It is so easy to get the trucking industry on the defensive. There is a nice long menu of issues ready to just heat and serve on any given day, such as safety, highway maintenance, traffic congestion or exhaust emissions. Mention any one and our dander and our dukes are up in a flash. “What do you mean, suggesting that trucks aren't safe?” “How dare you say trucking should pay more for highway repair!” “Have you looked at the gains we've already made in reducing emissions?”

Well, at the risk of sounding like a troublemaker, I think it's time to peel the “kick me” sign off the backs of our driving jackets and invite all motorists to take a hard look in the other direction — at cars, vans, pick-up trucks and SUVs — and what is really taking place out there on the highways we share.

For starters, those roads have never been more congested. There were 190,625,023 licensed drivers in the U.S. in 2000. This is an increase of 23.73% since 1980 and a 12.39% increase over 1990, according to the U.S. Office of Highway Policy Information. The miles of roads and streets, however, have increased only 2.0% since 1980.

No wonder it feels crowded out there — it is, and most of the vehicles are carrying people, not freight, one person at a time. Privately owned vehicles are used for 91.2% of all personal travel, and if you toss in buses and taxis, 94% of personal transportation uses the highways. Carpooling to work has actually dropped 2% in the past decade. In 2000, 76.3% of workers reported driving alone.

Increasingly, those personal trips to and fro are being made in SUVs, which comprise a quarter of the current total U.S. vehicle sales, depending upon whether so-called crossover vehicles are included. Now the safety of all those SUVs is beginning to draw fire from regulators and the public. Jeffrey Runge, NHTSA head, says the rollover fatality rate for SUVs is triple that for passenger cars.

SUVs, as well as vans and pick-up trucks, are getting low marks as a group when it comes to fuel efficiency, as well. While an 80,000-lb. Class 8 truck can get the job done on 7-10 mpg, five- or six-passenger SUVs typically manage to achieve only about 20 mpg. Several automakers, including Ford, have committed to voluntarily improving SUV fuel economy, but legislation is still under consideration that would make it mandatory.

Passenger vehicles of all types are responsible for most of the accidents involving trucks and cars, too, according to the AAA. “However, if you look at the number of civil cases that go to court as a whole, about 53% of the verdicts are decided in favor of the plaintiff. If you consider only those cases involving trucks, 80% of the verdicts are decided in favor of the plaintiff,” says Beasy McGlothlin, vp-transportation underwriting for the St. Paul Companies.

Now all this is not to suggest that we simply hand over our well worn “kick me” signs to the owners and producers of passenger vehicles and commence doing some kicking of our own. (Truck owners are car drivers, too, after all.) What it does suggest is that it may be time to take a much broader view of the issues so long automatically associated with trucks and trucking, a wider view that includes cars and other light-duty vehicles.

Highway safety, air quality, traffic congestion and the other vehicle-born issues belong to us all — truckers and general motorists. So instead of leaping to the perpetual defense of the trucking industry, perhaps it is time to go on the offensive with the general driving public. Just think, we could pass out new signs for every driver: “Kick me. No, kick me. No, I insist, it's my problem.”