A series of articles on trucking that appeared in the Kansas City Star in December has struck a chord with many in trucking

Todd Spencer

The feature, written by one- time trucker and now journalist Judy Thomas, was called "Dead Tired," and many of the individual story titles were enough to make you wince in anguish. Obviously, fatigue was a major topic of the series, but other topics such as NAFTA, the shortage of rest areas and overall economics in trucking also were included. While I would like to have seen the articles more clearly or objectively describe who was really at fault in the majority of accidents between cars and trucks, that type of reporting seldom appears outside the trucking press because it doesn't bolster the argument for change in trucking. While there may be differences of opinion about what changes are needed in trucking, changes definitely are needed for safety reasons and for the long-term health of the industry. The structure of the industry today allows motor carriers' management to continuously seek out the absolute lowest cost workers to be drivers. Unfortunately, this "race to the bottom" has become the industry norm. Genuinely safety-minded carriers are at a tremendous economic disadvantage, and most drivers are stuck on an economic treadmill that will never slow down. Without significant change in core issues in trucking, the industry will always be an easy target for criticism. I talked to the reporter that wrote the articles. She told me that of the nearly 350 phone calls she had received about the piece, only 40 were negative or critical. The rest were positive. And the majority of comments received came from truckers. Reprinted here are my written comments to the Kansas City Star. As I write this column, the Star editorial page editor has notified us that a shortened version of my letter will appear in the paper.

Letter to the Editor:

I will give the Star and Judy Thomas high marks for raising serious issues about the trucking industry in its recent newspaper coverage, but the recommendations in the Star’s editorial of Dec. 18 would be largely ineffective in making highways safer.

Regardless of whether you believe the safety problems in trucking are large or small, those problems can never be corrected by more aggressive enforcement of rules and regulations that seriously miss the mark.

The best example of this is the hours-of-service regulations that were implemented in 1938. These were never safety regulations. They were labor regulations to keep trucking companies and shippers from pushing drivers to work around the clock. Those rules may have indirectly promoted safety six decades ago when they were implemented but not so today. Strict compliance with a trucker’s work routine of 10 hours on-duty followed by 8 hours off-duty will turn anyone into a zombie in a very short time and make them less safe drivers. Yes, these rules need to be updated, but the real fatigue issue in trucking is the 33 to 43 hours many drivers spend each week loading and unloading trucks. As long as drivers can be coerced or pressured into donating the equivalent of a full workweek to shippers and receivers, we will always have tired drivers. Federal regulators don’t have the authority to directly fix this problem, and lawmakers are hesitant to do so because their actions (although clearly needed) would be considered economic regulation — something that has been taboo in Washington since 1980.

There are scary parallels that exist in the evolution of the job of truckdriver with two other groups of workers in the news of recent days. Prior to September 11, airline security workers often were compensated at or slightly above minimum wage; they received inadequate or possibly no training. And they may have had criminal histories or not even be legal citizens. Now if their workweek were twice as long as the 40-hour norm and they handled baggage and then flew the plane, you have a pretty dramatic illustration of where trucking is headed.

The nation’s largest meat processor was just indicted on charges that it conspired to smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S. to work at its plants. The headline of the story was emblazoned with the words “Meatpacker’s Profits Hinge on Pool of Immigrant Labor.” What that means, of course, is low cost, easily exploitable workers. When you exhaust the supply of U.S. workers that are willing to work ultra-cheap, you must reach out to third-world countries. Immigrants have been recruited by U.S. trucking companies (both legally and illegally) for more than a decade. Many of these drivers don’t speak English, a requirement of federal trucking regulations that is largely ignored by enforcement officials. The only reason this is a topic in Washington now is because news sources discovered that aliens from countries that sponsor terrorism were entering the United States and getting trucking licenses to haul hazardous materials.

The structure of trucking is so loose almost anyone from anywhere can obtain a commercial drivers license — even one with a hazardous materials endorsement —with very little effort. No experience or training is required.

And once you get that commercial license, far too many trucking companies are willing to gamble that nothing too bad or too expensive will happen. Sometimes they lose this gamble with tragic consequences. On Jan. 16, 2001, a mentally ill person intentionally drove a tractor-trailer at 70 mph into the state capitol building in California killing himself in the process, but fortunately only causing property damage of some $16 million to the structure. The trailer was loaded with canned evaporated milk. Imagine what the devastation might have been had the load been hazardous materials or something explosive.

Was this a small company or a new company as some contend break the rules? No, the truck was operated by the 21st largest publicly traded truckload carrier in the country, according to analysts at Bear Stearns.

This incident is being used as justification for more stringent required background checks of drivers. The company’s own background check failed to uncover time spent in prison and in mental hospitals going back to 1986, according to published reports. Those published reports also say the trucking company ignored their driver trainer’s emphatic assertions that the mentally ill driver be fired — a prophetic determination the trainer had made after spending just 90 minutes with the driver!

The scary reality in trucking is that far too many trucking companies give little more than lip service to driver qualifications when they have a truck parked. And there are lots of trucks parked right now, but not because of a driver shortage. Trucking has been in a recession for more than 18 months. During that time, more than 200,000 large trucks have been repossessed. That’s roughly 10 percent of all the big trucks in the nation.

In the overall scheme of things, the majority of today’s truckdrivers do an admirable job of delivering the goods we are all totally dependent upon to maintain our quality of life. But if some of these economic circumstances aren’t changed, we as a society may not always be so fortunate. Yes, governments should play a more vigorous role in truck safety and in auto safety, too. But if those efforts don’t address the core problems in the industry, those efforts could actually make the safety issues worse, not better. n

Todd Spencer
Executive Vice President
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association