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Time to put up or shut up & shutting up is not an option

Mark H. Reddig
Associate Editor

By now, everyone reading this should be familiar with OOIDA’s regular admonitions about calling your representatives. Certainly many of you are rising to answer the call. Some, however, do not pick up that phone.

During a recent phone call, I got a lesson in just how important those phone calls are — and just how much truckers stand to lose if they don’t make those calls.

I was following up on some stories I had done, reporting on speed limits in different states, and noticed some comments by a prominent lawmaker to a newspaper in one of our largest states, a person who had served on that state’s transportation committee. I don’t plan to name that lawmaker here. Outside of generating a lot of calls to the state Capitol — not a bad thing normally — it would serve no good purpose.

But there’s plenty to be learned from our conversation, and it directly relates to why truckers need to vote, and why they need to call their lawmakers.

The conversation went to speed limits on interstate highways, an issue that’s hot all over now. And during the conversation, we talked about a road in the lawmaker’s district.

What about Highway 99 (not the real number — remember, we’re keeping the identity secret), the lawmaker asked. Is that an interstate? Could a change in the law mean trucks would travel faster than they do now?

I knew the highway we were discussing. As I remembered it, it was a four-lane U.S. highway, not an interstate, and had several stoplights. However, perhaps things had changed since I last was there. Perhaps it was a limited-access, interstate-style highway now.

But no. The highway has several stoplights, the lawmaker said, while still wondering if it was an interstate.

There was a silence — one big enough to drive a truck through.

“Um, no, that would be a U.S. highway,” I said, trying not to sound condescending. “Interstates are a different category under federal law. Interstate, like Interstate 95 or Interstate 44. U.S. highway as in U.S. 24 or U.S. 66. Interstates do not have stoplights.

“Their signs are different, and the word ‘interstate’ is part of their name. That highway has a white sign that says ‘U.S.’ above the number. Interstate signs have … well … the word ‘interstate’ above the number.”

But the person on the other side of the phone line pressed on. The highway in question went from one state to another. It was divided. It had four lanes. Why wouldn’t it be an interstate? It “could be” an interstate, interstate speed limits could affect that highway, “speeding trucks” could end up on that road.

I paused for a minute. I was shocked. I was astounded, particularly that a lawmaker — especially one involved in transportation issues — would not know the difference. Heck, I was astounded that a licensed driver in the United States in the 21st century would not know the difference.

But my attempt to explain it had failed. And the part where I was trying not to sound condescending — well, I’d say that didn’t work either. The voice on the phone was mad.

That one bit of misinformation wasn’t the only thing the lawmaker had wrong. I asked about federal studies on accident statistics. The answer: Haven’t seen them. I asked about statements by top federal officials on trucks and speed limits. The response: Don’t know those names, haven’t heard what they said.

Once again, I was caught by surprise, this time that someone I would have assumed was a transportation specialist — or at least someone who was transportation-knowledgeable — would not know basic statistical federal information about driving on the highways.

But it kept coming. This lawmaker also advocated lower speed limits for trucks, and had no idea what that meant to the trucking industry.

“This is not in opposition to the trucking industry at all,” the lawmaker said. “This is a way to keep our accidents down.”

Most people in that lawmaker’s district wanted it that way. Most of them thought it was safer to have trucks moving slower than cars. And that was pretty much the criteria — not the statistics, not any study, not an engineering report, but what folks wanted.

This is a person who decides our speed limits, who makes the rules we drive by, whose vote can change what regulations we must all follow. And the person’s knowledge consisted of a collection of misunderstandings, misconceptions and half-baked statistics apparently served up by whoever took the time to call or send a fax.

What did this all mean?

It meant that not a single trucker had ever called this prominent legislator. I know there are truckers who live in the lawmaker’s district. But none of them contacted that office, talked with, got to know, tried to educate the person who represented them. Not one person in that district had told the truckers’ side of the story. Not one.

Later, that lawmaker told me something significant, something you can take to the bank.

“If somebody would give me information that that was not true, that in fact the opposite was, I would entertain that. If you’re doing an article, you should say that. That maybe the public needs to be educated. That when trucks are going a different speed than cars, that that is more dangerous than when they’re going the same speed.”

The lawmaker was willing to help educate citizens on the topic, but that “right now, I don’t have that information.”

“Somebody in trucking should talk to the state Department of Transportation. Somebody needs to discuss with legislators what this really means … People like us respond to our constituents, and we respond to what we know. We’re just like everybody else. I think the trucking industry needs to make a proper case.”

And that, my friends, is the point.

If truckers really want to change things, it’s time to put up or shut up. Shutting up isn’t an option.

We can make a difference. Thousands of truckers in Georgia called one congressman, and it made a difference. Across the country, calls from truckers — many if not most OOIDA members — made the difference when the U.S. House defeated a provision that called for tolling on interstates.

Truckers have to get registered to vote. They have to actually call their legislators. They have to vote in every election — from the president right down to the local school board. They have to do this so that when that legislator hears their name and looks their name up in the computer, they can see that this is a person who is registered, who votes in every election, this is someone whose opinion I have to pay attention to.

If you do that, change is inevitable.

March/April
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