Issues & Positions
Just whose side are these people on, anyway?

Jim Johnston
President OOIDA

My editorial in the May issue of Land Line was a reprint of the comments I delivered as one of the keynote speakers before the International Truck and Bus Safety Research and Policy Symposium in Knoxville, TN. The main point of my comments was that future efforts at addressing commercial vehicle safety issues should be focused on the root causes of highway safety problems.

I made the point that ever-increasing levels of enforcement directed almost exclusively against professional truckers on the road have accomplished little in the way of improved commercial vehicle safety. That, in fact, the continued focus on more and more enforcement against drivers was counterproductive in that it was a contributing factor in the decision of many good, professional drivers to leave the industry rather than continue to work in a profession where they were the focus of special enforcement efforts as though they were the villains, criminals or second-class citizens.

Another speaker on the agenda was William Canary, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations (ATA). Unfortunately but predictably, Canary was singing the same old song that his predecessors at ATA have been singing for the past decade and a half - more and stricter enforcement against drivers. This time, the tune was for focused enforcement against commercial drivers for traffic law violations, particularly speeding. I guess the theory here is if they have an army of police officers dedicated to overseeing drivers’ activities out on the road, then his members will have no need to be responsible for their hiring practices; they can just put any warm body behind the wheel. The cops will provide the supervision and weed out the bad ones with citations and disqualifications.

Fortunately, the folks at the symposium were pretty sharp. They didn’t buy into this old, worn-out tune. They did, in fact, focus on some of the root causes of highway safety problems. The top three recommendations from the 290 experts in attendance all addressed the need for training and education. Not only mandatory training for entry level commercial drivers but also training and education of the general driving public in interacting and sharing the road with trucks. They even included a recommendation for standardized training of law enforcement officials.

Also included was a recommendation for enforcement strategies that included not just the driver “but others such as carries, brokers, shippers and receivers who may dictate or affect the drivers’ behavior” and a recommendation for hours-of-service regulations that more realistically reflect long-haul driving conditions. There were 24 recommendations in total, not all of which we are in agreement with. None of the recommendations, however, included increased enforcement focused on professional drivers.

Unfortunately, ATA’s ill-conceived agenda isn’t limited to its efforts to divert highway tax dollars to funding of enforcement efforts against us. They are now busily at work trying to obtain federal funding for themselves and their agenda under the guise of aiding in the war against terrorism. Calling themselves America’s Trucking Army (ATA?), they have developed what they call “the American trucking industry’s anti-terrorism action plan.” Sounds like a really noble and patriotic effort. That is until, as Paul Harvey would say, you read the “rest of the story.”

We (OOIDA) were invited to and did participate in the early discussions of this effort. We participated because we were advised it would be a joint industry effort to address means of dealing with a potential terrorist threat that might involve the use of commercial vehicles as weapons of mass destruction. We pulled out when we discovered that ATA was attempting to promote its own self-serving agenda through fear-mongering tactics aimed at convincing the government that truck bomb attacks were not only possible but almost an absolute certainty. The draft report, for example, contains comments such as “truck bombs are the poor man’s B-52 bomber and cruise missile rolled into one, able to deliver 40 tons” (sounds like an overload to me) of “precision guided munitions” in a “single attack to targets all across the U.S.”

This statement is followed by two pictures: one of a B-52 bomber flying over a city with the caption “B-52 delivers 2,000 pounds of precision munitions per bomb within 10 meters,” and the other is a picture of a parked truck (obviously not a company truck) with the caption “18-wheeler delivers 40,000 pounds of precision munitions per bomb within 10 meters.” This is followed with comments that include “the cost of inaction will be dramatic.”

There is no doubt that the potential exists for the use of trucks as weapons of mass destruction or that such use could have devastating consequences. It happened in Oklahoma, not with an 18-wheeler, but with a rented straight truck. And, it’s happened in other parts of the world as well. The fact is, however, that car bombs have been far more common than truck bombs because they are much less conspicuous. The industry does need to be alert to and guard against such possibility in any way reasonably possible. This potential should not, however, be used to spread further irrational fear of trucks and truck drivers in order to solicit federal funding and promote existing agenda items that are conveniently re-cloaked to appear to fit into anti-terrorism tactics.

What is the agenda? If the price is right, ATA, through its highway watch program, will enlist, train, mobilize and monitor “America’s Trucking Army” consisting of 3.1 million professional drivers and 200,000 truckstop employees as the nation’s eyes and ears on the highways to guard against terrorist activities. The ATA’s highway watch program is currently funded through a grant from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

In addition to FMCSA funding, ATA is requesting a grant from the Office of Homeland Security to add this security component to their existing highway watch program. They also would like a few little legislative incentives such as:

  • Legislation to set limits on liability caused by acts of terrorism;
  • Legislation authorizing trucking industry representatives to be fully informed on the results of any (criminal) background checks (of drivers) with regard to hiring and retention decisions; and,
  • (Legislation to) identify appropriate security expenses eligible for funding or tax credits.

An important part of the ATA agenda is support for a national ID card for professional drivers tied to criminal background checks and utilizing “smart card” technology and a biometric identifier. I guess technology now allows us to go beyond the old number-tattooed-on-the-forearm system. While the proposal suggests that the background check and national ID cards could be administered by either private industry or government, we know that ATA has been floating a proposal through which they would be involved in administering the program and receive additional funding. In my view, their closer affiliation with DAC Services who recently located an office within the ATA headquarters building is no coincidence.

As if all of this were not enough to raise serious questions about who ATA actually does represent, they have not yet taken a position in support of mandatory fuel surcharge legislation. Even though ATA’s previously stated position on the fuel surcharge was that they were neutral, we were aware that they were quietly lobbying behind the scenes in opposition, apparently in deference to a few of their large members who oppose it.

Considering the devastating effects on the industry over the past two years caused by increased fuel costs and the industry’s inability to recoup those costs, ATA’s position, in my view, is incomprehensible. It is even more incomprehensible when you consider the current volatility in the Middle East and the strong likelihood that world events could trigger further disruptions to fuel supplies and pricing. This type of occurrence, without a mechanism in place to recoup increased fuel costs, would be the last straw for many in the industry currently struggling to survive.

I still haven’t figured out whose side ATA is on or whose interest they actually do represent. It is very obvious, though, that they do not represent the broad general interest of the trucking industry and it’s about time the industry, particularly their dues-paying members, wake up and demand accountability.