When an industry is well into its ninth decade of existence and has become an integral part of the economy, you would think that new technologies and more enlightened rules and regulations would have greatly increased job safety. You would be wrong.
Since the first long-haul truck made the trek from Seattle to New York City in 1916 (a road trip that required an entire month to complete), tractor-trailers have grown in length, tonnage and speed. By the 1970s, when the federal government established a maximum gross weight of 80,000 pounds, the man (there were very few women in such jobs at the time) who plied the nation's roads behind the wheel of long-haul trucks had become a sort of folk hero, immortalized in song (remember Convoy?), film and a few velvet paintings and diner murals. Then came the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 (MCA).
Contrary to common perception, the Reagan Administration did not start the stampede of deregulation that has wreaked havoc on the environment, the economy and public health and safety over the past generation (though it did put that agenda on steroids). The “Motor Carrier Regulatory Reform and Modernization Act,” as it was officially known, was part of a series of price and entry controls that began with Nixon. It was signed into law by then-President Jimmy Carter, who said:
[The MCA] will remove 45 years of excessive and inflationary Government restrictions and red tape . . . reducing consumer costs by as much as $8 billion each year. And by ending wasteful practices, it will conserve annually hundreds of millions of gallons of precious fuel. . . . Consumers will benefit, because almost every product we purchase has been shipped by truck, and outmoded regulations have inflated the prices that each one of us must pay. The shippers who use trucking will benefit as new service and price options appear. Labor will benefit from increased job opportunities. And the trucking industry itself will benefit from greater flexibility and new opportunities for innovation.
Arguably, the MCA was instrumental in creating the “Wal-Martization” of America. It allowed many more trucking companies to enter the market. Competition among motor carriers turned brutal; by 1990, over thirty of the largest trucking companies had passed into history. Worst of all, it was the death-knell of drivers' unions; not surprisingly, wages plummeted.
Needless to say, with its focus on the “supply-side” of the equation, the MCA did not even touch on the antiquated pay system that has existed since the advent of the modern trucking industry. For well over eighty years, drivers have been paid according to the number of miles they actually drive. There is no compensation for time spent waiting at the loading dock – or at a rest stop.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation instituted an hours-of-service rule, requiring drivers to have a thirty-minute rest break within the first eight hours of a shift as well as a 34-hour weekend (or “restart” period every seven days). Essentially, U.S. truck drivers were limited to a 70-hour work week.
However, between personal economic pressures, company demands and ever-tightening schedules as consumer demand for products rises, these regulations were often bent, and even ignored.
At the same time, the American Trucking Association, one of the industry's biggest lobbying organizations, had been whining to its pet members of Congress that such rules requiring drivers to get adequate rest are “unsupported by science.” In 2014, Senator Susan Collins of Maine introduced a measure that would repeal much of that regulation. It would allow trucking companies to force their drivers to work in excess of eighty hours a week. (To be fair, it's not all Republicans that were behind the repeal of the “restart” rule: Blue Dog Democrat Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana expressed her concern with the idea of “the federal government going so far as to prescribe when people should sleep.”)
It would be good news to Corporate America, which has never had a problem maximizing profits on the backs and lives of everyone else, but not so good for fatigued truckers as well as motorists. In December 2014, the “Collins Amendment” was slipped into the infamous “cromnibus bill” as a rider (a method members of Congress employ to get a bill passed quickly, without any discussion, and above all, discretely – in hopes the public won't notice). The “restart rule” was suspended as of December 18th, and will remain so until the end of September 2015, unless the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) fails to complete a study of the issue – in which case, suspension of the rule will continue.
The number of trucking fatalities (also involving passenger vehicles and pedestrians) actually declined significantly during the last decade, from a high of just under 6,000 in 2004 to 3,147 in 2009 (source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). However, due to rising consumer demand as economic conditions improve, the number of trucks and drivers – as well as the number of hours they spend on the road – has been increasing, along with a corresponding rise in the number of fatal accidents. By 2013, death and injury statistics were up by nearly 9% over 2009 figures.
Thanks to Senator Collins and the rest of the Congress that pushed the Cromnibus Bill through – as well as the corporate mentality that sleep, health and safety concerns should never get in the way of commerce – the people of the U.S.A. can expect an increase in fatal accidents involving sleep-deprived long-haul truckers.
This past January the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), acknowledging that “commercial trucking is integral to our economy,” but adding that “crashes, injuries, and deaths involving commercial trucks have been increasing over the past several years,” called upon FMCSA to improve safety through a number of avenues, including mandating the installation of “vehicle safety equipment and technology, such as collision warning technology, tire pressure monitoring systems, rollover stability control systems, and lane departure warning systems.”
Most recently, four organizations, including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Truck Safety Coalition, and the Center for Auto Safety and Road Safe America, filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), requesting the federal regulatory body to institute similar rules. These safety organizations are requesting that all new large trucks and buses with a gross weight of 10,000 pounds or more be equipped with “Forward Collision Avoidance and Mitigation Braking” (F-CAM) systems. F-CAM technology employs radar and other types of sensors, alerting the driver and automatically applying the brakes when a collision is about to occur.
Such technologies can certainly be instrumental in preventing highway accidents and saving lives – and should be installed in new heavy vehicles as standard equipment rather than pricey options. Older vehicles should be retrofitted with such devices whenever possible. However, even the most advanced safety equipment is not a substitute for an alert, rested operator. Until Corporate America abandons the mentality that human health and life must take second place to maximizing profits – or until legislators cease being sycophants and lickspittles to Big Money Interests – or both – we can expect more tragic accidents and more shattered lives on America's highways.
Hey – but at least kids will get their X-Boxes, right?
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