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Diminishing returns

Jim Johnston
President OOIDA

On April 3, OOIDA President Jim Johnston was a keynote speaker at the International Truck and Bus Safety Research and Policy Symposium in Knoxville, TN. Here is his speech in its entirety.

I would like to begin by quoting to you from an article in Traffic World Magazine that I feel is extremely relevant to the issue of commercial vehicle safety. The article states:

“A five-day road check at U.S. Highway 1 in Woodbridge, VA, found that nearly 20 percent of the trucks inspected were in such bad shape they had to be taken off the road.”

The most alarming part of the story was that the majority of vehicles were placed out of service for defective brakes. That is a truly shocking statistic that should cause a great deal of concern and spur strong efforts to correct this dangerous problem.

I’m not sure exactly what immediate steps were taken to address the problem because at the time I had a lot of things on my mind other than the politics surrounding commercial vehicle safety. Before you get the impression that I really couldn’t be very concerned about highway safety, I should mention that in June of 1962 when that story appeared in Traffic World I was only 23 years old and just starting my career as a truckdriver.

While I still don’t know what immediate steps were taken to address the problem in 1962, I do know a great deal about what has happened since that time. In the late ’60s, jurisdiction over commercial vehicle safety enforcement was removed from the Interstate Commerce Commission and placed with the then newly formed U.S. Department of Transportation. Primary jurisdiction was taken on by the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety, a division of the Federal Highway Administration. While the department’s name has changed a bit over the years and most recently it has gained the status of becoming a separate administration, the primary mission of promoting and enforcing commercial vehicle safety has remained the same.

Unfortunately, the overall philosophy of how this mission is to be accomplished also has not changed much over the years. Enforcement is the name of the game. If that doesn’t work and the problems don’t get resolved, then the solution is more and stronger enforcement. If it still doesn’t work, the solution is new and innovative methods of enforcement. Now, many new and exciting opportunities are being considered and promoted to increase enforcement through the use of electronic technology. If that doesn’t work either, we can at least be consoled that the rapid development of new technologies will allow almost an endless supply of new and more intrusive enforcement systems until we are imposing virtually 24-hour-a-day electronic surveillance on commercial drivers.

There is a price to pay for this philosophy of blindly pushing ahead with continuously increasing enforcement. Obviously the millions of dollars invested every year in this effort is a stiff price, but even more significant is the rule of diminishing returns. Diminishing returns in this case result from the negative impact these ever-increasing levels of enforcement have on professional drivers and the substantial roll it plays in influencing many of them to exit the business. These professionals who, by the way, are at least as concerned and have far more at stake than most in improved highway safety, instead of being considered partners in the effort find themselves the unjustified target of the effort.

In fact, at times it even goes beyond simply being targeted. Truckers often find themselves being villainized by enforcement agencies and others in order to further their own agenda, such as to justify increased funding of enforcement budgets, or as in the recent example of California Highway Patrol Commissioner Spike Helmick, who referred to truckers as “these clowns,” perhaps even for political or public relations motives. According to the Los Angeles Times story that quoted his comment, Helmick said in a memo to his 6,700 officers that the CHP has an image problem when it comes to enforcing the traffic laws on truckers. Helmick’s campaign to target truckers would be kicked off with a media event with the top three CHP officers personally issuing tickets to truckers and according to press reports would be partially funded by a $1.3 million federal grant.

There are many other examples from around the country that would take far too much time to list here today. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the idiot from Missouri who somehow got elected to the state Senate. After failing in an attempt to gain passage of his legislation reducing truck speed limits in the state and increasing truck fuel taxes, the fees for truck registration and the cost of commercial drivers’ licenses, Sen. Ken Jacob made reference to truckers in debate over an unrelated bill.

The bill being debated was to prohibit open containers of alcohol in vehicles. According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Jacob’s word for word quote from the tape of the Senate floor debate was:

“I like to have these open containers in my car because one of these days when one of those trucks goes by I’m going to hurl that beer bottle at that truck.”–Sen. Jacob

He further stated that the real threat to highway safety wasn’t open containers, but speeding trucks.

I have been told that all good story plots must somehow incorporate the three Vs. That is villain, victim and vindicator. I suppose this must apply as well if you run an agency seeking increased funding or if you are simply trying to cover your political behind and looking for the easy way out or maybe if you’re just stupid and don’t like trucks. As I mentioned, there are numerous other examples in both state and federal forums that seem to come in an almost constant drumbeat depicting truckers as careless, reckless, irresponsible lawbreakers in need of stringent, targeted enforcement.

Does all of this flurry of hamster cage activity result in improved commercial vehicle safety? It absolutely does not. In my opinion, the result is a negative impact on safety. The exodus of thousands of good, hardworking professional drivers who are sick and tired of being treated as second-class citizens or worse finding themselves targeted for enforcement in every jurisdiction they pass through is a substantial loss to the industry and to the effort to improve commercial vehicle safety.

There is no pool of well-trained replacements to fill the seats of the experienced professionals who leave because amazingly there is no required training to become a truckdriver. The new, inexperienced replacements will unfortunately spend their first few years as I did —learning everything the hard way through experience. This is where the diminishing returns turn into negative returns.

Since that story in 1962, many hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in commercial vehicle inspections and enforcement and it should be of interest to note that the latest commercial vehicle out-of-service figures from CVSA are 24 percent total out-of-service rate and 49.3 percent of those for brake problems. Is it just my imagination or is there something wrong with this picture?

States are now preparing to invest millions of dollars in infrared technology that will enable them to spot brake problems as trucks go by on the highway. This may allow them to generate a lot more ticket revenue and make the general public think they are doing something about “those dangerous trucks” but it will do nothing to address the problem! Would it not make more sense to invest some of these resources in the research necessary to develop efficient, dependable brake systems that are less prone to maintenance problems? Does anybody really believe that a large percentage of truckers are knowingly and intentionally running around out there with dangerously defective brakes?

A little over a decade ago, millions of professional truckers along with other transportation workers suffered a substantial attack on their personal liberty when they were forced to submit to invasive drug testing requirements. The motivating factor for this unjustified invasion of their liberty was a collision between a freight train and an Amtrak passenger train and the fact that a member of the train crew was found to be under the influence of drugs.

A few years later, a New York subway train was involved in a crash and the engineer was found to be under the influence of alcohol. So naturally, in typical knee-jerk overreaction, our government added mandatory alcohol testing to the list. Since that time, the industry has spent many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars testing and retesting millions of professional drivers who would never and have never used drugs and would never under any circumstances jeopardize their lives and the lives of others by operating under the influence of alcohol. The testing results, which by the way haven’t changed significantly during the entire period these requirements have been in place, are and always have been far lower than any other tested segment of the population.

The figures for 1999, according to the DOT’s own study, are 1.3 percent for drugs and 0.1 percent for alcohol. The proponents say it’s the deterrent factor, but I say that it’s because these people are honest, hard-working professionals who don’t need to be forced to do what is right, who are being needlessly subjected to this humiliating, degrading process of constantly having to prove they are not drug users.

Now, since the tragic events of September 11, we are hearing the drum beat start again preceding the next attack on the liberty of professional truckers. This time in the name of the war on terrorism. Electronic technology venders are out hawking their wares promoting the use of technology capable of doing everything from electronic national identification cards to 24-hour-a-day monitoring of the movement of every truck in the country. And believe it or not some of these mental giants in California have even come up with a way to bump the back of a truck and cause his brakes to lock up in order to prevent its use as a terrorist bomb. I am sure you can imagine some of the exciting possibilities here.

Bottom line is that we have absolutely no intention of accepting any further idiotically motivated and misguided invasion of the rights and liberty of professional truckers whether it be in the name of highway safety or the war on terrorism. We will fight back with every means at our disposal.

In any deliberation of the issue of commercial vehicle safety and although it is seldom done, I think it is essential to consider the reality of the situation. First, most truck/car collisions are due to human factors, not the mechanical condition of the truck. Second, the fact is that in the vast majority of truck/car collisions, it is not the trucker but rather the auto driver that is found to be at fault. DOT research statistics involving fatal collisions between trucks and passenger vehicles show that the truckdriver is not coded for any at-fault factor 73 percent of the time while the passenger vehicle driver is not coded for at-fault factors in only 18 percent of the collisions and in 10 percent both the auto driver and the truckdriver are coded with some at-fault factor. In 89 percent of head-on crashes, the passenger vehicle crossed the center line into the truck’s lane. In rear-end type crashes, the auto was the striking vehicle four times more often than the truck. And in opposite and same direction side-swipe crashes, the passenger vehicle encroached into the truck’s lane over seven times as often as the truck. In all other configurations, twice as many passenger vehicle drivers as truckdrivers were found to be at fault. It’s important to note that no significant category was listed attributing the primary cause to commercial vehicle defects, including brakes.

The fact is considering the size and weight of the vehicles they operate and their constant and close proximity to non-professional drivers, truckers are the safest drivers on the road and they do an outstanding job in furtherance of the cause of highway safety. Compare, for example, the previous statistics to another group of professional drivers, the California Highway Patrol, which according to a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune has the toughest training standards in the state of California and a better driving record than any police department in San Diego County. Out of 3,985 crashes they were involved in only 1,550 of those crashes (or a rate of 39 percent) were caused by highway patrol officers. Keep in mind they are driving cars, not 70-foot-long, 80,000-pound trucks. The Sheriff’s Department, by the way, according to the article has an at-fault rate of 56 percent and San Diego City Police have an at-fault rate of 58 percent. This is still better than some of the smaller departments with rates as high as 81 percent.

With all of that out of the way, I would be the first to admit, as would most professional truckers, there is always room for improvement.

My invitation to participate in this symposium on commercial vehicle safety and be one of the keynote speakers, referenced the attendance of more than 450 researchers, practitioners and experts in the field. Certainly, if that is true, we have a great opportunity here to develop meaningful recommendations to address the real causes and solutions to any safety problems that involve commercial vehicles as well as the important security issues that are currently a worldwide concern. If that is in fact the mission that this group undertakes, then you have my commitment to work with you to the best of our ability to achieve these goals.

If, on the other hand, the mission becomes one of simply finding new and innovative ways to harass and target my people as the villains or to put in jeopardy more of their liberties, then you will have my commitment to work against you to the best of our ability.

In closing, and while I am sure most of you already have your agenda of issues in mind, I would like to mention some real problem areas that should be addressed.

I have already discussed the subject of roadside inspections and enforcement and that despite the investment of many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars over the past four decades, out-of-service rates have actually increased rather than decreased. I mentioned the evidence that vehicle defects in reality play a very small role in accident causation. In addition, I would challenge anyone to produce the empirical evidence that this activity produces anywhere near the results that should be required to justify this enormous investment.

As I recall, the latest budget allocates somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million to this activity. Efforts should be made to direct some of the funding to research necessary to correct some of the major vehicle defect problems rather than the game of trying to catch them after they are turned loose on the highway.

I also mentioned the lack of required training for entry-level truckdrivers. It is absolutely ludicrous that occupations such as barbers, hairdressers and insurance agents are required to go through mandatory training in order to be licensed but that no training at all is required to obtain a license to operate an 80,000-pound truck over the highway. The lack of mandatory standardized training through properly administered oversight has left the door open for many abuses and the continuing influx of new drivers totally unprepared for the environment they will encounter or the dangers they might create. We have fought the battle alone now for more than a decade with opposition from the motor carrier side of the industry who claims they already provide training. If that’s the case, why do they have a problem with oversight and a requirement that applies to everyone equally?

Loading and unloading abuses that are endemic throughout the industry force truckdrivers to spend what would amount to a full work week for most workers waiting at loading and unloading docks without compensation. Paid by the mile or by percentage of revenue, these drivers push to their limits in order to earn a living in the part of the operation they are paid for.

The solutions are not rocket science — better scheduling, more efficient loading and unloading systems and required payment for the time they are required to spend.

Adequate parking facilities: Trucking is necessarily a 24/7 occupation. There must be adequate facilities made available for truckers to park and obtain the necessary (and required) rest in order to continue to move the nation’s commerce safely and efficiently. This is a substantial, well-documented and growing problem that must be addressed.

The issue of security in the trucking industry, in my view, is also not rocket science and it doesn’t require the investment of more hundreds of millions of dollars doing such things as background checks and issuing electronic national ID cards to the existing force of professional drivers. The answer lies not in further victimizing and alienating this force of drivers but rather in finding ways to involve them in addressing the problem.

Truckers are intelligent, patriotic citizens who are willing to work hard and commit their efforts and loyalty when the cause is worthwhile.

Aug/Sept Digital Edition