We have devoted far more space on our news and editorial pages than we would like to the phenomenon of trucks losing their brakes and wrecking on Pennsylvania Route 160 coming down Wellersburg Mountain.
Now, the curse has spread to Interstate 68 in Cumberland and points east, where tractor-trailers are catching on fire and tying up the highway for hours at a time. (See: “A case of ‘driver error,’” and “Driving instructor,” Sept. 3 Times-News, Page 1A.)
It happened three times within a week recently on I-68.
The Allegany County Department of Emergency Services says that through August, there have been 19 truck fires on the interstate, compared to 18 for 2018.
The Cumberland Fire Department has responded to nine tractor-trailer fires and seven overheated-brake calls.
It’s not unusual to see an eastbound truck with smoking brakes going through Cumberland on I-68, even if that doesn’t result in a call to the fire department.
The problem isn’t limited to Cumberland. Shaft Volunteer Fire Department answers truck-fire and hot-brake calls in the Frostburg area, and there have been other fires east of the city near Rocky Gap State Park and in the Flintstone area.
The situations on Route 160 and I-68 are similar in some respects, but different in others.
In both cases, a combination of gravity and driver ignorance of the road ahead is responsible.
One experienced trucker told our reporter Jeffrey Alderton that many of the drivers who lose control and wreck or experience brake-related fires are “flatlanders” who are used to driving at high speeds on freeways elsewhere. When they come to the hills of Western Maryland and southwestern Pennsylvania, they are out of their element.
Another said they go downhill in too high a gear, depending upon their brakes to slow them down, but the brakes fail.
“It doesn’t take long to overheat when trucks are loaded,” he said, adding that “no amount of rules or regulations is going to help drivers who aren’t trained well.”
Where the situations differ is that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation did relatively little until recent months to do anything about Route 160. Maryland is far more vigilant about I-68.
Last January, PennDOT imposed a 13-ton weight limit on the Route 160 descent. It also has installed warning signs, flashing beacons and guardrails. Residents in that area differ in their opinions as to how effective those actions have been.
We and others have said that big rigs have no place coming down Route 160 into Wellersburg. There are other routes to take, and they may be longer but are far safer.
Before enacting the 13-ton weight limit, PennDOT had said it couldn’t ban tractor-trailers from the mountain because that would violate the rights of trucking companies.
That’s poppycock. Maryland had no qualms about establishing weight limits after horrific runaway truck accidents in Frostburg and Cumberland, and such limits exist in many other places.
To suggest that heavy trucks be banned on this part of I-68 would be absurd. This is a prime east-west route, and there are few suitable alternatives — if any.
Besides, as several veteran drivers told Alderton, I-68 can be driven safely by people who know their equipment and use it properly and drive prudently.
A major difference between I-68 and Route 160 was summed up by one Wellersburg area resident.
He said, “This (Wellersburg) is the bottom part of the state right next to Maryland. They don’t worry about this part of town. You very seldom see police down here.”
That’s not the case in our neck of the woods. Maryland State Police, Cumberland Police Department and Allegany County Sheriff’s Office cruisers are a common sight on I-68.
The state police weigh station at Finzel in Garrett County stopped and weighed nearly 47,000 trucks through the first eight months of the year — an average of nearly 6,000 a month, or almost 200 a day. More than 5,000 truck inspections have been performed in Allegany County.
State troopers have issued 100 speeding tickets for commercial motor vehicles on I-68 and another 182 warning and equipment repair orders.
The truck speed limit is 45 mph on the approach to Cumberland, and it becomes 40 mph when it enters the city. There is an abundance of signs warning about the steep grade ahead.
Most truckers obey those limits, but others do not — and they are the ones who are likely to experience brake failure and fires.
Stepping up the enforcement and issuing of fines for truckers who exceed the speed limits could have an effect, especially when the word gets around that roaring down the mountains on eastbound I-68 can cost you money.