Put the brakes on bigger trucks bill

The legislature ought to put the brakes on a bill allowing truckers to use longer rigs and wider loads on North Carolina's primary highways. The plan now moving through the legislature offers motorists a good way to find out what it's like to drive on roads where there isn't enough room for two.

That's why the State Highway Patrol has reservations about the bill. The patrol has warned that allowing 53-foot trucks on winding mountain roads is dangerous. Many motorists already have lost out when 48-foot rigs have drifted across the center line and forced cars off the road.

The legislation – sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe – would also allow recreational boaters to use wider rigs. Current law restricts boats/trailer rigs to 8.5 feet, but the bill would allow loads up to 10 feet wide without a permit – day or night.

If all roads were straight, this wouldn't be so much of a problem. But most roads aren't straight for long, and when trucks round a curve, wide loads and long loads tend to edge over into adjacent lanes – where motorists have to react quickly to get out of the way or risk collisions that cause vehicle damage, injury or death.

A coalition of highway groups said that one of every seven fatalities in the state is a result of crashes involving large trucks. More than 200 travelers died in such accidents in 2005 alone, the group said. That made North Carolina fifth highest in truck fatalities, behind Texas, California, Florida and Georgia. Just for comparison purposes, the group said, North Carolina had almost twice the number of large truck crash deaths as Virginia, which has some truly scary roads.

The Senate plan offers a way to keep longer rigs off roads deemed dangerous. But the decision would not be made by the state transportation department. A legislative panel would have that power – dubious public policy at best.

Concern about safety and bigger trucks often takes a back seat to economic interests in North Carolina. Earlier this year the Easley administration approved 53-foot semitrailers on some Western N.C. roads, but also began assessing whether some of those roads should be off-limits to the longer rigs. Three areas have been put out of bounds so far, and others are still being studied.

The state allowed the longer rigs on some roads after truckers complained the Highway Patrol was ticketing long rigs in those areas. That's the same thing driving the Senate bill allowing wider trailer/boat rigs. Some fishing tournaments were said to be dropping North Carolina sites because Highway Patrol troopers were ticketing wider loads.

We don't perceive the ticketing of illegal loads as a problem. The problem is that there will be wider and longer loads on roads that weren't built to be shared by two vehicles at the same time. The longer, wider rig bill barreling through the legislature is a potential danger to the traveling public. Lawmakers should park it for good.