Enough is enough
Spencer tells NTSB it's time to shift blame, regulatory agenda away from truck drivers who just delivered yet another historic low in truck-related fatalities

By Jami Jones, senior editor

The voice of truckers was heard loud and clear during a two-day marathon NTSB forum focused on the regulatory scheme that truckers face.

And the message was simple: Enough is enough with the regulations.

The Truck and Bus Safety: A Decade of Progress forum was hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board, May 10-11. The purpose was to review motor carrier oversight.

The various panels consisted of experts from the truck and bus industry and included representatives from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer set the tone early in the forum by pointing at the drivers’ role in the new historic lows in highway fatalities.

“I know that through the transportation community and the enforcement community, people are patting themselves on the back talking about, ‘Wow, we did a great job,’” Spencer told the NTSB members. “Everybody gets the credit, but there’s really only one place where the credit belongs, and that’s with the drivers out there.”

He laid claim to the historic low in traffic fatalities for the experienced drivers on the road – drivers who have weathered the economic storm and kept their jobs and trucking businesses.

“Trucking has absolutely never been safer, and the key to that is drivers – those men and women who do it every day…with hardly any recognition of just how good they are,” he said.

With that thought hanging in the air, Spencer quickly turned his remarks toward the barrage of new regulations targeting truckers and the overall lack of justification behind them.

“When I look at so many of these initiatives, I see a lot of activity but we have accomplished very little. Much of what we are doing really isn’t focused in the direction that it should be,” he said.

He used the Large Truck Crash Causation Study as an example of errant justification for the current flurry of proposed regulations.

“Some of us in the industry complained for years that there was no effort made to actually look at what’s causing crashes,” Spencer said. “When that study was finally done, it is basically junk. It’s worthless when it comes to actually identifying things that could be used to improve motor carrier safety.”

Too many events, such as the NTSB forum, focus on the actions of truck drivers, Spencer pointed out. But when the data is correctly analyzed with faults legitimately assigned, a very different picture emerges.

“Any analysis of accident data shows that the leading cause of truck crashes is not the fault of the truck driver,” Spencer said.

Spencer didn’t mince words when he told the NTSB forum that there is only one reason trucking is achieving historic lows in truck-related fatalities: There are more experienced drivers on the road now thanks to a huge drop in driver turnover.

“Driver turnover can be linked to crash causation,” he said. “There’s no substitute for experience.”

That led Spencer to a pointed question, which as of yet remains unanswered: Why is the simplest approach to improving highway safety, driver training, still languishing in the regulatory process?

“It’s really abysmal that this is an industry for which there is still no training required for commercial drivers, none whatsoever,” Spencer said. “It’s an economic issue to some. It’s very much a safety issue out there for us.”

As the agenda for the forum turned to specific enforcement and regulatory programs such as hours of service, electronic on-board recorders, etc., Spencer continued to stand his ground and pointed out that drivers are not the problem, yet they are left on their own with no support system.

To illustrate this point, Spencer turned the conversation from fatigue enforcement to a very common reason drivers may find themselves tired – parking.

He told the story of Jason Rivenburg, a driver who was killed while parked at an abandoned gas station after being turned away from a shipper because he was too early to deliver. He had only $7 in his possession.

Spencer said the murder of Rivenburg highlights how motor carriers as well as shippers and receivers simply offer no support to drivers.

“Drivers are left on their own. That’s where the safety culture is,” Spencer said.

They are left to navigate highways filled with not only dangerous four-wheelers but also overzealous law enforcement with sights set on trucks.

“It’s nuttiness. There is a zeal going on right now for the need to write something up on a truck. They’re not going to stop one unless they can write something up, and they’re going to look until they find that,” Spencer said.

The trifecta of relentless pressure and misguided blame on truckers is completed by relentless profiteering by the private sector – specifically third party service and software providers, according to Spencer.

“They, and many motor carriers, spent an unbelievable amount of time sending a message with a tone of we’re going to scare drivers straight,” Spencer told the forum. “They wouldn’t dare do anything wrong because of all of these Draconian measures that are going to be put in place.

“Drivers are the biggest casualties of bad, bad information.”

The combination of bad data, such as that contained in CSA, and a skewed approach to enforcement and regulation led Spencer to caution NTSB about the future.

“Nobody reviews this stuff, and it hangs with drivers. There currently isn’t any due process, and some of these issues won’t be just swept under the rug,” he said. “There will be a major fight, major issues over this and there certainly are many in Congress who would question the wisdom of proceeding without certain safeguards for individuals in small business.

“Maybe we can get there with minimal court challenges,” he said. “But maybe not.” LL