Substantial economic deregulation of the trucking industry could have a serious side-effect on highway safety, according to an extraordinary survey of some 12,000 truckers.

According to the study by Harvard Business School professor Daryl Wyckoff, the results "could very realistically be used to show that continued economic regulation would be in order, and raises questions about the unregulated sector."

Perhaps the most alarming revelation in the responses to the detailed 4-page questionnaire is the correlation between economic regulation and driver safety.

"There is in fact a significant correlation between economic regulation and motor carrier safety," says Dr. Wycoff. "When you look at these figures that is the only conclusion you can reach."

Wycoff's survey, which was equally divided among owner operators and company drivers, shows that drivers working for regulated carriers drive slower and are considerably more likely to follow safety rules because they are usually watched by the firms they work for.

For example, the study shows that exempt drivers who are not regulated, cruise at an average of about 63 mph, while the average cruising speed for regulated drivers is about 59.5 mph.

In addition, exempt drivers reported that they had been ticketed for moving violations almost twice as many times as regulated drivers.

"There is a lot of argument today over whether or not economic regulation is sufficient," Wycoff said in a telephone interview. "We have discovered that is the effective way of enforcing safety regulations."

Part of the reason the regulated carriers do better on safety statistics is the fact that they are better paid than most independents, Wycoff says.

"Where drivers make enough, they can afford to be safe," he says. "Under the regulated enviornment they can afford to be safe, while many of the unregulated cannot."

Among the most ignored federal safety rules are the "hours of service" rules, which requires that a driver may work only ten continuous hours and then must have eight uninterrupted hours of rest. Enforcement of those rules is based on an honor system, and periodic checking of log books kept by drivers.

"The results of our survey show clearly that voluntary compliance is working relatively well in the case of regulated common carriers." Wycoff said, "while at the other end of the scale, safety rules are being blatantly circumvented."

Wycoff called the results "a sad commentary on the enforcement procedures in the trucking industry." His figures show that about a third of the exempt drivers keep multiple log books - one showing their real hours and the other showing hours that would be in compliance with safety laws.

Almost half of the exempt drivers told Wycoff that they "regularly" drive beyond the 10-hour limit, while only about 10 percent of the more regulated drivers say they did.

Federal motor carrier safety regulation is handled by a branch of the Department of Transportation called the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety, under the Federal Highway Administration.

Wycoff points out that his study produced results in direct contradiction to BMCS data that regulated carriers have higher accident rate figures than non-regulated carriers.

In the Harvard study, exempt drivers reported having almost three times the number of accidents as regulated carrier drivers.

"My interpretation," says Wycoff, "of the conflict between the BMCS data and what the drivers told us is quite simple. The only people playing by the rules of reporting accidents when they are supposed to (when property damage or personal injury exceeds $200) are the regulated and private companies. The owner-operator, by his own admission, has a higher accident rate. The only time he reports an accident is when he has a major disaster."

At the root of the problem, Wycoff says, is the seemingly impossible task of regulating trucker safety. "DOT can't enforce safety," he says, "because there are too many drivers and too few people in enforcement."

Wycoff said that regulated drivers and their companies worry about losing their certificate to operate in a regulated area (given them by the Interstate Commerce Commission). Because they must demonstrate that they are "fit and able," many regulated truckers encourage driver safety.

But the unregulated truckers told Wycott that unrealistic scheduling by dispatchers was one of the reasons they had to disobey safety rules.

But most drivers (51 pecent) said they exceeded the 10-hour limit because they "needed the money."

A highly respected researcher, Wycoff took great pains to insure the objectivity of his study, which was sent to 65,000 people. Considerating the size of the questionnaire (178 questions), the 12,000 responses to a special post office box represented "a tremendous turnout," he said.

The survey showed younger drivers also relying more heavily on pep pills. He said 34 percent of the under-25-year-old drivers used amphetimines, while 27 percent of he 25-50-year-olds and 9 percent of the over-50s said they used "uppers."

One alarming fact uncovered by the survey, Wycoff said, was the number of drivers who admitted to having fallen asleep on the road while driving with hazardous materials (2.5 percent said "regularly," 1.6 percent said "sometimes.") Oddly enough, drivers who said they did not transport hazardous materials said they fell asleep fewer times than those who transported dangerous substances.

But the major lesson of the study is that the best weapon of the enforcement of truck safety standards we have is the present economic regulation, Wycoff said.

"Before we deregualte anything, we better come up with an effective means of enforcing safety," he said.

Although he conceeds that economic regulation is not designed to be, nor should be, a safety enforcement administration. Wycoff points to the fact that more than 5 percent of the exempted truckers said they were over two months late on their truck payment - a considerable amount of time.

"When a man's back is against the wall, and he is desperate," Wycoff says, "he is going to cut corners for survival. I can't blame the drivers who in their sincerity have told me of their plight. They must have the opportunity to make a decent living and at the same time follow the law."