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TRUCKER LICENSE IDEA GOES TOO FAR

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A push at the federal level to get unsafe truck drivers off the road is bogged down in some states, and federal officials estimate as many as a third of a million truck drivers could lose their driving privileges because of the delays.

Utah is one of only seven states that has geared up to issue the new commercial license. Ten states haven't passed laws establishing the licensing program at their end yet and appear hopelessly behind in meeting an April 1992 deadline for the standardized licensing of commercial drivers.The federally approved commercial license program was initiated to get unsafe truckers off the road. Truckers who lost their license in one state for driving or substance abuse violations simply went to another state and obtained a new one.

Some were carrying as many as 10 or 12, federal investigators found, continuing to drive and endanger motorists long after they should have been yanked from behind the wheel.

The fears were well founded. A study of fatal accidents found that although large trucks account for only 4.5 percent of the nation's traffic on highways, they are involved in 10 percent of the fatalities.

Getting drunk and incompetent truckers off the road is a laudable goal. But as happens too often in federal programs, what started out as a good idea is being pushed to the point where it turns bad.

Overzealous federal regulators have expanded the definition of a commercial driver beyond interstate truckers.

As a result, volunteers who have been driving passenger vans and delivering meals to the homebound in senior citizen programs must also obtain a federally approved commercial license.

Many volunteers have decided it's not worth the effort. The test, both written and driving, is difficult and time-consuming. It covers situations and requires knowledge that the driver of a small passenger van, shuttling some senior citizens to their local center for a hot lunch and socializing, will never encounter.

These volunteers have demonstrated they are willing to go an extra step and have complied with existing state requirements for a chauffer's license. That level of licensing has proved to be adequate and should remain as the standard.