "4-wheeler" drivers alike — perhaps working together Alabama can change its reputation among truckers from "the hammer state" ("drive as fast as you want") to the "gavel state," where the bell of consequence always tolls if you break the law.

Greg Cusimano heads the firm of Cusimano, Keener, Roberts, Kimberley & Miles in Gadsden, and is past president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association.

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