TOO MANY TRUCKERS FIND NO ROOM AT THE INN

TOO MANY TRUCKERS FIND NO ROOM AT THE INN

Steve Koch is still shaking his head. A few weeks ago, the burly truck driver received a $60 ticket from a state trooper in southwestern Virginia because he tried to obey a federally mandated driving rule.

Koch, 57, was driving his semi-trailer along Interstate 81 early in the morning on Aug. 11 when he realized he needed to take a break to comply with U.S. Department of Transportation rules limiting commercial truck drivers to a maximum of 10 consecutive hours behind the wheel.He pulled into a rest area in historic Smyth County, slipped into a parking slot and turned off his engine. Sleep came easy. Koch was bone-weary driving the heavily traveled interstate.

Several hours later, he heard a sharp rap on his side window. A state trooper handed him a ticket for overstaying the rest area's two-hour nighttime parking limit. Still sleepy, Koch wrote out a check, started his rig and eased back into the endless stream of traffic.

Koch's plight is not unusual. A recent study done for the DOT by Apogee Research, a leading traffic-study firm, shows that 42 percent of the nation's 1,487 rest areas restrict the hours truck drivers may actually stop and rest. Most of those post a two-hour limit, although some allow trucks a four-hour berth. And less than half the parking spaces at the rest areas were available to trucks at all.

Neither restriction allows drivers to comply with the controversial hours-of service rule, which has not been altered since it was created in 1939. Under the rules, drivers today can be at the wheel for a 10-hour stretch and work another five hours loading or unloading freight before being required to take eight hours off.

Truck safety, it should be noted, is improving much faster than automobile safety. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show that the rate of fatal accidents involving commercial trucks dropped by 31 percent over the past decade, even though the miles traveled by trucks increased by more than 40 percent.

But rousting tired truckers from public rest areas because of some bureaucrat's decision to impose arbitrary time requirements does not sound like a brilliant safety policy. Neither does under-supplying the number of truck parking slots at public rest areas - in essence forcing many tired drivers to ''keep on trucking'' while looking for a safe haven to revitalize themselves.

The Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, after surveying 2,000 drivers, concluded the parking shortage had reached ''epidemic'' proportions. More than 90 percent of the drivers had difficulty finding parking in public rest areas at least once a week, while 25 percent had problems three times a week.

Even when drivers successfully found slots at rest areas, three-quarters said they had been awakened by state troopers and sent packing - even when it put them in violation of the federal hour-of-service rules.

One of the worst offenders is Virginia, where state police are under strict orders to enforce the short-term parking rules at interstate rest stops. The state has 40 of those, with a total of only 966 parking spaces available for truckers.

Ironically, Rep. Frank Wolf , a Republican from suburban northern Virginia, is leading a crusade to transfer federal jurisdiction over trucking from the Federal Highway Administration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Wolf, however, has been strangely silent about extending the hours that truck drivers may rest at Virginia truck stops, nor has he called for more funding to increase the number of parking slots for truckers.

Providing additional federal dollars is an obvious and quick solution to the problem. The total federal funding for rest area modifications, renovation and new construction has averaged a paltry $42 million a year since 1991. The DOT study projects the cost of doubling truck parking spaces at between $489 million and $629 million over a 10-year span - or $48.9 million to $62.9 million per year.

By federal standards, that's a pittance. It's an investment that the most affluent nation on Earth can easily afford to make, particularly during boom times.

It's time for Congress - and especially red-hot safety advocates like Wolf - to stand up and be counted. They can help reduce the nation's declining traffic fatality toll even more by providing truckers with adequate parking at interstate rest areas - the only ''room at the inn'' many truckers are likely to encounter as they deliver the nation's goods.