A Congressional proposal to make big trucks even bigger is the focus of a growing debate on Capitol Hill. Supporters say it makes financial sense, but families who have lost loved ones to truck collisions say the bigger trucks are dangerous. Washington bureau reporter Geoff Bennett filed the following report.
Santiago Calderon is a survivor. In April 2014, he was on a chartered tour bus loaded with Southern California high school students headed to a college tour when a FedEx double tractor-trailer veered across a median and rammed their bus head-on. Ten people died in the crash.
"I felt so helpless," Calderon said. "I couldn't help anybody on that bus, and I wanted to so bad. And I had to live with that guilt for a while. I still do."
Calderon and dozens of other truck crash victims and their families are on Capitol Hill this week. They're harnessing their grief to push for tougher truck safety rules.
On Thursday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a bipartisan bill to spend up to $325 billion on transportation projects over the next six years. But safety advocates say the bill includes provisions that will make the country's roads and highways less safe.
The legislation and other proposals moving through Congress could ease requirements on truckers, allowing some drivers to log more hours, permitting 18-year-olds to drive 18-wheelers, and letting longer and heavier rigs on the road.
"The safety title of the bill is loaded down with special interest earmarks and giveaways to trucking industry lobbyists. At a time when highway and truck crash deaths and injuries are climbing, this bill is a safety setback," said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Some shipping and trucking companies say bigger trucks are better for the economy and environment because fewer will be on the roads.
But the families say the consequences would be deadly.
Jackie Novak's only child, Charles Novak, was one of five people killed after a speeding 18-wheeler slammed into a line of stopped traffic on North Carolina's I-26. He was 22 years old. Charles' girlfriend, Theresa Seaver, also died in the crash.
"A tractor trailer driven by a tired trucker came barreling in, hit the car behind them, knocked her out of the way, ran over their Ford Explorer, dragged them as it hit 14 more vehicles and proceeded to go through the guard rail – with them – into the other lane," said Jackie Novak.
"He and I were very close," said Michelle Novak about her nephew, affectionately known as "Chuck." "Everyone looked to him as a protector because he was 6'5'' and a very big guy -- but a gentle giant type of thing. Just a sweet, curious, quizzical kind of guy. Loved to laugh."
The truck driver involved in the crash was charged with five counts of involuntary manslaughter, as well as other charges for having falsified records and for having an improper medical certificate.
The Novaks are just one of the many families dealing with unimaginable loss. They say they want to spare others from the grief they've endured.
"There's no way you can have that happen in your family and go on with your life as it was," said Michelle Novak. "Advocacy is the only way we can hold it together really. It's very empowering. It's a redemptive way of handling it."
"Just to save one life," said Jackie Novak, "to save one parent from coming here and having to do this."