Let's turn our attention to vehicle safety instead

It's easy to be sanctimonious about truck safety, especially sitting behind a desk in a calm, quiet office. We all want to improve truck safety, but when it comes down to actually doing something, those who have to pay the bills just want to be sure their money is well spent.

We all recognize that the ultimate responsibility for safety on the road rests with drivers. In my mind, driving a truck for a million miles without an accident is an achievement on par with pitching a shutout. It takes a combination of incredible skill, training, dedication and focus to reach that milestone.

Without diminishing the driver's role, I also believe that new technology offers a tremendous opportunity to push truck safety to even higher levels. Whether it's "gee-whiz" technologies like collision warning and night vision systems or more evolutionary components such as tractor and trailer ABS, truck and component makers deserve great credit for investing in R&D for safety systems - even though they had no clear assurance that customers would pay for them. Many fleets also share the credit, volunteering drivers and equipment to demonstrate the effectiveness of these new technologies.

The ongoing test of electronic brake systems by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a good example of this supplier/user cooperation. Truck builders, component suppliers and fleets are working together to gather real-world data on the advanced brake technology.

However, there are two series of tests being run by the ministries of Construction and Transport in Japan later this month and early next year that suggest another approach that seems imminently practical, highly effective and well worth the cost.

Under the title Demonstration 2000, the Japanese Transport Ministry and more than 30 vehicle manufacturers will assemble 40 trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles equipped with a variety of advanced safety technologies. The four-day event will examine the interaction of these various vehicles and advanced systems. The Construction Ministry test, which runs through next March, will take a similar multi-vehicle configuration look at infrastructure safety technologies now under development.

The obvious advantage of this approach over more-focused truck testing is that it better represents the real highway and road environment. Those million-mile truck drivers had to contend with buses, cars, and motorcycles, as well as trucks, as they rolled up those accident-free miles.

More importantly, though, the Japanese tests transform the issue from truck safety to vehicle safety. And whether we're talking about drivers or technology, that's exactly where the trucking industry needs to move the discussion if it ever hopes to get the public respect and recognition it deserves for its efforts to improve highway safety.