PICK ALMOST any day on any highway in this region, and you may wind up in a convoy of trash and garbage trucks. It's bad enough to be smothered by this rolling refuse imported from other states, but when so many of the trucks are found by authorities to be unsafe and overloaded, that's piling on. Big tickets are in order. The number of safety violations being turned up by inspectors is high, as evidenced by recent checks that police and sheriff's offices have been making. Just this week, Virginia State Police found dozens of unfit trucks, with violations including nonfunctioning brakes and overweight loads.

On Monday, inspectors along Interstate 95, Route 1 and a section of Route 234 in Prince William County focused mostly on garbage haulers. Their inspections of 138 trucks turned up 112 with violations, and the police wound up ordering 30 percent of the inspected trucks "out of service" on the spot. While Virginia is the second-largest importer of waste in the country (Pennsylvania is first), several states along the East Coast have been cracking down on haulers this year. Overloads are a huge problem, because most of the hauling companies get paid by the ton. As a result, reports Tom Smith, chief of Prince William's solid waste division, "The more they can cram in the trucks, the more they can make."

Truck safety needs greater federal as well as local attention -- from stepped-up inspections of vehicles and their loads to policing of log books. In a better world, the trucks also would have lanes of their own, separating them from smaller vehicles. But absent such special lanes, trucks must share the roads, not hog them.