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I'm sure it's no secret to professional truckers that for the past decade or so, roadside inspections have been the primary focus of commercial vehicle enforcement activities. In fact, federal funding to the states to conduct those inspection activities has increased steadily from $8 million a year in 1984 to $90 million for 1999. The number of commercial vehicle roadside inspections conducted currently exceeds two million a year.

You know, I know, and believe it or not, the U.S. Department of Transportation who is charged with allocating those funds and setting commercial vehicle enforcement priorities also knows, that vehicle defects are contributing factors in only a very small percentage of accidents involving commercial vehicles. (DOT estimates between 5 percent and 15 percent. I am certain 5 percent is on the high side, if we're talking about defects that are a significant factor in causing the accident.) They also know that in fact, in the vast majority of accidents involving collisions between trucks and four-wheelers (approximately 78 percent), it's the driver of the four-wheeler who was at fault and not the trucker.

DOT's latest report on this subject points out some interesting statistics that will be of no surprise to professional truckers.

  • In fatal accidents between trucks and passenger vehicles, truck driver errors were cited as factors in only 28 percent of the accidents, while passenger vehicle driver's errors were cited as factors in 80 percent of the accidents. (Total exceeds 100 percent because, in some cases, factors were assigned to both drivers.)
  • Based on miles traveled, passenger vehicles are twice as likely to be involved in a crash resulting in a nonfatal injury than were large trucks.
  • Only 1 percent of truckdrivers, compared to 18 percent for passenger cars and 20 percent for light trucks (pickups, etc.), were intoxicated at the time of the accident.
  • In head-on crashes, the passenger vehicle crossed the centerline into the truck's path in 89 percent of accidents, compared to 11 percent of accidents where the trucks encroached into the path of the passenger vehicle.
  • In rear-end fatal crashes, the passenger vehicles ran into the rear-end of trucks four times more often than trucks rear-ended passenger vehicles.
  • In sideswipe accidents, the passenger vehicle encroached into the truck's lane more than seven times as often as the truck encroached into the passenger vehicle's lane.

Considering all of this, the logical question is, then why the hell is all the money (our tax dollars) being spent on roadside inspections instead of addressing the real problems? The answer is politics, or more precisely, political pressure. Without fail, every time a major tragic incident occurs that attracts national media attention, our elected officials begin scrambling to see who can be the first to introduce new legislation to fix this new perceived threat to humanity. Unfortunately, they usually do this with little, if any, knowledge of what actually caused the problem, what the best solutions would be, or what the long-term consequences of their actions will be. Most often, the problems don't get resolved and the long-term consequences are unnecessary costs and continuing erosion of more and more of our rights and freedoms.

We see regular examples of this phenomenon–most recently, the tragic shootings in Colorado and the Amtrak/Truck collision in Illinois. The Colorado incident will likely result in more gun control and metal detectors in school entrances, which will do more to contribute to a growing paranoia than solving the problem. In the Illinois Amtrak accident, Michigan Gov. Tommy Thompson (whose night job is Chairman of the Board of Amtrak) was in the news blaming the trucker, almost before the wreckage had cooled, and within days politicians in Washington began screaming for stiffer penalties against truckers violating rail-crossing controls. Witnesses apparently have now confirmed that the trucker did not drive around the gates as originally believed. I have yet to hear any of these politicians asking why these trains, with no stopping ability, are allowed to run 80 miles an hour in areas with rail sidings and busy grade crossings.

You may recall, even closer to home, it was an Amtrak collision with another train a few years ago, where one of the engineers was found to have been using drugs that brought us mandatory drug testing regulations; and a subway collision in New York, where the engineer was intoxicated, that added alcohol testing for millions of transportation workers.

It seems the most important criteria for these political "solutions" is not that they solve the problems, but rather that they are visible and create the perception that the politicians are doing something to justify their positions and earn their pay. Truck safety inspections are visible.

We tend to blame the folks at DOT for much of the unnecessary harassment that truckers are subjected to on the road by law enforcement and commercial vehicle inspectors. But the fact is, while many of them are aware of what the real problems and solutions are, they are subjected to political pressure to pursue those less productive, but more visible solutions, initiated by the politicians.

One other important aspect of this problem is that when big bucks are allocated to chasing all of these perceived political solutions, whole new industries are built with a dependence on the continued flow of those big bucks. Drug testing laboratories are one example. Another that you might not expect, is the commercial vehicle inspection and enforcement industry. A very large portion of that $90 million I mentioned previously goes to pay the wages of state commercial vehicle enforcement officers. They even have their own association. It's called The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), and they have a very strong vested interest in keeping an ever-increasing level of bucks flowing toward commercial vehicle inspections and enforcement. If you find lots of defects and put large numbers of trucks out of service, you must be performing a really valuable function.

Much of the discussion in Washington, as mentioned elsewhere in this issue, deals with whether or not to establish a separate independent trucking administration within the DOT. OOIDA is supporting this initiative because we feel that consolidating all trucking-related oversight functions within a single administrative agency with similar prominence afforded to the railroads through the Federal Railroad Administration, and the airlines through the Federal Aviation Administration, will afford a much greater opportunity to support and conduct the necessary research and consolidation of resources to focus on the real problems and solutions. There are no guarantees of course, because the political and other outside pressures will always be a factor. But a stable administrative agency (with more prominence and maybe even a little less subject to political change) would have to be far better than what we have now.

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