I am writing this editorial just a few days after the tragic accident involving the space shuttle Columbia. Seven brave astronauts lost their lives in that tragedy, sending the entire nation into a state of mourning at their loss.
The initial reaction watching the tragic events unfold on television was, for most of us, shock and disbelief that something that seemed to have become so routine could so suddenly turn into such a terrible disaster. In contemplating the loss, however, it brought to mind another ongoing tragic situation that professional truckers face every day.
Truck driving has been classified by the Department of Labor as one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The most recent fatal accident reporting system figures available indicate a highway accident fatality rate of almost 700 truckers a year. That’s an average of two every day of the year, and these figures don’t include other job-related accident and illness fatalities.
Of course, there will be a complete investigation into the cause of the Columbia disaster. Future launches will be put on hold until the cause is clearly identified. When the cause is identified, the problems will be corrected, and, while still a very dangerous job, it is very unlikely that future astronauts will lose their lives due to any similar type problem.
Few in the general population would consider it reasonable to compare professional truckers to space shuttle astronauts. I have no difficulty making the comparison though, because the dedication and commitment involved in becoming a true professional in any endeavor is really very similar. The contribution of professional truckers toward maintaining and supporting the national economy and the daily lives of all citizens is far greater and more consistent than any contribution made so far or in the foreseeable future by the space program. In fact, without trucks and the dedicated professionals who operate them, there would be no space program.
Unfortunately, the similarities end when it comes to identifying and correcting the problems that claim the lives of hundreds of truckers every year. There are no national days of mourning for the loss of these dedicated, hardworking professionals. While there are government-sponsored studies to investigate the cause of truck accidents, those studies never seem to get to the root causes of the problems. Most only skim the surface deep enough to point the finger of blame at truckers themselves.
A good example is the issue of driver fatigue. When the studies indicate driver fatigue is a serious safety problem, the easy way out is another quick surface study that determines fatigue is caused by too many working hours and too little sleep (people actually do get paid to do these studies). If this is as far as you delve into the problem, and the goal is to find the course of least resistance, upsetting as few powerful interest groups as possible, then the solution is simple — tighten the restrictions on working and driving time, increase the penalties and strengthen enforcement efforts.
The reality is this will never correct the problem. It simply increases the pressure on the people already victimized by the system that caused the problem in the first place. A serious effort to address the problem and implement workable solutions must begin by clearly identifying its root cause. This cause is no secret to professional truckers, but the methods you use, either voluntarily or under pressure, to offset the effects of this root cause provide substantial help to those who have an economic interest in avoiding its detection.
The root cause of the problem, of course, is the combination of inadequate compensation levels based on per load or mileage coupled with an outrageous system of unnecessary and uncompensated delays — delays that on average force professional truckers to contribute almost as many hours per week in uncompensated time as most people invest in an entire workweek in compensated time.
As I have said before, this system has become so ingrained that the economics of almost the entire industry have become dependent on your willingness to donate your time then doctor the logbooks, risking your safety, your lives and your careers to put in the additional hours necessary to earn a living.
This problem will not fix itself. In fact with the added burden of increasing highway congestion and without action, it will continue to grow.
The government will not be stepping forward on its own initiative to fix this problem for us. In fact, if past experience is any indication, the revised hours-of-service regulations currently pending and soon to be released at DOT will likely increase the burden on truckers, putting you further at risk and making it more difficult to earn a living.
The industry, shippers, receivers and motor carriers won’t fix the problem. Why should they? It’s free time that doesn’t cost them anything.
You have the power, and the solution is up to you. It’s not complicated. The solution is very simple and requires very little if any sacrifice. Just log it legal, and the problem will very quickly disappear.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. To be successful, we must convince all or at least a majority of drivers to participate in a unified effort. June 2003 has been designated as Truck Safety Month. The OOIDA board of directors has voted to endorse and sponsor the project. They have authorized the use of all available association resources to help make it successful. The rest is up to you!
Relating back to the space shuttle accident again and the memorial services that were held for the seven who lost their lives in the tragedy, one striking theme was repeated in the words of many of their friends and family members. Basically it was that they loved and were dedicated to what they were doing. They would not want their deaths to stop the project. They would want others to learn from it and use that knowledge to make the necessary improvements and continue moving forward.
Most of you are dedicated to what you do as well. When outsiders ask me why truckers stay in such a difficult, thankless job, my response is “for those who are dedicated to it, it is not a job; it is a way of life, and they love what they are doing.” It comes down to one simple, basic question: Are you dedicated enough to take a stand to make it better?
You have the power. Use it, and the world changes. Waste the opportunity, and everything remains the same.