By Jami Jones, managing editor
The political game in D.C. can be vicious. Lobbying for any cause tends to have the opposition angling to portray your agenda in whatever negative light they can manufacture.
Small-business truckers, in their opposition to excessive regulation, have groups screaming that truckers are “anti-safety.”
The reality is, nothing could be further from the truth.
The membership of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is made up of some of the safest career truck drivers on the nation’s highways. The average member has more than a quarter-century of trucking experience and more than 2 million miles without a reportable accident. That’s equivalent to 80 times around the Earth.
The Association points out that these men and women have a vested interest in safety – their own and those they share the road with.
That focus on safety is the thrust behind a new white paper, “Truckers for Safety,” developed by the Association in an effort to promote a true safety-minded agenda in D.C. while countering overbearing regulations that do little to improve highway safety and that simply drive up the cost of business.
The industry has faced significant changes in the past two decades. Instead of more people opting for a career in trucking – something that inherently promotes professionalism and safety – it is turning into a stopgap job for many who enter into trucking.
Every few months, 20 percent of the drivers working in the industry either leave their jobs and move to a different trucking company or leave the industry altogether, according to the white paper.
“This churn will result in more accidents, which in turn will lead to greater congestion, more fuel use, lost cargoes and greater inefficiency in our nation’s freight transportation network,” the paper states. “We can and must do better to make trucking once again a career that Americans want to join and stay in as a way to provide for their families.”
The white paper calls into question the agenda of the motor carrier safety enforcement and regulatory system.
“Our motor carrier and safety enforcement and regulatory system is structured in such a way that does nothing to incentivize safe driving, missing a major opportunity to improve safety,” the paper states.
The white paper promotes commonsense regulation such as driver training; building on Jason’s Law for more truck parking; improving the nation’s infrastructure; educating teen drivers and all passenger car drivers; enforcement that encourages safe driving; equipping the agency with appropriate funding to target unsafe motor carriers; and crashworthiness.
OOIDA is proposing the Safe, Mentored and Responsibly Trained Future Truck Drivers Act – dubbed the SMART Future Truck Drivers Act.
The act “forges new ground” by starting every new long-haul tractor-trailer driver off with a strong safety foundation. The proposal includes behind-the-wheel training conducted by instructors who meet Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration certification requirements.
“Unlike airline pilots, railroad engineers and tugboat captains, there has never been a requirement that tractor-trailer drivers complete a basic training regimen that ensures they know how to operate the vehicle safely in real-world conditions,” the paper states.
Given that approximately 80 percent of all truck-involved collisions are the result of a “human factor,” OOIDA is pressing Congress and the FMCSA to move forward on a training standard for new truck drivers. The proposal does not include bus and motor coach drivers, local delivery or CDL classifications lower than a Class A.
The training proposal includes requirements for certification of testers, minimum classroom and behind-the wheel training. Knowing there are situations, such as returning veterans, who have received alternative training, the proposal includes expedited training and proficiency tests to shorten the length of training.
Countering the industry norm of short training programs that filter inexperienced drivers quickly onto the road to be further “trained” by driver trainers with only a few months of experience themselves, the proposal offers a structured experience-building period.
Safe on the road
It tracks that, no matter how good truck drivers are, there’s only so much they can do to counter the crumbling roads and bridges and passenger car drivers who drive unsafely around them. The white paper tackles those issues as well.
“The highway is the workplace for truckers, and it is important that they have a safe workplace,” the paper states. “There is more than can be done … to focus investments in this area on countermeasures that will have a real impact in reducing heavy-duty truck crashes.”
The Association is proposing to build on Jason’s Law, which was passed into law with the last highway bill. To accomplish this, the Association is seeking to make truck parking a “performance measure” that will guide state investment of federal highway funding. It also proposes that state DOTs should increase their work with private truck stop operators to add parking at existing truck stops.
Education of local, county and state transportation planners on the benefits of truck parking is also tackled. In addition to providing truckers a safe place to get needed rest, providing trucks places to park will reduce congestion at key times, improve safety and the environment.
The white paper also recommends that the Federal Highway Administration and state DOTs target spending on safety infrastructure on signage, guard rails, etc., in areas with high accident rates for heavy-duty trucks. It also proposes that the agencies develop a system for identifying “high risk rural roads.”
But even with all of the parking and smooth sailing roads in the world, truckers must share the road with passenger cars. With fewer and fewer schools offering driver training, the increase in passenger car drivers uneducated on how to share the road with big trucks is on the rise.
OOIDA proposes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, state motor vehicle administrations, truck drivers and other stakeholders come together to develop a model curriculum for teaching new drivers how to drive safely with heavy-duty trucks and ensure greater focus on sharing the road as part of training and testing.
Over the past decade plus, passenger cars have become increasingly safer. While lighter weight materials are being used, the engineering of the cars has migrated the power of the crash around the passenger compartment. Advancements in air bag and seatbelt technology have also played a big role in decreasing fatalities.
But what about big trucks? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will begin studying crashworthiness of big trucks thanks to the most recent highway bill.
That’s a good start, but it is just a start, OOIDA says.
“The crashworthiness of a truck cab and its ability to protect the occupant trucker appears to be a low priority for NHTSA, even while it is conducting heavy-duty related rulemakings,” the paper states.
The Association is pressing for the agency to work together with truck manufacturers to implement recommendations for crashworthiness as a result of the study, either through voluntary action, industry standards or federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Purchasers of new trucks should also be informed of the standards and the manufacturers’ compliance with, or voluntary adaption, of those standards.
Catching the bad guys
The sad fact remains that there are bad motor carriers on the road. Safe truckers want them off the road just as much as the agency. In addition to posing a safety risk, when motor carriers take short cuts with equipment, they are likely hiring unsafe individuals and cutting rates.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability system, while flawed in implementation, is rightly intended to focus enforcement efforts on bad actors and unsafe carriers. However current problems with the system are preventing it from doing that job, according to OOIDA.
The Association recommends an analysis of the safety effectiveness of motor carrier regulations. While some regulations clearly target unsafe behaviors, the lion’s share of regulations should be classified as “compliance” regulations. Separately, these two types of regulations for scoring purposes through CSA would narrow the field of at-risk motor carriers to those most likely to be exhibiting unsafe behaviors.
Equipping the agency with appropriate funding for investigations into the at-risk motor carriers should also be a priority. Building on the Operation Quick Strike motor coach crackdown, a properly funded motor carrier component of that enforcement should be a priority.
Advocacy for change
The white paper is a leaping-off point to lobby for real change in the regulatory mindset that governs truckers. As with any major piece of legislation or proposed regulation, OOIDA’s membership will be called on to be active in educating their lawmakers.
Resources on the Truckers for Safety agenda can be found at truckersforsafety.com.