OPINION: Mom of student killed by truck warns lawmakers on heavier loads

Emily Clark, 20, of Powder Springs, was one of the five Georgia Southern nursing students killed in a seven-vehicle crash near Savannah early Wednesday. (Family photo)

Emily Clark, 20, of Powder Springs, was one of the five Georgia Southern nursing students killed in a seven-vehicle crash near Savannah early Wednesday. (Family photo)

Late last Monday night in the Georgia state Capitol, an army of lobbyists huddled around a television outside the House chamber to watch a vote on House Bill 189, a measure that has quietly become one of the most contentious of this year’s legislative session.

The vote was on whether tractor-trailers on state and local roads around Georgia could increase the maximum allowed weight they carry — from 80,000 pounds to 88,000 pounds. The vote would not affect federal roads, like I-75 and I-85, since federal law will still ban nearly all trucks heavier than 80,000 pounds.

The fight over how big is too big has pitted mayors against lawmakers, business interests against businesses, and member against member, regardless of party.

Pushing to increase the weights are companies that move commodities and components around the state — home builders, timber growers, poultry producers, concrete makers, and cattlemen. Heavier trucks mean fewer trips, fewer drivers, and less spent to move each load, their lobbyists say.

On the other side have been local leaders, worried about the damage to roads and bridges they’ll have to pay for when the infrastructure wears out 33% sooner with heavier trucks. Rail companies say the extra freight can go by train instead. And safety advocates have stated the obvious during hearings on the bill — that anything heavier, including a loaded big rig, takes longer to slow down on the road.

But what if a truck driver never hits the brakes?

That was the horrible reality in 2015 for seven Georgia Southern nursing students driving on I-16 on their way to their final day of clinical rotations at Savannah’s St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Completely stopped in traffic on the state road, their two cars were smashed by a tractor-trailer driving 70 mph. The driver later testified in court that he didn’t know why he didn’t try to slow down. In the end, five students died, including Emily Clark. A sixth student was left with a traumatic brain injury and the driver was sent to jail after pleading guilty to five counts of vehicular homicide.

Emily’s mother, Kathy, is not one of the lobbyists at the Capitol arguing about the bill, but she wants lawmakers to think about families like hers as they decide whether to increase truck weights on Georgia roads. The truck that crushed her daughter’s car was packed with deliveries and on its way to a local dollar store.

“Safety is our number one concern and you can listen to facts and figures all day long, but common sense tells you that something heavier is harder to control on the roads and just can’t be safe,” she said. “It just can’t be that a little bit of extra money is worth the safety of anyone’s family member.”

Safety concerns are among the top reasons detractors like state Rep. Darlene Taylor say the bill shouldn’t pass.

During the heated debate on the House floor ahead of last week’s vote, the Thomasville Republican said already rickety local roads and bridges would be made worse by heavier trucks.

“Georgia already has the 4th highest rate in the nation for carrier fatalities…are we going for Number 1?” she said. “What price are we willing to pay to carry a few more logs on a truck or a few more bales of cotton? We’re better than that.”

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Democrat from Smyrna, echoed Taylor’s worries about the safety of other drivers and the immense cost to local governments to repair roads and bridges that the Department of Transportation has warned will be damaged.

“If this bill passes, a major industry will be pleased,” she said. “But will they be satisfied? I doubt it.”

The official weight limit of tractor-trailers on Georgia roads is 80,000 pounds, with heavier loads allowed under certain circumstances. One of those circumstances emerged when the COVID-19 pandemic clogged supply chains and cut the number of truck drivers available to move the loads.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order increasing truck weights to 95,000 pounds for the then-empty roads. With life in Georgia well back to normal, that order expired Friday at midnight.

Proponents of the bill said during last week’s debate that the higher weight limits during COVID proved that trucks can get heavier.

“I get it, this is a tough issue,” said state Rep. James Burchett, the GOP Whip in the House from Waycross. “Are we here to grow with Georgia? Or are we here to stop growth?”

State Rep. Spencer Frye, a Democrat from Athens, reminded lawmakers that Georgia has repeatedly been named the top state to do business. “Y’all this is important to the lifeblood of the state.”

With the lobbyists for and against all watching from outside the chamber, the House passed HB 189 by two votes just after 10 p.m., two hours before the chamber’s Crossover Day deadline expired.

The bill has now moved over to the state Senate, where newly expanded language is facing the same lobbyists battling for and against it again. A 7 a.m. hearing Tuesday morning raised more questions than answers for some.

Kathy Clark continues to watch the back-and-forth from her home in Kennesaw, where she’s now retired from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Because of her time at the department, she already assumed roads and bridges would incur more damage from heavier trucks. But nothing could have prepared her for what a heavy truck accident could do to her daughter, whom she described as “just a joy.”

“She loved caring about people and helping people. It was her goal in life to help people,” she said of Emily. “If she was still alive and she had been one of the survivors, she’d be very adamant about working to keep people safe.”