Monday, September 15, 2014

Protect yourself from inflated, dishonest tows

Concerns about excessive tow bills have long been an issue for truck drivers. A question commonly asked by professional drivers is how to avoid inflated and dishonest bills. OOIDA State Legislative Director Mike Matousek is working with state trucking associations in an effort to create fairer terms for truckers around the country. In the meantime, he has provided some suggestions from OOIDA staff and members on how truckers can prepare for the likelihood of facing excessive tow bills. Here’s what Mike has to say about it.

Would your trucking business survive an encounter with a greedy towing company? OOIDA urges you to take this question seriously.

OOIDA previously reported on the epidemic of bad actor towing companies charging sky-high rates and putting truckers out of business. When truckers are involved in an accident, it is likely that state or local law enforcement will dispatch a towing company to assist with the towing and recovery effort, referred to as a non-consensual tow. Generally, law enforcement provides this service using a “rotation list,” which consists of towing and recovery companies that meet certain standards determined by each state. These lists are usually developed and administered by law enforcement or another government authority.

While these rotation lists allow for the safe and efficient removal of vehicles from a roadway, they also remove a great deal of consumer choice. For the most part, truckers have little, if any ability to choose a towing and recovery company or to negotiate prices or terms for the towing service. Unfortunately, we see towing companies that take advantage of this situation. For example, even if your tractor and/or trailer are legally safe to continue operating, some towing companies will haul your equipment away and hold it hostage until they are paid in full. The result can be financially and emotionally devastating to truckers who are already dealing with the stress of an accident or breakdown. Further, there is often little or no meaningful recourse.

Case in point, an OOIDA member recently received a towing invoice in the amount of $154,124.50 from a towing company in the state of New York. The accident did not involve other vehicles, no hazardous materials or major clean-up was required, and the recovery was not complex. Further, the majority of commercial truck insurance policies will not cover such an exorbitant cost. In our opinion, this was a quintessential example of price-gouging that probably borders on extortion and theft. Although OOIDA has filed a formal complaint with the New York Attorney General on behalf of the member in this particular case, the disposition is uncertain at best and likely months away.

So what can you do to proactively prepare for the possibility of facing an inflated and dishonest towing bill? Here are some suggestions from OOIDA staff and members:

·         Understand exactly what your insurance policy covers for your truck, trailer, and cargo. Policy limits and coverage can vary, and you might not be as “protected” as you think. If you are unfamiliar with your coverage, OOIDA encourages you to contact your insurance company or your carrier to get more details about your plan and learn about other coverage options that might suit your business better. For example, OOIDA offers a supplemental towing and cleanup policy, and other insurance companies might offer similar coverage.

·         Take pictures. If you are involved in an accident, regardless of fault, take as many detailed pictures of the scene as possible. This includes pictures of the tractor, trailer, and cargo, as well as pictures of towing company equipment and personnel at the scene. Documenting the towing and recovery process can help your insurance company settle or refute a claim. Pictures can also be used as evidence to protect you in the event of potential legal proceedings associated with a tow and recovery.

·         Consider seeking expert advice on potential business structures that can better protect your business and personal assets. No matter how unreasonable a towing bill might seem, you can be certain that many towing companies will seek to recover the balance in court. Various business structures, such as an LLC or S Corporation, can provide additional protections but they can also come with additional responsibilities and requirements. It is up to you to determine whether there is an option that works best for you and your business.

The above information is not a comprehensive list, but rather a few steps that you can take to better protect your well-being. Bad actor towing companies are a small percentage of the overall industry, but they are growing and the problem is getting much worse. OOIDA will continue to address this issue on many levels, but it is important that you do everything feasible to protect yourself from becoming a victim of this occurrence.

Friday, September 12, 2014

‘Would you please hide your pryin’ eyes?’

Chuck Winborn says it was about three months ago when he first noticed something off about the vent on the shower room door at a Flying J in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.

Winborn, an owner-operator and OOIDA senior member, had pulled into the Flying J Truck Stop off Interstate 65 and Daniel Payne Drive for fuel and a shower, when he discovered a problem with the aluminum vent near the bottom of the shower room door.

“I noticed that the vent in the bottom of the door had been bent so that you could see through into the hallway,” he said. “I got down and looked at the vent closely and could see that the veins in the vent had been forced down where you could clearly see through.”

He said a person standing underneath the shower head wouldn’t be visible to a potential peeping Tom. But an unsuspecting patron on the commode, or walking into or out of the shower opening would be in full view.

“If you held a camera phone down there to the opening, you wouldn’t have to put your face down there to the crack. And somebody could be taking pictures and doing God knows what with them,” he said.

Winborn said he walked down the hallway and inspected the other shower doors, finding at least six out of the 14 in a similar condition. He said he alerted the manager, and also phoned Pilot/Flying J’s corporate office, hoping to get a fix on it.

And then he waited. And waited.

“After three or four weeks I went back and found that the vents had been removed and turned upside down, placing the open gap closer to the bottom of the door but (someone) still being able to see through the door,” he said.

Winborn said he brought this to the manager’s attention again, who assured him it was “just a temporary fix.”

“It’s been approximately three months now, and it has still yet to be properly fixed,” he said. “During this time frame, that same Flying J has completely torn out both the front and rear public restrooms for remodeling and finished them.”

Fed up with waiting, Winborn called OOIDA then sent Land Line an email about the situation, and included some photos he’d taken of the vents in question.

“I just don’t understand. They’re building Pilot fuel stops all the time. They couldn’t have a set of grates shipped up here to fix this? It just doesn’t seem important,” he said. “My concern is for the female drivers or even the male drivers that may not even notice this peep hole or what pervert may be looking or possibly even taking pictures through these holes.”

We reached out to Pilot/Flying J’s corporate offices this week, and got a response today from communications manager Anne LeZotte. She said the company has purchased new vents “to ensure no gaps exist other than the manufacturer-specified gaps” that allow proper ventilation. The new hardware is expected to be installed early next week. She said Pilot is also “researching other precautionary measures.”

“Pilot Flying J takes customer concerns very seriously,” she said in an emailed statement. “The safety and privacy of our customers and employees are top priorities at Pilot Flying J. We appreciate this customer bringing his concerns to our attention, so we could remedy the situation.”

We’ll be keeping an eye on the shower room doors until they get fixed. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Does Alabama DOT really make you sign oversized load permits only in red ink?

We hear a lot of stories about “red tape” when it comes to trucking. But OOIDA member Mickey Harris brought us a new one about “red ink” when he paid a visit to our HQ in Grain Valley earlier this summer.

Harris, an owner-operator out of Poplarville, Miss., was hauling an oversized load in the northbound lanes of Interstate 65 on May 20, when he was stopped by an Alabama DOT officer. The DOT officer issued Mickey a warning for having a violation on his oversized load permit, all because the permit wasn’t signed by the driver in red ink.

You read that right – oversized load permits in Alabama must be signed in red ink. Not black, not blue, but red.

“I told the (DOT) officer it was legal madness,” Harris said.

Why red? Was the ink pigment choice meant to be a tribute to the Crimson Tide? What gives?

We started making some phone calls to see if we could get to the bottom of this.

Our first phone call was to the Alabama Trucking Association in Montgomery. We figured maybe the folks there would have some insight into what the deal was. When we got ahold of Ford Boswell, director of communications for the state association, his initially reaction sounded pretty familiar... He’d never heard of it, but he promised to do some digging.

Ford said he contacted the state DOT’s Permits and Licensing Office, who confirmed that, yes, permits are supposed to be signed in red ink. But even he wasn’t able to ascertain the why.

“I can only guess that it’s something to do with being able to prevent unauthorized duplicates,” he said.

We put our own call into the Permits and Licensing Office, to see if we could suss out the origins of the policy. We went looking for the proverbial “horse’s mouth,”who turned out to be Randy Braden, vehicle enforcement administrator for Alabama DOT.

Braden said the red ink was his idea, and that it came about “in the early days of faxes and scanning permits” as a means to prevent what he dubbed “bootlegging” of permits.

“Before the big crash of 2006-2007, we had nearly half of our oversize permits were mobile homes,” he said. “We were having a lot of duplication issues, you might call it bootlegging issues, with people getting a permit and changing it.”

Braden said using a unique ink color was a method of trying to combat the forging of permits, and that the choice of red was arbitrary.

“I tried to get (the permits department) to use it as an ad campaign,” he said. “Give truckers red pens with the phone number of the department on it. I told them they missed an advertising opportunity right there.”

While the red ink provision is not specified in any formal state code, Braden said the instructions are clearly written on the permit, and “whatever’s written on that permit, (drivers) are supposed to go by.” He said he was unaware of truckers getting anything more severe than a warning for not having the permit signed in red.

“I’ve never heard of them doing anything other than making them stop and sign that permit in red ink before they leave,” he said.

According to Braden, the state is currently working on policy revisions for electronic permits, many of which are now emailed to the recipient and downloaded to a mobile device such as a tablet.

To combat fraud or duplication, other states embed codes or unique identification markers into each permit, rather than putting the onus on drivers to carry a type of pen most people (other than editors and English teachers) don’t typically carry. Here’s hoping the state’s policy revisions come up with something a little less “colorful” solution to combating unauthorized permit use.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Big guns aim at coercion rule

“U.S. trucker coercion rule could impact global supply chains.”

Holy moly! Skyrocketing prices! Shippers and brokers in jail! The end of logistics as we know it!

OK, I’m overstating the case. But then, so are the industry groups quoted in the Journal of Commerce article under this headline. It’s all about reactions to the proposed FMCSA rule intended to protect you from coercion to break HOS rules.

Of course the rule, which finally acknowledges pressures on drivers, doesn’t go far enough. Enforcement depends on individual drivers to document coercion, file complaints, and follow through – not easily done or even possible when you’re dependent on relationships likely to explode if you complain.

But these guys have it the other way around. As they see it, the proposed rule would enable nit-picky drivers to make trouble for dispatchers, brokers, shippers, receivers, ocean carriers, manufacturers, or just about anybody in the supply chain from an Italian cheese maker to the pizza delivery guy at your door.

As if truck drivers keep lawyers on retainer.

The National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council, NASSTRAC, calls the proposal “a stunning overreach and abuse of regulatory power.” The custom brokers’ group with a name too long to deal with says, “Shippers and transportation intermediaries typically hire trucking companies rather than the drivers those companies employ.”

And the Transportation Intermediaries Association, TIA, is upset that the proposal would “expose shippers, receivers, and (brokers) to vicarious liability suits.”

Well, yeah. That’s the whole idea. Vicarious – meaning secondhand or by proxy in law – is exactly the kind of responsibility targeted by the proposal.

If a broker tells a carrier a shipment must be delivered without regard to the hours available to a driver, then that broker should bear some responsibility. If manufacturers, logistics companies, or others create supply chains with unreasonable truck transit demands as part of the bid specs, then they should be as accountable as the carriers who win the bids.

There’s nothing “stunning” about government reach in the proposal. Secondhand, or “vicarious,” liability is well established in the courts. When brokers hire unsafe carriers or improperly supervise drivers and accidents ensue, secondary parties are held liable for their roles. For example, C.H. Robinson, one of the biggest brokers in the world, was ordered to pay more than $23 million in a fatal 2008 crash of a truck it hired. It lost an appeal of the judgment in 2011.

No one is overreaching here, simply recognizing responsibility where it actually lies. 

In the day-to-day world of trucking, drivers have few options when it comes to coercion. You can accede to it and break the rules at the risk of your safety – never mind your safety rating.

Or you can decline and take the business consequences – lose a load or lose a job, perhaps. But most drivers work so close to the edge and each paycheck is so critical, that the idea of filing a complaint and seeing it through a bureaucratic trek with an uncertain outcome is not an option at all.

Even so, the big guns of commerce have come out blazing. It appears they’re going to do everything they can to make this proposal, inadequate as it is, go away altogether.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tilden Curl’s ‘Five Plus’ challenge

Here at OOIDA headquarters, one of the ways we stay tuned to the industry is by reading the letters, email, comments, social media and blogs written by our members. Tilden Curl of Olympia, Wash., writes a blog that we like. Last week – inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – Tilden wrote one we really like and promise to support. On Tuesday, we watched Tilden take it one step further with a video clip on Facebook. The whole idea is best explained by Tilden himself. Here’s his blog:

As truckers, we often talk all about what is wrong with the trucking world. What those stories hold might depend on what segment of the trucking world you are involved in. There are a few general topics that most of us can agree on (for the most part). What we agree on may also depend on your experience level. For instance, minimum training standards. Many just out of school seem to think they are well trained. Seasoned veterans say they shouldn’t be on the road yet.

Diversity is a double-edged sword. Diversity is what makes our industry work to supply the transportation needs of a nation. It is how we all find the segment of transportation that suits us the best. Diversity is also what separates us. While some are tanker drivers, some are reefer drivers, and some are ________( fill in the blank), we all have our own set of concerns.

When we talk about how to fix our problems, we talk first and most about our own problems. That is just human nature. That is also part of the problem. Sometimes we pit ourselves against each other.

I heard a song tonight that had a line that said, “When you throw dirt at me, you’re just losing ground.” While we may act to the best of our own behalf, seldom do we act together to solve one problem then move to the next.

Frankly, we generally just complain to each other and do very little more to solve any problems. I’ve heard more than once,” They’re going to do whatever they want.” Well, “they” make up a relatively small number of people. “They” just have the ear of the rulemakers. We can change that.

There are over 3 million truck drivers in the United States. Granted, some will never do anything more than drive a truck. But if we can show them an easy way to support the industry, some of these drivers may get involved to some degree. Involvement is out of the comfort zone for a lot of drivers, but doing something to make things better appeals to our basic nature. Being part of something larger than each of us individually. That is where the challenge comes in.

The only thing that will turn the course to a better direction is if we speak louder than the people currently directing our path. It really doesn’t matter the issue that is most important to you, just speak up! My challenge to you is to have conversations with others about our issues.

Find five people that will contact their representative on your behalf. This could be anyone that you know. Relatives, friends, neighbors, anyone that could use you as a window into a world that needs help. Encourage drivers that are sitting on the sidelines to get involved. If we all get five people involved, that could be millions of calls to our representatives.

Part of the success of a plan of this sort is the ease by which someone could get involved. It is pretty simple. Choose what you see as a problem, and then educate your listener as to why it is a problem. Let them know that they could be a big help in changing things for the better. After they have a fair understanding of the issue, you show them how easy it is to help.

Each of us have three lawmakers to act on our behalf: two senators and one congressman. It is important that they all hear from you. It may be a little awkward at first, but it gets much easier as you go along. The first step is the hardest.

There are three basic ways to be heard:

1)  Call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. Give them your ZIP code and they can connect you with your representatives.  Call back to each of them until all three have heard from you. Each call gets easier.

2) You can email each of them directly. Do a search for them on the Internet and you can easily find a “contact” button. Write your message and send.

3) No. 3 is probably the easiest of all! Simply go to FightingForTruckers.com. From there, you can either type in your message or use the pre-prepared statement to address a problem. This site will put you in touch with all three of your reps at one time. You might be surprised, but they will often get back to you thanking you for your input.

So, the challenge is to find five people (plus yourself) every month to contact a lawmaker. Address an issue that is important to you. It can be the same issue every month. It can be the same five every month. Just make the effort. As you find people that are receptive, pass the challenge on to them. You will find that in a short amount of time, you have made a difference. Don’t be a naysayer; give it a try. What have you got to lose?

We can do this.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Google’s self-driving car will be able to speed, for safety’s sake

We here at OOIDA HQ got a pretty big kick out of the headlines last week about Google’s autonomous car and its ability to speed if traffic conditions called for it.

The reason, according to a Reuters news service account of a test drive of the vehicle in California earlier this month, is because “Google’s engineers have determined that speeding is actually safer than going the speed limit in some circumstances.”

The cars are programmed to go up to 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit, when traffic conditions warrant, because the company’s research shows that sticking to the speed limit when other drivers are going much faster can actually be hazardous.

This probably isn’t earth-shattering news to those of you who’ve stayed current on OOIDA positions when it comes to highway safety. Your Association has been advocating for uniform speeds on highways for both commercial and non-commercial vehicles.

Probably the most succinct explanation for why a company would design a self-driving vehicle to break the law was provided by Gizmodo, a blog focusing on gadgets and high-tech (emphasis added):

“While no one’s going to confuse the Google car with a drag-racing hot rod, it is interesting that the company would deliberately design the car to break the law. The reason is safety: When cars all around the Google car are speeding, going slower than those cars would actually make driving conditions more dangerous.

In a nutshell, that’s the same argument the Association has been making when it comes to installing speed limiters or governors on commercial trucks. By hamstringing the trucks, a rule that is ostensibly designed to promote “safety” may actually increase the likelihood of a dangerous situation by creating an environment where faster vehicles are maneuvering in and out of lanes to get around the slower ones.

Back in November, our own David Tanner had a special report about how federal regulators are pursuing speed limiters for heavy trucks, despite not having any real-world data to suggest the devices actually make a difference in road safety.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a company known for being on the cutting-edge of innovation would be smart enough to recognize the hazard associated with speed limiters. Hopefully the regulators will be smart enough to follow suit.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Technology is turning HOS on its head

In the evolving world of electronic logging devices and real-time communication, regulations intended to put a lid on driver hours now provide a floor. The maximum under federal regulation has become the minimum through the laws of business.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when hours-of-service compliance was primarily the concern of the truckload driver. Sure, dispatch had to know a driver’s log status for planning. Did the driver have enough hours to handle a particular load? But a dispatcher didn’t necessarily know what a driver’s log looked like – exactly how many hours were left in a day, for example – unless the driver told him.

ELDs and mobile communications changed that. Now dispatch can know a driver’s available time down to the minute. They are also aware if a driver pulls over for a time, perhaps to nap, and they can be in constant communication with that driver – with all that implies in terms of potential harassment.

Now hold that thought.

Over the past 20 years carriers have been sharing more and more information with customers, who can now watch the progress of a truck on an iPhone. The more information carriers provided – ever more frequent updates, for example – the more shippers asked for. Why not? Whether the information is truly meaningful to the customer or not, it costs nothing to request. But customer requests quickly became market demands.

In logistics they call it visibility – always knowing where the freight is. We’re told it results in efficiencies for transportation customers, and maybe it does. But there is no doubt at all what it means for carriers and brokers: pressures to meet always increasing, ever more precise customer expectations.

Those pressures, like light rays magnified, converge on the driver. For one thing, sophisticated load planning software can maximize utilization of drivers’ available hours. And when a carrier knows the details of an individual driver’s log, they can apply subtle – or not-so-subtle – pressure within those legal hours. Carriers can push drivers up to the legal limit, filling their ELDs with logged hours and minimizing their options.

Please keep in mind that among those options is the choice to shut down and rest, to pull over and nap, to do what a driver knows is the right thing to do when fatigue flows in like a mist. No device yet invented can detect driver fatigue better than the driver. No algorithm can better decide when it’s time to call it a day. No set of regulations can better protect the public than a driver’s ability to decide – without pressure – when to run and when to get off the road.

Compelling a driver to stay on the road because there’s time left on an ELD is a very serious form of driver harassment. It endangers the public no less than forcing a driver to break the HOS rules. Yet in addressing driver harassment in the context of ELDs, the FMCSA simply looked the other way. They essentially restated current regulations in a tougher tone of voice, forbidding dispatch to force a driver to break HOS rules. That fails totally to even acknowledge the new reality created by ELDs.

Regulators understand that some drivers will drive as many hours as they legally can. That’s the reason for limits in the first place. But they also understand that HOS is intended to define how long a driver is allowed to work. It was never meant to define how long a driver is required to work. But that’s what’s happening.

For the moment, these circumstances do not apply universally, only to technologically advanced fleets. But due to market demands more fleets are acquiring technology, and if an ELD mandate goes into effect and automated logs are in every truck, this problem will surely metastasize. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

That ‘deep dark well’

The death of Robin Williams and the revealing stories about his struggle with depression have prompted statements from everyone from the president to his best friends. Many are posting comments about depression on Facebook. One that I liked was posted by “Land Line Now” Senior Correspondent Terry Scruton.

If you read “Roses and Razzberries,” you know Terry. If you listen to “Land Line Now” on Sirius XM, you know Terry. But there’s a side of him you don’t see, one that is particularly insightful and frequently profound.

Terry’s friends and family do see that side of him and we were privy to that this morning with a post on his personal Facebook. I have his permission to share this with you. 

I’m seeing a lot of posts today about depression in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, and understandably so. I’ve never suffered from clinical depression, but I know plenty of people who have and I thought I'd offer a few thoughts from someone on the outside looking in. 

The constant refrain I've heard throughout my life when dealing with people who have depression is “you don't get it. You don't understand.” You’re right. I don’t. But what you need to understand is that I’m trying.

My college girlfriend was bipolar and I got that refrain from her all the time. It made me feel small, ineffective and useless. It still does when I hear it today, even though I’ve learned so much more since those days. One thing I’ve learned is that depression is a disease. It’s not just a state of mind. People with depression don’t need to “cheer up” or “get over it.” They need medical help. The hard part is convincing them of that. Convincing them that there is hope. That they can get better.

I’ve heard that suffering from depression (I refuse to call it “being depressed” because that makes it sound like “being sad” and it’s so much more than that) is like being in a deep dark well with no way out. Here’s what it looks like from the other side: Since we can’t come down there with you, we just keep dropping buckets down the well, hoping you’ll grab one and we can lift you out to safety. But having never been down that well ourselves, we don’t realize how dark it is down there. We don’t realize that you might not even see the bucket or know that it’s there. We also don’t realize that sometimes those buckets might accidentally hit you on the head. Sorry about that. 

But know this: We’re not going to stop. No matter how deep or how dark it gets down there, there is always someone, somewhere who is going to keep trying to fish you out, whether you realize it or not. We are here. Buckets at the ready. You are never as alone in the dark as you think you are.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lauer. Lawyers. Lies.

On Monday morning NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed Tracy Morgan’s attorney, Benedict P. Morelli. Lauer handled the details of the wreck better than expected – especially in light of the recent teardown series on the industry put out there by CNBC.

One criticism of Lauer: He tried to slant the accountability from motor carriers. Clearly he lacks an understanding of the industry and how some motor carriers operate. He clearly was fishing for Morelli to say that only drivers are responsible for crashes when they happen. But that wasn’t even close to the worst of it. Morelli was so full of bad information it was appalling.

Morelli said there were “75 deaths a day from big rigs. It’s been increasing.”

Seriously – 75 a day from big rigs? If that were true, it would add up to 27,375 a year – which is so far from the truth it made me cringe. Then scream. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the actual number of truck-related deaths in 2012 was just over 3,900. And that number doesn’t reflect the fact that the truck driver was usually not at fault.

It’s not in the article on the website, but he states it at about the 4:05 mark on this video.

Watch the whole thing, though. Morelli’s “facts” are the gold standard for the misinformation that we in the trucking industry battle. Morelli not only butchered the actual facts, he said Walmart driver Kevin Roper had been driving his truck for more than 13 hours. DRIVING?

It will be interesting to see if Morelli is going to go into a courtroom with a load of lies and a very poor understanding of the hours of service. Let’s see, how many weeks has this guy been on the job prepping to represent Tracy Morgan in court with the facts? And he still doesn’t get it? Maybe Morgan has been paying him way too much.

Last week I blogged about the mainstream media having a field day with twisted truths and half-baked statistics, which of course results in a push for lawmakers to rush to respond with more regs and sadly perpetuates the killer trucker stereotype.

Here (again) are the real facts.

The most recent year of complete crash data released was 2012. Here are some key points:
  • There were 3,464 fatal crashes involving large trucks.
  • 3,921 people died in crashes involving large trucks..
  • Research shows that of those 3,464 wrecks involving large trucks, 75 to 80 percent of those wrecks were not the fault of the trucker.

What the media should be focused on is how MOST people on the road are dying.
  • There were 26,540 fatal crashes that did not involve large trucks.
  • 29,156 people died in crashes that did not involve large trucks.

Funny thing, Morelli complained to Lauer that the press had first reported in error that his client was dead. Then it was erroneously reported that Morgan had lost a leg in the accident. Morelli was actually outraged that those rumors were reported by the press. Ironic, eh?

Monday, August 4, 2014

FedEx defies the feds, fights Internet pharmacy indictment

Trucker or Cop?

That’s the question FedEx is asking in a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice. Charged by the feds in a criminal indictment with knowingly delivering prescription drugs from illegal Internet pharmacies, FedEx issued a defiant public statement in July:

“We want to be clear what’s at stake here: The government is suggesting that FedEx assume criminal responsibility for the legality of the contents of the millions of packages that we pick up and deliver every day. We are a transportation company – we are not law enforcement. We have no interest in violating the privacy of our customers.”

With a not-guilty plea in court last week, FedEx signaled a public fight based not on the specifics of the indictment, but on legal philosophy.

Comments on The Wall Street Journal website picked up on a conservative issue here. “Statism is the (government’s) goal,” wrote one reader of the FedEx indictment. “Control of everything that makes America free. If your neighbor is breaking the law, it is your responsibility to turn them in.”

The conservative Washington Times came out squarely in support of FedEx. “With millions of other Americans, we’re rooting for FedEx on its day in court,” the paper said.

Millions is an overstatement at this point. The FedEx case has yet to make waves in the general media. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Either way, FedEx has a point.

How responsible are carriers – or individual drivers for that matter – for the shipments in their trucks? Are they obligated to inform on customers they even suspect of illegal activity?

Last year, as part of the same war on illegal Internet pharmacies UPS decided not to fight the feds. The company accepted a $40 million fine and agreed to work with Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration against the Internet pharmacies. Some conservatives in the WSJ site claim the company “caved.”

UPS is hardly alone. In another, similar controversy federal authorities also forced cooperation from Internet service providers, major corporations like Verizon and Comcast.

The issue is very similar: the feds wanted these companies to inform on customers who download illegal music, movies, and TV shows. The service providers negotiated a nuanced deal with the government allowing a series of warnings before an illegal downloader is denied Internet service altogether. But ultimately, that’s what will happen.

So in the end, Verizon, Comcast, et al, are in the law enforcement business – like it or not. This settlement cannot be a good precedent for FedEx.

A couple of questions: first, is the issue FedEx outlined here – the privacy of customer information – worthy of a constitutional battle (assuming FedEx will ultimately lay out a constitutional argument)?

Apparently FedEx thinks so. I’m not so sure, at least not in this context. If we were talking about heavy drugs like heroin or terrorist tools, it wouldn’t matter how many millions of packages FedEx handled. The government would demand cooperation and – without a doubt – FedEx would provide it. So just how illegal does a shipment have to be before FedEx cooperates?

And speaking of millions of packages, would an individual driver with a single truckload shipment be able to make the same privacy argument based on principle alone? I don’t think the State Police would buy it and, for that matter, neither would a judge. But that’s just my layman’s opinion.

So does FedEx stand a chance in court?

Probably not in the first round. The 33-page indictment makes it crystal clear that FedEx management knew exactly what it was delivering and for whom. At the initial hearing last week, the federal prosecutor noted that more particulars, more documented accusations, were on the way.

If the government’s charges are true – and there is every reason to believe they are – FedEx is going to have a hard time looking like a champion of individual freedom and not a greedy corporation skirting the law time and time again.

The judge in the FedEx case seems to sense a long battle. Urging speed on the attorneys, he is quoted as saying he wants to try this case “in my lifetime.”

The next hearing is in September.