SPECIAL REPORT: Rather report nails the issues; ATA a no-show

| 11/11/2009

Wednesday, Nov. 11 – Fighting the good fight on behalf of truckers involves more than just preaching to the choir. OOIDA was able to broaden its message of driver advocacy to a whole new audience on Tuesday evening, thanks to an in-depth TV forum hosted by Dan Rather.

The forum, held at Willie’s Place in Carl’s Corner, TX, brought five panelists together to discuss the economy, driver training, cross-border trucking and other concerns faced by American owner-operators and company drivers.

Rather dedicated a whole hour to trucking issues in Episode 436 of “Dan Rather Reports,” which aired Tuesday, Nov. 10, on HDNet.

“This provided an opportunity to address important issues in trucking that are far from being resolved,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer, who was joined on the panel by OOIDA Life Member Miles Verhoef.

Other panelists included economist and author Michael Belzer; Werner Enterprises Chief Operating Officer Derek Leathers; and longtime trucker and driver trainer Tim Dean.

“My personal experience is we need more training for entry level drivers. It is almost nonexistent,” Verhoef told the panel. He also shared insight into the daily life, revenues and expenses of a true independent operating under his own authority.

Rather conducted the forum as a follow-up to a recent episode titled “Queen of the Road.” During that episode, trucker and OOIDA Member Desiree Wood and other interviewees shed light on the number of drivers being herded through schools and into the cabs of commercial vehicles without adequate experience.

“Dan, the reality of the previous show is all too common across our industry,” Spencer told the group. “We hear those stories from drivers. It exists. Our organization for its entire 30 years of existence has advocated comprehensive training for entry-level drivers.”

Rather thanked the Werner representatives for participating, but called it “disappointing” that the American Trucking Associations chose to back out of the invitation.

“So they flatly refused to come on, even though we had promised them 20 minutes in the clear to give their point of view,” Rather stated on the program, adding that ATA canceled because the forum was going to recap and discuss the “Queen of the Road” segment and the controversy it generated.

Leathers and Dean welcomed the chance to discuss Werner’s policies and driver education. Rather asked them to respond to the previous segment and whether they thought it was fair.

“Well, I think for starters, obviously any focus on training is a good thing,” Leathers said. “I mean, we all have to be focused on it. … We decided that we’d rather take the questions head on and address issues that are good for our industry and really have a healthy debate.”

Spencer said OOIDA has advocated for federal driver-training standards, but even despite a lawsuit against regulatory agencies in the early 1990s, “there is no training whatsoever required.”

“It’s sheer idiocy, lunacy to think that you could take somebody off the street, turn ’em loose in 40-ton vehicles, and they can navigate on our congested highways with every kind of very nonprofessional driver in every kind of traffic situation in every kind of weather and do it safely without a lot of training,” Spencer said.

Belzer, author of a book called “Sweatshops on Wheels,” said the lack of adequate training at CDL schools is part of the nature of an industry driven by low rates, increasing costs and the need for companies to get someone in the driver seat.

“If we could make the job more attractive and pay them more, then they would do a whole lot better,” Belzer told the group.

But is there a driver shortage? Not so, Spencer said. High turnover and low driver pay have given a false reading in that regard, he said.

Werner COO Leathers said there’s more to it, that trucking is hard work and a lot of people give the industry a shot but give up after a few months.

Rather turned to an audience member, Allen Smith, who has spent 30 years in the business. Smith claimed he has received thousands of responses on his site, askthetrucker.com, since the “Dan Rather Reports” episode aired featuring Wood.

“The schools are still taking their money. They’re wasting their time in the truck knowing that within a couple of weeks they’re going to be thrown out of the truck anyway,” Smith said.

Rather made sure to emphasize that there are good truckers out there and plenty of them.

“There’s nothing that helps our transportation system more than an experienced mature truck driver and there are a lot of them out there,” he said. “There are also a lot of good companies.”

The panelists, either current or former truckers, discussed how in good economic times an owner-operator can make good money, but that company drivers tend to have more security when the economy gets poor. Panelists also acknowledged that there is no “one size fits all” in trucking.

On the issue of Mexican trucks and what kind of effect a cross-border trucking program would have on the U.S. economy, panelists generally agreed that it would affect competition and driver pay.

“You would certainly drive down compensation by a third from its already low level,” said Belzer.

While there are great drivers and poor drivers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, the real issue is companies bidding on freight until there’s virtually no profit. Leathers said it’s not uncommon for trucking companies to operate on a 1-2 percent profit margin.

“Clearly there are safety issues – there are security issues – but there are very much economic issues with that,” Spencer said.

Spencer said he was grateful for the opportunity to shed light on important issues, particularly that it’s rarely the truck driver’s fault in fatal crashes that involve trucks.

If trucks are involved in 5,000 fatal crashes per year, 1,000 of the fatalities are truck drivers and 62 percent of those crashes that kill truck drivers involve a single vehicle – the truck.

“We would like to see some things done to make a truck driver’s life a better, safer life,” Spencer said. “And we’re not going in that direction right now.”

To move the discussion forward from this point is going to require participation from policymakers, regulators and lawmakers, Spencer added.

“We need members of Congress and state legislatures involved in this,” he said.

Rather vowed to keep the discussion of trucking issues going in future episodes.

To view Episode 436, titled “Truck talk,” visit http://www.hd.net/danrather.html. Episodes are available for download on iTunes. Transcripts are also available online.

– By David Tanner, staff writer