Our Interstate Highway System is an engineering marvel, now consisting of almost 48,000 miles of divided, multi-lane, limited access highways for vehicular traffic. Approved and funded by Congress in June of 1956, the original plan finally completed in 1991 and extended later, this transportation network was the realization of the dream of President Dwight Eisenhower. The need for such a system was planted in his mind when as a young officer in 1919 he participated in a slow, ponderous two month effort to move a military convoy across the country on the “Lincoln Highway”, now US30 and later when as the Supreme Allied Commander in 1945 was dazzled by the German autobahns. Embraced originally as a Cold War requirement to move weapons and armaments quickly across the country if necessary, the Interstate system has also proven to be not only a blessing for the auto traveler, but a boon to the trucking industry and as such, a perpetual thorn in the side of the railroad industry.
I remember traveling by car in the late 1950’s during early phases of construction. Interstate 44 was still mostly US66, I-70 was mixed with lengths of US40, and the only really significant length of speedy limited access expressway at the time was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “The Turnpike”, completed in the early 1950’s and now designated also as Interstate 76, demonstrated what travel across the country would ultimately become when the Interstate system was finally completed. And although a toll road, truck drivers and motorists were always happy to pay since the Turnpike made a formerly tedious drive across the Appalachians very quick and convenient.
While traveling across the country so much in recent years, I remain more thankful than not for these highways. Moving along quickly, munching on snacks, stopping only to fill up the vehicle and empty its occupants, making the time go by quickly by listening to recorded books, and arriving at that planned motel stop before dark, one can easily cover six or seven hundred miles (over 1000 km) a day, reaching the final destination with far less stress than when such a journey was predominantly on two lane highways.
However, in recent decades, this renowned network of high speed multi-lane roadways has become a mixed blessing. Even though I am still mostly moving along quickly, the thousands of huge trucks on the road are making the drive much less pleasurable and far more stressful and dangerous. Sometimes it seems as though our little car is the only such vehicle on the road. Looking ahead, all I can see are trucks and, glancing in the mirrors, that’s about all I can see behind me as well. And coming toward me in the other lanes are again….mostly trucks, with only a few cowed cars mixed in. There are about 15 million trucks on the road, and of these about two million are tractor-trailers. And while big trucks officially make up only a small percentage of all highway vehicles, they all unfortunately seem to travel the same Interstate highways that I do.
Often, when passing a line of these behemoths, I am forced to suddenly brake, take my car out of cruise control and destroy my momentum when one of them suddenly pulls out in front of me to attempt to “pass” several other trucks. Then I sit angrily behind it, poking along at far less than the speed limit, waiting for the truck to slowly, gradually pass the others and finally pull in so that I can regain my speed. So many times, I have been tempted to lean on my horn and render an obscene gesture to the offending truck driver as I resume my speed and momentum and pass him. But I angrily have to remind myself again that these guys really control the Interstate highways, not citizen motorists in little cars like me. Truck drivers pretty much do what they want because automobile drivers cannot challenge a 40 ton, multi-axled, 18 wheeled vehicle barreling along at better than 65 miles per hour.
Rest areas along our interstate highways are getting increasing frustrating to use. When the interstate system was first planned, rest stops were constructed at proper intervals as places for motorists to relax, shake off driver fatigue and drowsiness, visit a clean restroom and maybe eat a sandwich or two at a shaded picnic table. That’s all changed significantly with the advent of long haul trucks with built in sleeper cabs. Now, roadside rests look a lot more like truck stops, with rows of semi’s parked, day or night, with the drivers snug in their sleeper beds grabbing a few winks. Rest stops are now made more convenient for trucks, with “trucks only” parking areas, replete with elongated parking spaces for one way entry and egress. In fact, the most recently constructed rest areas that I’ve observed along the Interstates appear to be planned more for the accommodation of trucks rather than for automobiles. Also, entering or exiting a rest stop is increasingly difficult since a driver must often navigate among trucks which could not find a spot in the rest stop so are now parked on both shoulders of an exit or an entrance.
Truckers have not only taken over rest stops but also any other spaces available to them. For example, Interstate 40 through Texas and Oklahoma is interspersed not only with rest stops but also by “picnic areas”, more modestly sized spots where motorists and their families can ostensibly park and have a picnic at one of several nicely shaded tables. Well, forget it – any “picnic area” you see is packed with trucks, their drivers relaxing in their sleeper cabs. Horrible conditions for a family picnic for sure – the expensive tables and shades totally wasted. I have never observed a family having a picnic at one of these facilities and have never wondered why.
The same disorder also now infects “scenic overlooks” along the interstates, where special parking areas have been constructed so that motorists can stop, gaze at and perhaps photograph a scenic valley, mountain vista or village. Well forget that too – it’s not worth stopping to gaze enchanted and enthralled by a picturesque scene when you have to first weave your way among parked trucks to maybe find a parking place, then endanger your life by crossing the right of way, then shorten your life with lungfuls of diesel exhaust. The “scenic overlook” is packed with idling trucks and sleeping drivers.
Along some stretches of interstate highway, especially in the west, there occasionally are what I call “dead exits”, where interchanges have been constructed but are not connected to any existing highway or road, presumably waiting for a time when they will be needed. These are quite handy if you need to relieve yourself for you can get off of the highway, stand on the other side of your car and go in relative privacy, then hop back in, easily get back on the highway and be on your way. However, now these interchanges are populated by trucks arranged along both shoulders of the exit and entrance, with drivers sleeping. So my convenient “dead exits” now have joined roadside rests and picnic areas as rest spots for big trucks.
I used to see a sign painted on the back of the trailers of long haul semi’s – something like “This vehicle pays $6000 a year in highway taxes”, as if we are supposed to feel sorry for the transportation company bearing such a burden. What the company’s sign doesn’t tell you is that, while indeed paying federal and state taxes as part of the cost of fuel they consume, their trucks cause far more damage to the highways than these meager fees could ever conceivably compensate for. It so happens that as the weight of a vehicle rises, potential road damage does not increase linearly but exponentially by a power of four. Thus a fully loaded rig does about as much damage as 9600 cars. When trucks are overloaded, as quite a few of them are, the damage is exponentially worse. For example, increasing a truck’s weight from the maximum 80,000 pounds to 90 results in a 42 percent increase in road wear: pavement designed to last 20 years wears out in seven. Trucking companies claim that while they represent only 11 percent of all vehicles on the road, they pay 35 percent of all road taxes. Big deal, because they surely cause 99 percent of all road damage. Clearly, if anything, big trucks should pay far more in road taxes than they do now. The highway taxes that I and millions of other motorists pay actually provide a gigantic subsidy to transportation companies. It should be noted that railroad trains do far less damage to public infrastructure. And furthermore, their fuel taxes don’t pay for the maintenance of railroad beds and rails. The railroads themselves do.
Another problem related to big trucks on the Interstate highways is the threat presented by the chunks and strips of cast-off tire tread that litter highway shoulders and right-of-ways. When my vision of the roadway has been limited by dusk, darkness or a huge truck in front of me, I have occasionally hit these big hunks of rubber and thought I had hit a two by four and seriously damaged the car. These unsightly road hazards are routinely cast off from improperly retreaded truck tires, purchased by an owner/operator presumably too cheap to buy proper new tires for his rig.
And there are serious problems with truck drivers themselves. When I was young and my mother and father would drive us children on long cross country trips to visit relatives, we were taught to think that truckers were the absolute best drivers on the road. Yes, back in the days of two lane highways, I guess we felt a camaraderie with truck drivers when after a big truck passed us, we would flash our lights to signify that he was clear to pull back in and he would blink his deck lights in acknowledgement – a pleasant little roadway “conversation” and exercise in highway etiquette. Unfortunately those days are long gone. Truck drivers today seem to instead exhibit a much more arrogant and aggressive attitude and very little politeness and consideration, much less any behavior that could be described as “highway etiquette”. And furthermore, they don’t seem all that competent or skilled. I have followed trucks that couldn’t seem to stay in their lanes and have veered into the left lane, then, overcorrecting, onto the shoulder. I have seen them pull in front of me without signaling and I have been cut off by truck drivers. Were they inattentive? Drowsy? Exhausted? Unskilled? Or maybe just plain stupid?
I have seen the mangled results of dozens of horrible collisions involving semi’s over the last several years and I have read about some very grim ones resulting in death, always of the people in the smaller vehicles, almost never in the trucks. Usually the truck driver, protected as he is, escapes injury or death, even if he is at fault. A recent well known example is the 2014 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike when a Walmart tractor/trailer moving at 65 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, rear-ended comedian Tracy Morgan’s travel van, killing comedian James McNair and causing severe injury to Morgan and several other passengers. Walmart driver Kevin Roper, who had driven from Georgia to Delaware to pick up his load and begin his shift, had not slept in 28 hours, survived the accident unharmed.
A few pertinent statistics – tractor-trailer crashes kill nearly 4000 Americans every year and injure more than 85,000. Since 2009 deaths involving big trucks have increased 17 percent and injuries by 28 percent. Six million vehicle crashes occurred in the US in 2014. Of those, 476,000 involved large trucks and buses – a 22 percent increase from the previous year. And there have been a steadily increasing number of truck driver violations. There were 326,818 violations noted during big rig roadside inspections in 2015. One of the most numerous was of truckers who failed to log, update, or provide accurate information regarding their record of duty status. Also there were 136,585 hours-of-service violations, where drivers violated their time limits. Many fatal truck crashes involve rear-end collisions. The Department of Transportation reported that in 2015 large trucks were involved in 27 percent of all fatal crashes in roadway work zones, even though they represent only about 10 percent of all highway traffic. These crashes are usually caused when trucks come up on vehicles stalled by the road work.
Part of the problem today with truckers is how they are paid – usually by the mile. And when you are paid for the distance you travel, you will do everything possible to drive as far as you can as fast as you can. Pay rates for a truck driver range around 50 cents per mile so covering four or five hundred miles a day yields a fairly decent day’s earnings. But again, payment by the mile induces drivers to abuse speed limits and the rules requiring rest stops at established intervals, thus dramatically increasing the chances of an accident.
With the trucking industry booming and always looking for drivers, I fear that they are scraping the bottom, as far as the ability and skill potential of drivers is concerned. And I am always surprised to see so many women driving big rigs today. So, admittedly sexist driver that I am, I do notice many “woman driver” characteristics exhibited increasingly by drivers of long-haul trucks, such as driving too slowly, or being indecisive and overly cautious or braking too often. Many times I have remarked in frustration, “that has to be a woman truck driver”, and, upon passing the offending truck and glancing at the driver, I see that I was right.
While large truck fatalities have been skyrocketing — jumping 26 percent between 2009 and 2015, the American Trucking Association and the transportation industry have tried to make things worse instead of better. As part of the 2015 highway funding bill, they tried to include an amendment allowing states to raise the present 80,000 pound limit for trucks to 91,000 pounds. In addition, to meet their perennial driver shortage, the trucking industry proposed lowering the minimum age of interstate drivers to 18. Highway safety advocates came out decisively against this proposal citing Transportation Department statistics that show drivers ages 18-20 are involved in 66 percent more fatal crashes than those above 21.
In a rare demonstration of common sense, the weight increase proposal was defeated and a compromise was struck on lowering the minimum age. Eighteen year olds were allowed to drive trucks within state boarders, maintaining the 21 year old age minimum for interstate driving. However, a pilot program proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)was approved that will allow a limited number of individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce if they have received specified heavy-vehicle driver training while in military service and are sponsored by a participating motor carrier. So now that the door for teenage long haul truckers has been cracked open, I am sure that the lobbying power of the trucking industry has the clout to open the door completely in the near future. Wow, teenagers driving tractor-trailers cross-country on the Interstates! Brilliant!
Yes, to me, there are far too many trucks on the road, and with the price of diesel fuel staying low, I feel there will be even more as time goes on. But when driving on Interstate 40 through New Mexico, I can’t help but contemplate the irony of the dozens of trucks carrying cargo right along side of Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe trains carrying so much more at a much lower cost. A freight train can move a ton of freight 484 miles on one gallon of fuel, while a truck can move the same ton only 80 miles on the same gallon. If so much more expensive then why is 70 percent of all freight transported by trucks? In addition to loading and delivery convenience, I am sure that massive government subsidy of highway infrastructure as exemplified in the Interstate System is a major reason.
In addition, because of this inefficiency, the carbon footprint of railroad transportation is one tenth that of trucks.
A John Steinbeck fan in my twenties, I happily added “Travels With Charley” to the list of his books I read. I later lived some of this book when I traveled with my “rez dog” Seymour, from New Jersey to Colorado, by way of Michigan’s upper peninsula, Duluth, Minnesota, across North Dakota to Miles City, Montana and then down through Wyoming to Denver, Colorado. I enjoyed the trip very much, enjoying wonderful scenery along the way, and couldn’t help thinking about Steinbeck’s statement (sometimes attributed to CBS’s Charles Kuralt https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/first.cfm ) about the Interstate Highway system. “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” How prescient he was, because that’s unfortunately true in my own experience. My seasonal 2500 mile trips between Arizona and Vermont have become incredibly boring, perhaps because of familiarity or the Interstates themselves, or maybe both. But when traveling either east or west, really, Steinbeck (or Kuralt) is right, I really don’t see a damned thing except the miles and miles of four or six lane highway stretching out in front of me, the thousands of trucks and that scattering of cars in front of me and behind me. The number of trucks will inexorably grow and our Interstates will become ever more crowded. Thank God for recorded books!