With only eight inspectors, the Utah Department of Transportation's Safety Division can't possibly inspect all 8,000 trucking companies that operate in the state. As a result, there are too many defective trucks and incompetent drivers on the roads.

That's the assessment of the state legislative auditor general, who also criticized the division this week for not focusing first on companies with the poorest safety records, for not having a system to determine when action needs to be taken against violators, and for failure to follow up when disciplinary action has been taken to make sure changes were made.The study pointed to several accidents and deaths that might have been averted if inspectors had examined certain companies and uncovered a variety of violations.

Clearly, the state needs a better-defined program. The Safety Division already is drawing up a rating system to identify companies that are more likely to be unsafe.

But procedures are only part of the problem. With only a handful of inspectors, it takes seven or eight years to get around to every trucking firm. This is one area where the state could use more employees.

However, if budgets are cut by successful tax limitation proposals, there may not be more inspectors. In fact, it may be difficult to keep the Safety Division going at all.

Under present law, the Safety Division is due to expire at the end of the fiscal year. It takes an act of the Legislature to renew the division's operating charter. The temptation to let it lapse under the pressure of budget-cutting could be too much to overcome.

Yet the legislative auditor general has recommended that the division be continued. Without it, Utah's trucks will be a lot more dangerous on the state's highways. The division should be continued and its staff given more help.