Executive Vice President Todd Spencer wrote this letter to the
Kansas City Star on Jan. 3, 2002, commenting on the newspaper's
controversial series, "Dead Tired." OOIDA has learned
the newspaper plans to publish an abbreviated version of Spencer's
letter. For our website readers, here is the complete unedited
Letter to the Editor:
I will give the Star and
Judy Thomas high marks for raising serious issues about the trucking
industry in its recent newspaper coverage, but the recommendations
in the Star's editorial of Dec.18 would be largely ineffective
in making highways safer.
Regardless of whether you
believe the safety problems in trucking are large or small, those
problems can never be corrected by more aggressive enforcement
of rules and regulations that seriously miss the mark.
The best example of this
is the hours-of-service regulations that were implemented in 1938.
These were never safety regulations. They were labor regulations
to keep trucking companies and shippers from pushing drivers to
work around the clock. Those rules may have indirectly promoted
safety six decades ago when they were implemented but not so today.
Strict compliance with a trucker's work routine of 10 hours
on-duty followed by 8 hours off-duty will turn anyone into a zombie
in a very short time and make them less safe drivers. Yes, these
rules need to be updated, but the real fatigue issue in trucking
is the 33 to 43 hours many drivers spend each week loading and
unloading trucks. As long as drivers can be coerced or pressured
into donating the equivalent of a full workweek to shippers and
receivers we will always have tired drivers. Federal regulators
don't have the authority to directly fix this problem and
lawmakers are hesitant to do so because their actions (although
clearly needed) would be considered economic regulation -
something that has been taboo in Washington since 1980.
There are scary parallels
that exist in the evolution of the job of truck driver with two
other groups of workers in the news of recent days. Prior to September
11, airline security workers were often compensated at or slightly
above minimum wage; they received inadequate or possibly no training.
And they may have had criminal histories or not even be legal
citizens. Now if their workweek were twice as long as the 40-hour
norm and they handled baggage and then flew the plane, you have
a pretty dramatic illustration of where trucking is headed.
The nation's largest
meat processor was just indicted on charges that it conspired
to smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S. to work at its plants.
The headline of the story was emblazoned with the words "Meatpacker's
Profits Hinge on Pool of Immigrant Labor." What that means,
of course, is low cost, easily exploitable workers. When you exhaust
the supply of U.S. workers that are willing to work ultra-cheap,
you must reach out to third world countries. Immigrants have been
recruited by U.S. trucking companies (both legally and illegally)
for more than a decade. Many of these drivers don't speak
English, a requirement of federal trucking regulations that is
largely ignored by enforcement officials. The only reason this
is a topic in Washington now is because news sources discovered
that aliens from countries that sponsor terrorism were entering
the U.S. and getting trucking licenses to haul hazardous materials.
The structure of trucking
is so loose that almost anyone from anywhere can obtain a commercial
drivers license - even one with a hazardous materials endorsement
--with very little effort. No experience or training is required.
And once you get that commercial
license, far too many trucking companies are willing to gamble
that nothing too bad or too expensive will happen. Sometimes they
lose this gamble with tragic consequences. On Jan. 16, 2001, a
mentally ill person intentionally drove a tractor-trailer at 70
mph into the state capitol building in California killing himself
in the process, but fortunately only causing property damage of
some $16 million to the structure. The trailer was loaded with
canned evaporated milk. Imagine what the devastation might have
been had the load been hazardous materials or something explosive.
Was this a small company
or a new company as some contend break the rules? No, the truck
was operated by the 21st largest publicly traded truckload carrier
in the country, according to analysts at Bear Stearns.
This incident is being
used as justification for more stringent required background checks
of drivers. The company's own background check failed to
uncover time spent in prison and in mental hospitals going back
to 1986, according to published reports. Those published reports
also say the trucking company ignored their driver trainer's
emphatic assertions that the mentally ill driver be fired -
a prophetic determination the trainer had made after spending
just 90 minutes with the driver!
The scary reality in trucking
is that far too many trucking companies give little more than
lip service to driver qualifications when they have a truck parked.
And there are lots of trucks parked right now, but not because
of a driver shortage. Trucking has been in a recession for over
18 months. During that time, over 200,000 large trucks have been
repossessed. That's roughly 10 percent of all the big trucks
in the nation.
In the overall scheme of
things, the majority of today's truck drivers do an admirable
job of delivering the goods we are all totally dependent upon
to maintain our quality of life. But if some of these economic
circumstances aren't changed, we as a society may not always
be so fortunate. Yes, governments should play a more vigorous
role in truck safety and in auto safety, too. But if those efforts
don't address the core problems in the industry those efforts
could actually make the safety issues worse, not better.
Executive Vice President
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association
1NW OOIDA Dr.
Grain Valley, MO 64029