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Published October 07 2009

Forum editorial: Beet truck fatal sends a message

The fatal accident a few days ago involving a sugar beet truck is not the norm during the annual harvest. Fatal accidents during the beet harvest are relatively rare. Only a handful have occurred in the decades the beet industry has been in the Red River Valley.

Nevertheless, one fatality is too many. In the most recent case, it appears the driving record of the beet truck operator should have raised a red flag. That didn’t happen, and a tragedy was the result.

One unqualified driver does not constitute a sweeping indictment of all beet truck drivers, but it does suggest some drivers should not be behind the wheel of big, heavy rigs. Many are not professional drivers. They hop into the cab for the few weeks of the beet harvest. They are not required to have a commercial driver’s license, the gold standard for determining if a driver is qualified to handle a semi. The beet industry long ago obtained CDL waivers from North Dakota and Minnesota (under a federal law exemption). Traffic enforcement agencies, specifically highway patrols in both states, believe the lower standard for part-time beet truck drivers is dangerous.

Some drivers have the CDL. The industry and farmers have at least three ways to secure drivers: contracting with a company that specializes in the beet harvest; hiring temporary drivers at individual farms; using farmer-owned trucks and year-round farm employees to drive. But during beet harvest, the safety and qualification rules required of truck drivers do not apply.

The industry is reluctant to tighten rules for drivers because securing drivers during harvest is getting more difficult every year. The harvest is time- and weather-sensitive, so having as many drivers as possible during peak harvest time is vital to the campaign. And there has been a decline in serious crashes in recent years, attributable to education efforts by traffic enforcement agencies and growers.

That being said, the beet harvest in the valley generates a lot of truck traffic at night on mud-slicked rural and urban roadways. Conditions frequently are dangerous, even for the most experienced truck driver. Amateurs behind the wheel almost guarantee accidents.

No industry, no matter how important to the regional economy, should minimize death or injury that results from the industry’s direct or associated activities. The valley sugar beet industry has made great strides in reducing truck-related accidents. But as long as truck driver rules are so relaxed as to be almost meaningless, the industry will get the rap when accidents happen.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.