In aftermath of I-75 tragedy, truckers defend their driving
Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 6:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 6:59 p.m.
Veteran tractor-trailer drivers said Tuesday that cars regularly cut them off and make sudden stops while they are carrying a full load.
The drivers who were resting after traversing a stretch of I-75 that was the scene of a deadly pileup Sunday morning involving several semis said that, from their experience, car drivers are usually at fault in accidents involving cars and trucks — despite far worse consequences to the cars.
Statistics bear that out. A study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2002 found that 80 percent of fatal accidents involving cars and trucks were caused by car drivers.
Public Internet posts about Sunday's accidents on Paynes Prairie just south of Gainesville stirred simmering tensions between supporters of big-rig operators who make their livelihoods on the nation's highways and car drivers questioning their road manners.
"We've got 80,000 pounds here. You know it's hard to stop with 80,000 pounds in a split second," said Phillip Edmonson, 45, a driver for Pavco who stopped at the Petro truck stop off I-75 in northern Marion County.
Carlos Pizaro of Gils Transportation said that, at 60 mph, it would take a full truck 100 yards to come to a full stop.
Pizaro, 38, stopped to exercise at a rest stop near Paynes Prairie during a 2,770-mile trip from California.
Truckers described car drivers who don't adjust to bad weather conditions.
"They run," said Wilbert Ventura, 76, of Sonoco Recyling in Orlando at the I-75 rest stop. "A truck, he normally starts backing down because he's got a load on him and he's not going to stop as fast."
At I-75 near the Williston Road exit in Gainesville, 62,000 vehicles share the road every day, with 18 percent of those being large trucks, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
Al Thomas, a driver for K-Line trucking out of New Jersey, said a little understanding would go a long way.
Thomas, 60, said while stopped for a smoke at the Petro truck stop that car drivers should be required to get training to familiarize them with big trucks to avoid accidents.
He said he recently had his first accident — in Fort Wayne, Ind., after 30 years in the business when a car made a sudden move to pass him while he was changing lanes to avoid a slow driver he was about to hit.
Thomas said he regularly sees drivers distracted by cellphones or women putting on eyeliner.
"I can never drive in peace, because I've got to worry about the other person," he said.
The stretch of I-75 from Gainesville to Tampa is one of the worst for accidents, he said, especially during holidays and while northerners — "snow birds" — are coming or going. RVs are especially a nightmare, he said.
"They don't have training for that sized vehicle," Thomas said of RV drivers.
Thomas said stretches of I-95 from Jacksonville to St. Augustine and from Fort Pierce to Miami have more accidents than I-75.
Brad Hughes, 38, of Star Transport was chatting with Thomas outside the Petro.
"It's always the trucker's fault," he said sarcastically. "In my experience, we're invisible."
He said he once jackknifed an empty trailer when he had to make a sudden stop.
"I had a woman pull out in front of me one time and the next thing I know I'm looking down the side of my trailer."
Hughes said truckers are taught to look ahead while a lot of car drivers don't pay attention.
"Don't get me wrong. You've got rude truck drivers out there, but they're few and far between. You've got more professional drivers out there."
Florida statutes limit drivers to 12 hours of driving following 10 hours off duty and to 70 hours in seven days.
Federal law requires truckers to pass a driving or skills test for the type of truck they are expected to drive to get their commercial driver's license.
Pizaro said his company also puts drivers through a safety course twice a year and regularly sends safety reminders over their communications system.
He said most truckers will change lanes to steer clear of cars that are broken down on the shoulder of the road in case someone is with the car, while many cars will pass close to the stopped cars.
He said he tries to keep at least two truck lengths between him and the vehicle in front of him under normal conditions. Others said they keep anywhere from one to six truck lengths between them and the vehicle ahead.
A couple of truckers said they delayed trips because of Sunday's accident.
"I took a nap at the Georgia line," Edmonson said. "If it wasn't for that, I probably would have been in that."
He said he waited a little longer in Georgia after a friend called him about the wrecks.
Ventura said he canceled picking up a load in Gainesville on Monday to make sure the interstate was clear.
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