Trucks and Highway Safety

Posted Sept. 16, 2010, at 6:46 p.m.

A law change permanently allowing big rigs to travel on Interstate 95, rather than back roads, is a few steps away from finally becoming reality. With the president’s support, a provision in a federal spending bill would ensure Maine isn’t forced to return to the perverse situation of directing tractor-trailers onto more dangerous secondary roads north of Augusta.

Last year, Congress approved a pilot project allowing trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on I-95 in Maine. Previously, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds were barred from I-95 north of Augusta. As a result, trucks that weighed between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds were forced to travel local highways, through downtowns such as Bangor’s. Those heavy trucks negotiating stop signs and tight turns were clearly a safety threat to pedestrians and drivers of passenger vehicles.

Such restrictions do not apply in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and nearby Canadian provinces, putting Maine at an economic and safety disadvantage.

As part of the pilot, which also includes Vermont, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is studying the effects of allowing the heavier trucks on the interstate. The administration is looking at accident data as well as wear and tear on the highway and bridges. The study, which will be helpful but hampered by its short time frame, is being completed.

Without congressional action soon, however, the project will end and the trucks will return to secondary roads, a bad outcome for the communities these roads pass through, for the taxpayers who pay to maintain the roads and for businesses that need goods shipped by truck.

More thorough studies have found that the larger trucks belong on interstate highways. A 2005 report by the Road Information Program, a national transportation research group, found that 81 percent of traffic deaths occurred on rural roads in Maine from 1999 to 2003, although only 52 percent of the travel in the state is on these roads.

A study, conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates, an international infrastructure consulting firm with an office in Portland, found that the fatal crash rate on “diversion routes,” mainly two-lane undivided highways, was 10 times higher than the Maine Turnpike and interstate routes, based on miles traveled.

It also found that between $1.7 million and $2.3 million a year in pavement and bridge repair costs could be avoided on the diversion routes if larger trucks were moved to the interstate.

Another economic benefit is that goods shipped to, from and through Maine are able to move more quickly when trucks are able to stay on the higher-speed highway system.

For these reasons, President Barack Obama has agreed to include language to make the change permanent in the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which must be passed to fund government operations.

As the president said: “Continuing the program will improve safety on local roads and increase efficiency of commercial trucking in the region.”

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