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States And Localities Must Redesign Road Rules

Far too many Americans die each day on the roads. According to preliminary estimates released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 43,000 Americans perished in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2022. While the agency has doled out nearly $1 billion in grants to design safer streets and collect more safety-related data, no amount of taxpayer spending will fix basic issues with roadworthiness regulations. State rules have allowed vehicles of virtually any size and weight onto highways, resulting in excessive wear-and-tear and deadlier accidents. It’s up to states and localities to comprehensively review their regulations to determine which vehicles can be safely driven on roadways with minimal fatalities and costs to taxpayers. Lawmakers can and should steer America’s transportation system away from policy potholes.

Roadworthiness rules are set by the 50 states with 50 very different sets of rules on the books. For example, owners of utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) in Arizona will face little issue registering, insuring, and driving their buggies on the road. States such as California don’t take as kindly to UTVs on public roads. Plenty of other states regulate their UTVs in various shades of gray. Similarly, drivers of mini-trucks (typically less than 4,000 pounds and 70 inches in width) will face considerable hurdles in Colorado and Connecticut but are free to roam the roads of Indiana and North Carolina.

This road federalism is crucial for keeping taxpayer costs under control and enabling experimentation across the country. Each class of vehicle could entail significant net costs for taxpayers if collisions prove deadlier than average or the vehicles exert too much wear-and-tear on taxpayer-financed infrastructure. These considerations are particularly important as policymakers consider allowing large trucks (e.g., twin 33-foot foot double-trailers) on the roads.

Fights over issues such as truck weight and maximum trailer length periodically surface in the halls of Congress and state legislatures as advocates argue that scaling up trucking can improve supply chain issues. However, the costs of allowing these behemoths on the road are considerable. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Multiple-trailer trucks have more handling problems than single-trailer trucks. In general, the additional connection points contribute to greater instability, which can lead to jackknifing, overturning, and lane encroachments.”

There’s a clear link between hefty trucks and vehicle damage, with a 9-ton big-rig inflicting roughly 40 times the amount of damage as a Hummer H2. Even if putting large trucks on the road led to fewer trucks total in operation, the freed-up road space would just be taken up by new traffic.

According to a 2009 analysis by University of Pennsylvania and University of Toronto scholars, an increase in road capacity by 10% will increase traffic by 10%. In other words, more vehicles are “induced” onto the roads whenever trucking fleets consolidate. The not-so-open roads will be as clogged as before, but with increased accident and infrastructure costs caused by mammoth trucks.

Rather than taking a more proactive approach, lawmakers tend to deal with questions of street-legality one vehicle class at a time. More comprehensive reforms would ensure lower taxpayer costs and improved driver safety. States could kickstart this process by setting up commissions that examine existing vehicle laws, many of which have been on the books for decades with little examination.

They could also monitor road deterioration and share data with other state commissions on the relationship between vehicle size, number of blind spots, etc. and a host of outcomes related to cost and safety. These government bodies could then issue broad-based recommendations on reforming the “street-legal” designation with the goal of lessening the burden on taxpayers to fix the damaged roads. In some cases, states might decide that costly, extra emissions testing is not worth minimal marginal pollution abatement. On other cases, they might decide on a new truck weight/size limit that better reflects the evidence on cost and safety.

Policymakers have become convinced that taxpayer dollars can substitute for sound policy reforms. Comprehensive changes to roadworthiness rules can pave the way toward a safer, more cost-effective transportation system, ensuring a smooth ride for all.

David Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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  • A far better solution would be to substantially (massively?) toughen the proficiency requirements for getting….and keeping…. a driving license, coupled with a return to actual enforcement of basic driving rules, like speed limits, weaving, and vehicle condition. (Think cameras, not cops.)

    Driving on public roadways shared by everyone is not a right. It is a privilege that should be earned and maintained. Penalties for violations must become punitive, but not entirely financial: Suspension of driving privileges needs to be far more common. As well, assessment for damages caused, like paying for repairs of smashed guard rails resulting from texting-while-driving, aren’t a bad idea either.

    Our anything-goes, driving-is-a-right, minimal-enforcement approach to traffic management and highway safety is a joke…..that is causing needless injury and death in excessive numbers. Even the finest highway engineering and maintenance at massive taxpayer expense won’t prevent losses due to idiotic driving and poorly trained drivers operating in a nearly rule-free environment.

      • Nor I on yours, Travis. Drivers in most of the Americas are dangerous, if not insane.

  • The first thing I read in this opinion piece was: New Regulations. Get rid of cars on the road which the author doesn’t believe should be on the roads. He doesn’t mention about “freedom” or cars and vans which have been already been bought and paid for. Also, while mentioning trucks, it appears he wants to ban them. Is that a good idea?!!!
    My final comments: Since this piece is about roads, my question is: What direction will I&I be taking? Has it reversed what I understood to be its previous position.
    The only difference between the climate change fanatics who want to control our lives, and this piece is that the author doesn’t mention climate change. But he, certainly, still wants to control our lives.

  • Not every issue demands a new law. In fact, most of the time we would be better off without anyone in government doing anything about a particular issue. And the Law of Unintended Consequences means that the total impact of a law will always be very different from what people initially think. So let’s just agree that this is just another area where the government should butt out, and maybe the author should do some research on how much other well-intended but poorly though-out laws have cost us over the years. It might provide him some well-needed perspective.

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