Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The accidents happen so frequently along Interstate 80 that the news reporting about them is boiled down to the bare facts.

A family of six from Minneapolis was killed earlier this year when a semitrailer slammed into their van, which was stopped on a shoulder of I-80 about 45 miles west of Laramie.

The truck had come over the crest of a hill and had started to jackknife when it struck the van. The driver was cited for driving too fast for conditions.

Then, at the start of Thanksgiving week, a semitrailer jackknifed between Cheyenne and Laramie, blocking the eastbound lanes and closing the highway.

That followed an 18-vehicle chain collision that involved trucks the day before that shut down a 90-mile stretch of I-80.

Accidents along I-80 are a fact of life in Wyoming. The busy highway draws thousands of vehicles across the southern part of the state - both passenger and commercial.

The mix of cars and light trucks with freight-hauling trucks many times their size can lead to serious and often deadly accidents, with the blame shared by both groups of vehicles, weather and other random occurrences.

The terrain is flat, high and subject to strong winds. Heading east out of Laramie, the roadway is also very steep.

The accident tally along I-80 is startling. An analysis by the Wyoming Department of Transportation shows that most truck-involved crashes on Wyoming interstates take place on I-80.

Between 1997 and September of this year, 3,984 such accidents have been counted on I-80. For the same period of time, 596 semitrailer-involved crashes have been counted on Interstate 25.

Driver advocates say one way to lower the accident rate is to have a lower speed limit for trucks.

But trucking supporters say that's not the way to go. They contend that having a different, lower speed limit for trucks would lead to more accidents and confusion on the roads.

When Danny Smith and Anita Crabtree drive their rig across the country, they encounter all kinds of conditions. In the East, the highways are congested. In the West, they are wide open, but without enough parking areas to stop and take pictures from.

About every other week, they come through Wyoming.

They know that when they drive, they are competing for space on the interstates with "four-wheelers" - industry lingo for cars and light-duty trucks.

They also know the smaller, more maneuverable vehicles slip in and out of traffic in sometimes unpredictable ways. That's something that, at 80,000 pounds or more, they cannot do. Because of momentum, they can't swerve or make sudden stops.

When the interstate system came to be under the direction of President Eisenhower in the 1950s, it was seen as a boon to commerce and prompted the rise in freight hauling by truck.

At the same time, more and more Americans were buying cars and taking them on the road. Since then semis and smaller vehicles have learned to share the same roads, with cars sometimes cutting off semis, and semis sometimes doing the same.

Some states have already put different speed limits in place for semis and other vehicles. Some prohibit semis from traveling in the left lane.

Both Smith and Crabtree have driven in those states - Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, to name a few - that have different speed limits for trucks, either statewide or in limited areas, and they say they don't like it.

"It just causes traffic jams," said Smith during a break from driving. He and Crabtree stopped briefly at the I-80 rest stop at the Lincoln Monument.

"In Texas, I've known of four accidents where cars run up on the trucks, and the cars run under the back ends of the trucks," Smith said.

The truckers see the differential speed limits as a revenue boost for the states that have them. Speeding tickets, Crabtree said, can cost double for semis going 10 mph over the posted limit.

"They don't want to change it because it's revenue," she said. Some drivers think they're a bad idea as well.

Richard Breese was crossing Wyoming Tuesday, on his way from Pittsburgh to his home in Washington state, in his dualie pickup with a four-wheeler strapped in the back.

"Everyone should go the same speed," Breese said. "It's the idiots in their cars that cause the problems."

Today, the two groups take different views on how the two classes of vehicles should share the interstates.

The AAA, an auto club with tens of thousands of members, supports a different speed limit for trucks.

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"There's no real standard," AAA MountainStates spokeswoman Charity Watt Levis said.

Every road has unique characteristics that would dictate what the local speed limits should be for both trucks and cars, and the AAA recognizes that, she said.

"We think that having a different speed limit alone will not fix the problem," Levis said. "There are other issues as well that affect safety, like hours of service and driver training, but it couldn't hurt."

The AAA is not alone.

A number of states already have different speed limits in place for semis. Recently, Missouri considered the change. Highway patrol officers testified before legislatures in both states, saying the lower limit for big rigs would improve safety.

That's not the feeling of officials at the Wyoming Trucking Association. Director Sheila Foertsch said most federal statistics show that in the majority of truck-involved crashes, trucks are not at fault.

"There are also some studies that say if you have split speed levels, you'll have more accidents than if everyone is going the same speed," she said.

She cites the same scenario that Smith related - cars coming up on slower-moving semis and striking them from the rear.

The biggest difference that can be made is through education, she said.

"I think part of the problem that we see across I-80 is that Wyoming is a bridge state. People don't stop here. The drivers are not familiar with the weather conditions they need to be prepared for."

That's something that both Smith and Crabtree agree on.

"The guys at the ports of entry are real helpful, they always tell us right away what the conditions are," Smith said. But when he tries to tune in the weather advisories on 1630 AM, he said he can't tune the station in.

No one has brought the issue up before Wyoming lawmakers, at least not in the last decade or so.

Foertsch said she's been lobbying for the trucking association since 1994, and the idea of a slower truck speed limit has never been explained in a bill.

"You hear discussion from time to time, but I don't remember seeing a bill introduced about it," she said.

"From what I have heard, it messes up the flow of traffic," Rep Wayne Johnson, R-Cheyenne, said. Johnson heads up the House Transportation and Highways Committee.

"I don't think anyone has brought it up," he said.

A third group sees an entirely different fix for the situation. The Reason Public Policy Institute, a California think tank, proposes building a separate truck-only lane along interstates.

The institute says the truckways would be self-supporting, based on the tolls paid voluntarily by trucking companies. The tolls would replace the fuel taxes the truckers now pay to support maintenance of the roads.

The institute, which promotes choice, competition and a dynamic market economy as a foundation for human dignity and progress, introduced the idea in July.

Institute spokesman Chris Mitchell said the plan is the result of its author's experience in transportation. Bob Poole has researched transportation issues for more than three decades and has advised the last four presidential administrations on transportation issues.

"Basically, it's about increasing the ability for the average citizen to commute, ease traffic problems and allow business to move merchandise in a speedy manner," Mitchell said. Poole was traveling to Washington, D.C., and was unavailable for comment.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, endorsed the proposal, and said he wanted to include funding for a pilot program in 2003 federal highway fund reauthorization.

"That study may be of more relevance to Wyoming than Los Angeles," Mitchell said. "The cost to build the road and buy the land would be less in Wyoming than here."

But, he added, there's no information on where such a pilot program might take place.

Could that happen here?

"That's California for you," Johnson said and chuckled. "I don't think so."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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