The issue of black boxes on commercial trucks and Freightliner President Jim Hebe's endorsement of that concept has generated more response than any other issue I have written about over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, we were only able to reprint a small number of those responses in this issue of Land Line. It is glaringly obvious though, that truckers have no intention of standing by passively while more and more of their rights and freedoms are eroded away in the ill-conceived guise of improving highway safety.
Among those responses was a four-page letter from Mr. Hebe. Again, because of space limitations, we were unable to reprint the entire letter with my response in this issue. I do think it is important, though, to share with you some of Mr. Hebe's more relevant comments, along with my response to those comments.
The letter opens with the stated intention of correcting "the numerous mistakes" in my column and to comment on my opinions. The first mistake pointed out was that these are "data logging units (not black boxes)." Okay..?
Hebe goes on to mention that Freightliner first became involved with the federal government in this area in 1998. Specifically, he says, "when the secretary of transportation asked the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Mr. James Hall, to initiate action that would serve to reduce by 50 percent in 10 years the number of truck-related fatalities in the United States." Something must have been lost in the translation here because NTSB does not have the power to initiate actions or regulatory changes. That power rests with the secretary of transportation. NTSB can only conduct investigations and make recommendations.
Hebe then states, "With Freightliner's reputation as the industry's safety technology leader, Chairman Hall visited us to learn what we are doing today and what technology can be adopted on board trucks to enhance their safety and, most importantly, what he and the government can do to encourage and foster its implementation." Interestingly, it is now NTSB Chairman Jim Hall who is the strongest proponent of a government mandate for black box technology on all commercial trucks.
Hebe pointed out that Freightliner is not alone in its position on data recorders. That the newly inaugurated chairman of the American Trucking Associations, Lee Shaffer, in his acceptance speech, supported the adoption of recorders in exchange for operating incentives or productivity enhancements.
"As with us (Freightliner) and the NTSB," said Hebe, "the ATA is more interested in 'a level playing field' among other vehicles. That is, if we put recorders on trucks, then they must also be mandated on trains, buses and passenger cars to ensure fairness and equality."
Excuse me, but the suggestion that everyone else should also be subjected to an outrageous and intrusive system of electronic surveillance does not make me feel a bit better about surrendering my own rights or those of hundreds of thousands of professional truckers.
In addition, Mr. Hebe knows full well that the government will not, in the foreseeable future, get away with mandating these intrusive systems on the general public. If this were the case, passenger car drivers would already be required to submit to warrantless searches, random roadside inspections, random drug and alcohol testing, restrictions on driving and work times and the maintenance of log sheets detailing every minute detail of their entire daily activities - all of which truckers are subjected to on a daily basis.
While there are many comments in Hebe's letter that I view as outrageous, the following tops the list and probably provides the greatest insight to his distorted (or perhaps just self-serving) line of reasoning.
"Certainly, you must know that your position is totally indefensible and leads the public to believe that we have something to hide or that we are afraid to have exposed. Trust me, in public or in print, saying no to exposing the facts, regardless of our reasons, is interpreted by everyone outside the industry or inside of government as wanting to conceal otherwise damaging information. It's like taking the Fifth Amendment, the intent is noble, but the perception is conclusively negative. So, in today's environment, being positive to data recorders given the right circumstances or saying nothing are the only two public positions that can be taken that helps our industry's image - your position is obviously degrading to the public safety image of the entire industry."
I suppose under this philosophy, if we all wanted to go search Mr. Hebe's house or office, or subject him to electronic surveillance it would be perfectly fine with him. After all, if he objected, it would appear as though he had something to hide.
Fortunately, although Mr. Hebe casually dismissed both the First and Fifth Amendments in the same paragraph, we do still have the constitutional right to free speech. We also have the right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unwarranted government intrusion.
History is full of examples of people seeing something wrong and keeping their mouth shut, simply because they think they will be perceived in a negative light for their dissenting view. This happened a lot in Germany (the home country of Freightliner's parent company) during the 1930s and '40s.
In support of our constitutional rights, no one should ever be intimidated by public pressure or negative perceptions when they choose to speak out.
I damned sure won't be.