Safety


As with the 2001 recession, there’s been much talk of a “jobless recovery.” It peaked with two reports in early November: Productivity increased 9.5 percent in the third quarter, while unemployment rose to 10.2 percent in October.

Not all explanations for the productivity gain, one of the three biggest in the last 30 years, carry equal weight. New computer systems or factory-line robots or low-wage workers in India could have taken over duties formerly done by Americans. Perhaps, but most such changes span more than three months.

In many workplaces, one person is doing a job formerly done by two. Whether it’s working extra hours or sloughing off inefficient procedures, it gets the job done.

Another factor is that rebounding businesses often start with hiring independent contractors or part-time help. This has long been a key part of for-hire trucking, especially when emerging from a recession. The strategy is good news for working owner-operators, not so much for other CDL holders who can’t find a job or whose pay has suffered.

However productivity gains were achieved, what scares those who are out of work or vulnerable to layoffs is that the newly lean and mean parts of the economy won’t need those jobs back. After all, employers are cranking out more with lower labor costs. The productivity report noted hours worked dropped at a 5 percent annual rate, yet output increased 4 percent.

Beyond the generally depressed conditions that affect the entire economy, trucking employment shouldn’t decline as much as other sectors from a recovery where recent and future productivity advances put the brake on job growth. There is only so much productivity to be gained in our industry and plenty to be lost:

  • The political pressure against longer or heavier rigs, or higher speed limits, will prevent change.
  • However the newly ordered review of the hours of service rule ends up, it’s more likely to cramp productivity. Ditto for if – more likely, when – electronic onboard recorders are mandated.
  • The Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 program (See Page 12) will introduce an amazingly in-depth data collection system that will screen out reckless carriers and drivers, based on recent history, starting as early as late 2010.
  • New carriers, including an owner-operator applying for operating authority, will be subject to tougher requirements if the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has its way.
  • FMCSA is likely to enact tougher health standards that screen out more drivers.

 

So the bigger concern for certain professional drivers is not a recovery that can do without jobs, but trucking jobs that must do without disqualified drivers. Those who are safe and physically fit need not worry. If you’re in lousy health and your driving history is peppered with bad inspections, citations and wrecks, make plans to change your record – or your profession. It’s not too late.

— Max Heine

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If you still have any doubt about how dangerous texting while driving is, a new study offers some comparisons.

A post from the Poynter Institute, a journalism education group, notes that 26 percent of teens admit to poking out messages while they’re behind the wheel, according to a Pew study. I bet the reality is higher than that, but what’s really scary are results from a Car and Driver magazine experiment.

Using a deserted air strip, an editor was tested under four circumstances on response time for braking upon seeing a brake light. Driving at 70 mph with full attention and no impairment, it took a half second to brake. It got worse with these handicaps:

  • Legally drunk, add 4 feet for stopping distance
  • Reading e-mail, add 36 feet
  • Sending a text, add 70 feet

Thanks to my Overdrive colleague Lucinda Coulter, who noted the Poynter item as well as this next bit of news.

The daughter of famous boxer George Foreman, Freeda George Foreman, is accused of crashing her Cadillac CTS into a garage, damaging it and five cars inside, according to KTRK-TV Houston. She wasn’t texting, but eating cake, according to what the garage owner told the TV station.

 The good report last week on 2008’s highway fatality numbers, including truck-related deaths, was a bit incomplete because of the highly unusual drop in vehicle miles traveled (VMT, in government-speak). Of course, that decline was due to months of outrageous fuel prices during late 2008.

The press release from the American Trucking Associations conveniently failed to mention that factor, even though it did cite increased use of safety belts and the hours of service regs that took effect in 2005. Instead, it trumpeted only total truck-involved fatalities dropping 12 percent in 2008 from the year before, from 4,822 deaths to 4,229.

Granted, the heavy-truck VMT hasn’t been determined yet and the overall VMT number is preliminary, says Duane DeBruyne of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Still, that overall VMT and its change from 2007 was included in the primary announcement from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. And Rose A. McMurray, acting deputy administrator for FMCSA, made the point that “the downturn in the economy clearly impacted freight volumes and the overall number of miles logged by truck drivers.”

NHTSA calculates a 3.4 percent decrease in VMT for all drivers over the year. Even if trucking’s rate were double that (6.8 percent), it would mean truck-related fatalities still dropped dramatically (12 percent) – hardly anything to be ashamed of.

 — Max Heine

The top three photos on the right are from my 2006 ride along Alaska’s Dalton Highway with the smiling trucker, George Spears. It was published in Truckers News.

If you watched the History Channel’s third season of “Ice Road Truckers,” which premiered last Sunday, you might recall Spears, one of the featured drivers. This season’s shows are based on the drivers of the highway, also known as the Haul Road. Running from just north of Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, it was built in the 1970s along with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

When I talked with George this week, he said the current “Ice Road” series was produced last winter, one of the worst in a long time. One problem was that temperatures were above 50 for a while, and at least a dozen trucks slid off the melting ice. “Them History Channel boys were on those wrecks just like a vulture,” said Spears, who drives for Carlile Transportation Systems. While he knows well the road’s dangers and the demands they place on drivers’ skills, he thinks the show’s producers “kind of dramatized it” with the constant emphasis on spinoffs.

I hope to do a few more entries on the show this summer. It airs at 8 p.m. CST on Sundays. I’ll  also post photos from my ride that we didn’t have room for in the Truckers News story.

— Max Heine

 

Reports on trucking and swine flu have proliferated this week. Many media outlets picked up the Knoxville, Tenn., newspaper interview with Professional Drivers Medical Depots (cited here earlier), but other angles have followed.

First, two on the lighter side:

Everitt Mickey, one of the writers who contributes to International Trucks’ Life on the Road blog, cautions readers to take the alarmist news accounts with a grain of salt: “The business of the news media, as they practice it, is to spread panic, hate, discontent and unease, while at the same time claiming otherwise.”

This one doesn’t involve trucking, but it does a thorough job of expanding Mickey’s criticism. My colleague Carolyn Magner showed me this on humor site The Gawker, with a label we both wish we’d coined: Aporkalypse now. The story itself, “Five Ways the Swine Flu Story Is Dumb,” takes the media to task.

The Fox affiliate in Memphis, Tenn., interviewed drivers across the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Ark., and found the flu was on the minds of many.  One was Veronica Martinez, who’s based in border city Laredo, Texas.  “You see this napkin here?” she said. “I don’t even touch the door.” The station’s website also has video of the West Memphis interviews.

 The City Wire of Fort Smith, Ark., is among sources reporting a statement from the American Trucking Associations: “ATA is aware that, depending on how aggressively the Swine Flu continues to spread, certain government actions might be taken which could impact trucking operations, especially cross-border operations with Mexico and Canada, and potentially at a domestic level.”

 The Journal of Commerce notes that work toward a new cross-border trucking program will apparently take a back seat to working on the flu.

— Max Heine

News coverage of the spreading swine flu has pointed out the role of air travelers in spreading contagious disease. If you’re thinking that truckers, likewise being a highly mobile group, could help the swine flu bugs get around, you’re thinking like Dr. John McElligot, CEO of Professional Drivers Medical Depots.
     He has put his truck stop-based clinics on “high alert” regarding the spread of swine flu.
Two of the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company’s five clinics are in El Paso and Laredo, which is notable because both cities are on the Mexican border.  
     Dr. McElligot was interviewed by the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Though I doubt he meant to single out truckers in a negative way, he was a bit blunt in describing the role they play in situations such as this because of their transience: “It’s truckers that spread things when there’s something of pandemic or epidemic proportions.”

No news reports have linked specific swine flu cases to truckers or truck stops.

— Max Heine

Traffic cameras are being used for more than red light monitoring these days. The Wall Street Journal gives an excellent update on how cities are increasingly using them to catch speeders and others by way of reading license plates.

 

The core app of red-light spying is still popular. And profitable. Tiny Schaumburg, Ill., put a camera at a mall and issued $1 million in citations for red-light runners over three months, The Journal reports.

 

There’s about 3,000 red light and speeder cameras in operation now, and protests have likewise increased. One complaint is that private companies make about $5,000 per snooping eye each month.

 

The story mentions Photoradarscam.com, which is devoted to protesting the use of cameras. It argues that instead of enhancing safety and providing other benefits,

 

  • Cameras Cause an Increase in Accidents Where They Are Installed
  • Cameras Are About Revenue Only
  • Cameras Malfunction Constantly and Do Not Modify Driver Behavior
  • Camera Programs Are Illegal and Unconstitutional

Another counter-offensive website is www.Trapster.com, though it covers all types of speed traps. It includes a comprehensive national map with traps pinpointed.

— Max Heine