Although the Memorial Day holiday at the end of May celebrates the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, it is also a somewhat grim milestone in the year for other reasons. The summer season from Memorial Day until Labor Day has been called the 100 deadliest days on American highways, a time when we Americans will drive more than 1 trillion miles.
When we send our children, friends and other loved ones off on their road trips this summer, we should remember the dangers they encounter as they travel American highways and do more than just say, “I love you ... be careful.”
That’s what we said to our two sons when they drove away headed back to school after Thanksgiving break in 2002, and we took for granted they would be doing everything they could to be safe on the highways, observing the safety conscious rules we had taught them. We knew they would watch their speed, wear their seat belts and, of course, not drink alcohol while driving. What we didn’t count on was that they would become victims of someone else’s mistakes, someone else’s bad choices.
Their car — stopped in an interstate traffic jam — was crushed from behind by a speeding tractor-trailer rig barreling along with its cruise control set at 7 miles an hour above the posted speed limit. The crash killed Cullum, who was driving, and miraculously, thank God, Pierce was not seriously injured. I know no one deliberately sets out to do harm to others on the highways. I believe that the truck driver who killed my son regrets the pain he has caused. But Cullum was being safe, and yet a professional “on the job” made bad choices that cost our son his life on that Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Hopefully, the people you love will do all of the right things, the safe things, on the highways this summer. Doing the right things as a professional or amateur driver means truly embracing the principles of driving so that you do no harm to another, acknowledging that the actions we take behind the wheel can have devastating consequences.
Tell those you love that they must share the crowded highways with heavy commercial vehicles that weigh 20 times the weight of a passenger car. Let them know that these are huge machines, allowed by law to travel at the same speeds as passenger cars in all types of weather, day and night. Make them aware that these truckers often are exhausted from 14-hour work days and from the pressure of schedules for “just in time” deliveries.
At Road Safe America, a non-profit highway safety organization we founded after Cullum’s death, we try to educate the public about techniques for driving more safely around heavy commercial vehicles. In fatal crashes involving big-rigs and passenger vehicles, 98 percent of the time the people in the passenger vehicles are the victims.
Tell your loved ones getting on the road that being safe around big trucks includes observing rules like not tailgating, making sure you can see the driver’s rear-view mirrors when you are behind them (increasing the likelihood that the trucker can see you), never cutting in front of a big truck (they can’t stop quickly or maneuver as easily as passenger cars), avoiding driving beside them, and generally giving them plenty of space.
In America, our roads are more dangerous than those in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other nations in the world because, unlike these countries, we have no requirement for heavy commercial vehicles to set their factory-installed electronic speed governors to limit their top speeds to safer levels.
There is no requirement for “black boxes” (travel data recorders like on airliners), and there are not enough rest stops and designated rest areas off the highways for long-haul drivers to safely exit the road and get the sleep they need.
Tell your loved ones that amazingly, some in the U.S. Congress want to increase maximum weight for trucks on the road from the current 80,000 pounds to 100,000 pounds, without a quid pro quo requirement for the (standard equipment) speed governors to be set. Sadly, while other leading nations have successfully taken aggressive action to reduce the incidence of car-truck crashes, the annual deaths of almost 5,000 people in crashes involving heavy commercial vehicles in the U.S. seem to have become acceptable here.
Following all of these safe driving tips is important but, in my opinion, driving safely around a large truck is an oxymoron. There is no true “safe zone.” The best practice is to let them go around you or, if it is possible at a reasonable speed, pass the truck and put some distance between it and your car. It is unsafe to travel beside, behind or in front of a truck in close proximity.
My sons were being safe — are our laws safe?
I don’t want another family to experience the pain and sadness that we now face on a daily basis. I believe that amateur and professional drivers alike want to be safe and never injure or kill one another as a result of a bad choice or from ignorance of existing dangerous conditions. I hope you agree, and in addition to telling your loved ones to be careful, please join Road Safe America in our mission to make the roads safer for all.
Susan P. Owings of Atlanta co-founded Road Safe America with her husband after the death of their son in 2002.
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