No one who doesn't make money in trucking wants to see safety rules weakened, yet the industry has managed to chip away at protective standards for the last several years by getting Congress to attach laws that do that to giant emergency spending bills. There are no hearings or open committee markups before industry-sponsored provisions wind up in last-second bills to keep the government running. The effort coincides with a steady rise in truck crashes that injure or kill more Americans every year. I gathered the data that shows the trend. To illustrate it and make it human, I took a look at the case of one Illinois trooper who was nearly burned alive after an exhausted trucker rammed his patrol car.
WASHINGTON — Illinois State Trooper Douglas Balder sat in his squad car, its red and blue lights strobing into the frozen night of Jan. 27, 2014. He was about to be set on fire.
Balder had stopped to assist a Chicago-bound big rig that had stalled out in the rightmost lane of the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway. A heavy-duty tow truck and a bright yellow Tollway assistance vehicle were also pulled over, attending to the stranded semi.
Balder, a Navy reservist and father of two, had his heater cranked against minus-30-degree wind chill. He had positioned his 2011 Crown Victoria behind the Tollway vehicle and switched on his flashers. There were also flares sputtering on the pavement, and the Tollway truck was flashing a large blinking arrow and its amber hazard lights. Visibility on that clear, cold night was excellent — around 10 miles.
Renato Velasquez, who was barreling toward the stopped vehicles in a flatbed big rig loaded with three massive rolls of steel, didn’t see Balder’s flashers. He didn’t see the pulsing arrow or the flares. He didn’t change lanes or take any evasive action until far too late. Velasquez was falling asleep, a court would find later. His truck rammed into Balder’s squad car at 63 miles per hour, according to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the accident.