OOIDA President Jim Johnston visits with U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at a national safety belt conference held recently in the Atlanta area. (photo by Todd Spencer)
Top federal officials, OOIDA President Jim Johnston and OOIDA Vice President Todd Spencer, along with other trucking industry leaders, took part Dec. 9 in an educational effort to encourage professional truckers and other motorists to buckle up.
Johnston, along with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Administrator Annette Sandberg met in Atlanta to push vigorously for industry and government partnerships to jumpstart the campaign.
Mineta has advocated that states pass laws that make not wearing a safety belt a primary violation. However, both Mineta and Sandberg used the Dec. 9 event to say they want more truckers to wear seat belts.
The mutual effort to achieve that goal will involve the Transportation Department, drivers, trucking companies, industry groups and law enforcement in a coordinated program to combat low safety-belt usage among the nation’s 11 million truck drivers.
OOIDA stresses education approach
At the urging of OOIDA, the Atlanta event focused on gaining voluntary support from professional drivers to set an example for all to buckle up. For example, the “America Needs You – Buckle Up” theme for this event is in sharp contrast with earlier efforts to gain support with a “Click It or Ticket” theme.
The new focus intends to educate drivers about the critical importance of wearing a safety belt. Partners will provide safety messages to 1,200 truck stops throughout the nation, produce and distribute printed educational material at association events and roadside inspection facilities, and sponsor additional research.
While noting the worthiness of DOT’s seat-belt effort, Johnston said OOIDA would continue to make government and industry aware of design changes that might contribute to higher seat-belt use among truckers.
"Many drivers tell us that current seat belts are not workable or comfortable -some say that during a long haul, the belts begin to cut into the drivers neck. Better belt design allowing some `give and take' would allow drivers the flexibility and freedom they need to perform all the tasks required of them while driving," Johnston said.
Meanwhile, other safety issues beg for the same intensity of federal support as the seat-belt proposal.
"There is a horrendous problem out there that every truck driver can tell you about - and that's the woeful lack of rest areas and other safe areas to park in all parts of the country," Johnston said. "This is directly related to FMCSA's safety mission. In fact, I was reminded of the problem as I drove in the association truck from the Atlanta event and spent more than an hour looking for a 'legal' place to stop for the night in Cincinnati."
Mineta, Sandberg take strong stand
The campaign was prompted by a new federal study that found only 48 percent of all commercial vehicle drivers wear safety belts. The study also noted that 90 percent of drivers tell their family members to buckle up. A similar study by OOIDA found about 50 percent of drivers don’t buckle up. In comparison, 79 percent of passenger vehicle drivers wear seat belts.
"Truckers play a vital role in our economy," Mineta said. "Each year, they move over $7 trillion in clothes, food and everyday products safely across our highways. We value the work that they do. They have played a significant role in getting the economy rolling these past few months, and the positive impact is being felt across the nation.
"To help keep the economy rolling, we need these drivers to 'keep on trucking.' And we want them to return home safely to their families at the end of their runs."
Meanwhile, FMCSA’s Sandberg recently visited OOIDA headquarters to urge all drivers to buckle up.
"I hope everyone in this room buckles up," she said, after noting her experience at accident scenes while working for the police in Washington state.
"Some commercial drivers tell us they do not want to buckle up because they think the size of their rigs will keep them safe," Sandberg later said. "The grim reality is that when it comes to saving lives, every one of us, especially truck drivers, needs to buckle up."
State laws and safety – a correlation
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, states with primary safety-belt laws have usage rates about 11 percentage points higher than states with secondary enforcement laws.
For example, New Jersey increased usage from 63 percent under a secondary law in 1999, to 74 percent in 2000 under primary enforcement. In the state of Florida alone, a primary safety-belt law would save nearly 200 lives and more than $500 million per year.
Twenty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico now have primary safety-belt laws. If the remaining states adopt primary laws, about 1,400 additional lives would be saved each year, according to NHTSA. States with primary seat-belt laws are: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Texas and Washington.
States with primary safety-belt laws allow traffic enforcement officers to stop a vehicle and issue a citation when the officer observes an unbelted driver or passenger. Officers in states with secondary enforcement safety-belt laws may only write a citation after the officer stops the vehicle or cites the offender for another infraction.
OOIDA’s Johnston speaks to truckers
Speaking on behalf of the country’s small-business truckers, Johnston said, “Consider that so far this year, approximately 450 military personnel have died in Iraq during wartime conditions. During a comparable period of time, using Department of Labor statistics for 2002, 808 truck drivers have died on the job – 81 percent in highway-related accidents. At least some of these fatalities occur as a result of ejection from the vehicle at the time of the accident or collision.”
Meanwhile, government statistics show that last year, more than half of the 588 commercial drivers killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts. And of the 171 drivers thrown from their trucks, almost 80 percent were not wearing seat belts.
"The thought I would really like to share with professional truckers is that while I really don't know how many of these fatalities would have been prevented with the use of safety belts, even if it was only one, wouldn't it be worth the minor inconvenience of buckling up?" Johnston said. "It certainly would be if that one tragedy avoided involved you. As professional drivers, you should set an example."
--by Dick Larsen, senior editor