Logistically Speaking: Fear factor

April 1, 2005
Picture this nightmarish scenario: A down-and-out truck driver, exhausted from a week of 16-hour days behind the wheel, falls asleep in the nation's capital,

Picture this nightmarish scenario: A down-and-out truck driver, exhausted from a week of 16-hour days behind the wheel, falls asleep in the nation's capital, a mere 100 yards from a runaway freight train hauling toxic hazmat within spitting distance of the Capitol Building. The spectacular collision wreaks havoc and devastation throughout the District of Columbia, numbering the President, Vice President and most of Congress among the casualties. And who's behind it all? The evil shippers, of course, who in their greed have made the highways and railways utter deathtraps for the entire nation.

You've probably figured out this isn't some B-grade disaster movie I'm describing — this is pretty much exactly how the popular press has been characterizing the logistics profession lately. And what bothers me is how ineffective shippers have been at telling their side of the story.

Last month, Rep. John Boozman (R-AR) proposed a bill that would extend a driver's workday to 16 hours, as long as there was a two-hour break in the day. Given that his constituency includes a certain retail giant based in Bentonville, Boozman's proposal was quickly dubbed "the Wal-Mart amendment" in the press.

"This is a sweatshop-on-wheels amendment," proclaimed Joan Claybrook, president of safety advocacy group Public Citizen, who was instrumental in getting the 2003 Hours of Service regulations tossed out of court last summer.

In an Associated Press wire report picked up nationwide, Claybrook went on to declare, "The last thing we need is for tired truckers to become even more fatigued and threaten the safety of those around them on the road."

That makes for good copy all right, but while these "news" articles succeed in frightening people into imagining thousands of sleepy-eyed Wal-Mart drivers slamming into passenger vehicles, we never hear from the press exactly what would happen if Public Citizen got its way and drivers were allowed no more than 10 hours a day behind a wheel. Not only would the economic repercussions be enormous, but even worse, in all likelihood the safety of the highways would in fact worsen since new, inexperienced drivers would have to be recruited (from who knows where) to pick up the slack caused by the shortening of drivers' hours. Goods still have to get moved, after all.

Another thing that bugs me is that with all the attention being leveled at "tired truckers," no mention is ever made of the rigorous training programs drivers are put through before they ever get near a truck, or how the very best drivers are most likely to be the ones pulling the biggest rigs. Good drivers never make the evening news.

The banning of hazmat rail cargo in the District of Columbia (which we reported last month) is widely seen by legal experts as an unconstitutional power grab by the D.C. City Council. And yet, the story as portrayed in the press makes frequent references to "the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people" should a toxic gas be released into the atmosphere.

Naturally, nobody wants to be on a highway with a tired trucker driving next to them, and certainly nobody wants to be exposed to toxic fumes from a chemical spill. But that's arguing from a faulty premise — that every driver on the road and every hazmat container being hauled is an accident waiting to happen.

It's time for some sane thinking in the transportation arena, based on statistics and facts rather than scare tactics and posturing. But that's going to require a more concerted effort from those in the know. Many of the organizations representing shippers seem all too eager for the 2003 Hours of Service rules to get legislated into law, without the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ever addressing the questions about driver health put to it when the rules were thrown out. That seems like a strategy destined to keep the public advocacy groups hounding Congress to enact stricter controls on the transportation industry.

If you don't want to end up looking like the bad guy here, if you don't want your kids asking you how come your company is trying to kill people, then you need to insist that the FMCSA answers this question clearly and unambiguously: Do the 2003 HOS rules save lives, or do they put more lives at risk? Whether Congress rubberstamps the 2003 rules or not, that question absolutely needs to be answered, and the sooner the better.

Dave Blanchard,

[email protected]

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