An opinion piece in The New York Times this past weekend is shedding some light on the commercial trucking industry and its dangerous tactics and business practices, and how Congress is enabling the industry to continue with business as usual.
Written by Howard Abramson, 16-year former veteran of the country’s most influential commercial trucking lobby, the piece digs deep into why trucking in America is so hazardous to passenger vehicles and drivers on our highways. He also set out to expose a cushy relationship between Congress and his former employer, American Trucking Associates.
Abramson writes that more people will be killed by commercial trucking accidents during this year alone than the total number of people who died from domestic commercial aviation accidents in the past 45 years combined. Despite this, he writes, Congress is doing nothing to strengthen regulations on the trucking industry.
To the contrary: a number of amendments to a highway funding bill currently making its way through Congress seeks to accomplish the exact opposite. These bills suspend or weaken federal regulator’s attempts to implement various safety standards over the last few years. These standards include limiting how many consecutive hours a truck driver may be behind the wheel and limiting how many hours a driver can work per week.
Despite public opposition, Congress is moving forward with the bill, which if passed, may allow for bigger and longer trucks to be on the road, and may suspend the age restrictions for interstate truck drivers from 21 years old to just 18 years old. Also, the requirements that a driver take a certain number of hours off before starting their work week again could be suspended.
These rules seem on the surface to be no-brainers. Crash statistics show over and over again that the number one cause of commercial trucking accidents is fatigued or impaired truck drivers. Yet the trucking lobby is still able to get Congress to pass measures tucked inside spending bills that limit regulations. How, and maybe more importantly, why?
Safety is not good business
Why wouldn’t a commercial transport company be interested in implementing simple safety standards that can save the lives of so many Americans? The industry, Abramson says, claims it will be “burdened” with extras costs if Federal safety standards are strengthened. The business is a low-margin business, operators claim. Any raise in costs will be passed to consumers, and Congress shouldn’t allow that. But at $700 billion a year in economic output, just how much would the industry as a whole be losing? Perhaps a couple hundred million, the equivalent of a slight summertime fuel price spike?
Think of the gains, Abramson says. Requiring drivers to stick to standard safety measures like maximum hours on the road in a given range, and the implementation of safety technology that includes collision detection systems and data recorders, wouldn’t cost them too much to implement. And the return is potentially hundreds of lives saved. Over time, the cost to insure the trucks, drivers, and cargo would steadily deflate, saving the industry hundreds of millions of dollars each and every consecutive year. And the roadways would be safer for all of us.
Fatalities by trucking accidents are on the rise. No one disputes that. From 2009 to 2013, the latest year of available data, has risen by 17%. Each year in the last four has seen more deaths than the previous one. Deaths are disproportionately levied on passenger vehicle drivers and passengers, not the truck driver. So the commercial trucking industry is operating at the public’s expense.
The current operations of the commercial trucking industry should be a public health concern.
The biggest and heaviest long-haul trucks on the road, Class 8 trucks, account for only about 10% of all miles traveled in the U.S., but caused one in eight traffic fatalities in 2013. These trucks are also responsible for nearly a quarter of all traffic fatalities that occur in a work or construction zone.
These crashes indicate driver fatigue, as the driver likely doesn’t notice the roadway obstruction, and continues through it at normal speed and operation. When all the other passenger vehicle drivers slow down, that creates an extremely dangerous scenario. These trucks are not equipped with accident avoidance technology, so a large number of these fatal accidents in work zones occur when a truck slams into the back of a passenger vehicle, often killing the driver and passengers immediately.
What will it take to put (and keep) stronger commercial trucking safety standards in place?
In short, it’s going to take the courage of Congress. Lawmakers must refute the trucking industry’s powerful lobby, and instead put the safety of our nation’s driver first, even if they don’t realize just how much danger they are in. Sharing the road with a massive commercial fright truck is a dangerous proposition, yet, the shipping industry is an important one to ensure the movement of goods around the country to help make modern live easier and more convenient.
But there is no convenience or good whose delivery is more important than the life of a driver on the roadway. Therefore, Congress should strike these amendments to the highway safety bill currently moving through both houses to ensure safety standards not only stay in place, but are strengthened instead of weakened.