Thursday, October 23, 2014

NTSB and media miss the point in Maryland crash report

Federal investigators and the media are going all out to blame a truck driver for his role in a truck vs. train collision that occurred in Maryland last year and caused a 15-car derailment and explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the May 28, 2013, crash at Rosedale, Md., points out straight away that the driver of the truck hauling a roll-off trash container was talking on a hands-free headset at the time his truck entered a railroad crossing and was struck by the train.

Headlines proclaiming driver distraction have all but convicted the trucker for “causing” the crash.

That may be icing on the cake for an already sensational story, but it is far from the only factor that contributed to the crash and may actually rank low compared to some of the more glaring ones.

For starters, a commercial driver talking on a hands-free device is not illegal as a matter of federal or state law.

But that’s not the point I want to focus on here. I have a number of problems with the report and the ensuing coverage of the crash.

Let’s start with the crossing itself. Because it is on a private roadway (known as Dump Road) it does not have any lights, crossing gates or any other warning devices beyond a stationary crossing sign in the shape on an X.

Even if that doesn’t trouble you or is somehow mundane, it’s important to note that there is a complete lack of visibility at this crossing due to overgrown weeds and bushes.

The trucker pointed this out in his statement to investigators when he said he believed “it was not possible to see to the right without some portion of the truck being on the track.”

In fairness, the driver admitted to investigators he did not typically stop at this particular crossing because his truck terminal was nearby and he relied on the sound of train horns to alert him to oncoming trains. Is that the smartest thing? No, but had visibility been better, that likely wouldn’t be much of an issue.

The uphill grade of the roadway leading to the crossing is also an issue for trucks because they must stop and start on a slight hill. Oh, and the stop sign marking the crossing is faded, and upside down.

Next, the NTSB dedicated some real estate in its 84-page report to discuss the truck driver’s health history and traffic record – which is due diligence, I suppose. Both seemed to be in decent shape. It’s the NTSB’s choice of words in these sections that are concerning – that somehow the driver’s weight of 300 pounds, his body-mass index, or that he had once been tested for sleep apnea, were contributing factors to the scenario.

The fact is, a driver’s weight, BMI or status on sleep apnea are not consistent or reliable indicators of that driver’s ability to perform his work duties. He possessed a full two-year medical card issued by his medical examiner well before the crash. The NTSB noted that since the crash, a different examiner restricted the driver to a three-month card after determining he did not follow up on being re-tested for his sleep apnea condition.

The report notes that the trucker’s waste-hauling company, Alban Waste, became a new entrant in the FMCSA database in April 2011. The company failed its new entrant safety audit a few months later after the FMCSA found it lacked in implementing and enforcing a company drug and alcohol policy. Alban Waste was placed out of service in February 2012 but was reinstated in March of that year and passed its new entrant audit.

So what does the NTSB want to see happen? They want an all-out ban on hands-free cellphone use for truckers. They want an increased focus on new entrant audits and for companies to be revoked if they show a pattern of deficiencies. And they want a system that will notify the FMCSA of “violations” that arise in a driver’s medical qualification exam. Does this have anything to do with apnea? Because the current laws and regs are clear that apnea testing is not mandatory.

The NTSB has also provided model state legislation that says trucks should come to a complete stop before entering a “passive” railroad crossing – ones that aren’t marked with gates and signals. The model legislation would also require improvements to sight distance at passive crossings through the trimming of trees and weeds. Local, county and state property owners and the railroads have an obligation to make sure their grade crossings are safe.

In this instance, it doesn’t look like anyone cared enough to make this particular crossing safe, and as a result, a train got derailed, some chemicals onboard exploded, and a truck driver’s name, health history and safety record got sullied.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Roses to St. Christopher supporters, razzberries to skinflints

OOIDA has long been a supporter of the St. Christopher Trucker Development and Relief Fund, a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to professional truck drivers who have medical problems and who are in need of financial assistance.

The SCF receives 30-45 applications for assistance each month. The fund has already given more than $204,000 in assistance this year to get drivers through a rough patch and back on the road. An additional $10,200 has been approved to pay as soon as the bills come in.

SCF says applicants have a wide range of medical issues, everything from broken ankles to terminal cancer. The average age of all applicants is 50, too young to retire or to get Social Security. The majority have no health insurance or accident insurance, short-term or long-term disability, or money in savings, so when a medical event takes them off the road, it’s financially catastrophic for the driver and it’s bad news for the company he or she drives for.

Where does the funding to help these drivers come from? TravelCenters of America’s Band Together campaign provides most of the donations. Here at Land Line we like to hand out roses and razzberries, so roses to TA, the employees and all the truckers who donated during the Band Together campaign.

And roses to those carriers, brokers and key industry service providers who quietly make sizey donations from their companies. Roses, too, to drivers making donations directly to SCF. The St. Christopher Fund says drivers make up than 80 percent of the individuals who open their wallet for the St. Christopher Fund.

But looking at the list of contributors, there are some skinflints who are noticeably absent. Who is somebody who could really benefit from getting those drivers back behind the wheel and who could sure benefit from keeping them in the industry? Somebody that deserves a big fat razzberry.

Let me give you a clue who they are.

The St. Christopher Fund says they’ve helped drivers from 578 different motor carriers. Do you know how many of those trucking companies have ever contributed funds to the trucker fund? Only two.

I don’t know about you, but to me – that’s shameful.

There’s no doubt those motor carriers are among those having problems putting drivers in their trucks. It seems like the words “driver shortage” and “retention” are in every trucking headline. You would think they would be supportive of those charitable organizations that work hard to put their sidelined drivers back on the road.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

‘Modern Family’ star working on new comedy set at truck stop

When it comes to untapped veins of comedy gold, TV’s Eric Stonestreet is banking on striking it rich with a show about truck stops.

Stonestreet, who plays Cameron Tucker on the ABC hit comedy Modern Family, has reached a deal to produce a sitcom that revolves around a truck stop in Kansas, according to a report from Deadline Hollywood.

A Kansas City, Kan., native who studied at Kansas State University in the “Little Apple” of Manhattan, Kan., Stonestreet’s truck stop project for ABC is called Big Stop. According to the report, the show will be “a modern take on family and today’s current issues as seen through the lens of a bustling Kansas truck stop where stories and characters, like big rigs, come rolling in off the highway every day.”

“Truck stops are the airports of the highways where all sorts of characters with their stories come through,” Stonestreet told the website. “It is relatable. No matter if you’re a businessman or a politician or a regular guy, we all find ourselves at a truck stop at one time or another.”

Big Stop will also be a throwback to classic TV sitcoms, making use of the multi-camera recording approach, used for shows shot in front of a studio audience (like The Cosby Show or Everybody Loves Raymond). Writer Jerry Collins, whose credits include The Bernie Mac Show, is attached to write. No timetable for development was disclosed.

Stonestreet’s not the first person in Tinsel Town to train a lens toward truck stops and travel centers. In 2011, the producers behind the hit show “Pawn Stars” gave us “Truck Stop, Missouri” a reality show about the colorful characters at Midway Truck Stop on I-70 near Columbia. That show lasted two seasons.

Hopefully the show won’t play for cheap laughs or reach for the low-hanging fruit of so many of the same tired clichés that have been tossed at truckers since the 1970s. There’s reason to be optimistic, given that Modern Family is regularly lauded for being a genuinely funny show. It’s also been praised for its realistic depictions of Los Angeles, where the show takes place, such as in this 2014 article from Slate.

It’s certainly easy to see the appeal of a truck stop serving as the hub of a comedy show. The airport analogy Stonestreet made is spot-on. There are all kinds of characters from all walks of life who manage to wander into or pass through a truck stop at one time or another. Here’s to hoping for a show that will focus on telling those stories, rather than settling for gross-out gags or a bunch of lot lizard jokes.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen at a truck stop? Tell us in the comments!

Monday, October 6, 2014

95 Express Lanes: Nice new construction, bad highway policy

Been caught in construction delays along I-95 in Northern Virginia over the past two years? Have you been hoping for a better ride as a result?

Sorry. When the project, called 95 Express Lanes, opens next year it may not do you a whole lot of good. Upgrades along the 29 mile stretch between Stafford, Va., and the D.C. Beltway interchange near Alexandria are virtually all for HOV lanes restricted to two-axle vehicles with three or more passengers.

Actually the $1 billion project funded by both tax dollars and private investors includes at least two elements that are unfair to truckers and should worry everyone who relies on public highways. Sadly, these elements seem to indicate the direction of highway policy across America, and it’s not kind to truckers.

First, of course, are those HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes. To serve heavy commuter traffic, the I-95 HOV lanes are reversible, heading north toward the capital in the morning and south to the suburbs in the evening. This makes much sense.

But why not open those lanes to all? Does it make sense to give HOVs a faster ride at the expense of everyone else? HOV lanes are supposed to increase carpooling and make the air cleaner, but studies fail to show they do either. The only thing that studies – and common sense – do show is that reducing density on HOV lanes necessarily increases density on Everyone Else Lanes. You’ll be stuck on these lanes in your truck even though your diesel taxes helped pay for those shiny new HOV lanes.

Second, I object to the addition of High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) riders to the HOV lanes. When 95 Express Lanes open for business next year, drivers with a special version of E-ZPass will be able to use the HOV lanes – even without high occupancy – at a price. Sure, that could help a guy who’s late for work or someone with a personal emergency. But let’s face it, the HOT privilege is aimed at folks who can afford to pay the extra amount and will do so on a regular basis. Just as in the case of HOV, they will travel faster at the expense of those in the Everyone Else lanes.

Why should you care if they charge four-wheelers to use the HOV lanes?

Because it’s a terrible precedent that allows tolls to creep onto once open, public highways. It’s the HOV lanes today and the Everyone Else Lanes tomorrow.

Worse, HOT establishes another category of highway privilege, this time based on money. Picture the interstate of the future. Two lanes for recent vintage luxury cars; two lanes for buses, minivans, and family sedans; and finally two lanes for dented four-wheelers with at least one trash-bag window and a donut spare.  

Oh yes, and the 18-wheelers.

And of course there’s congestion pricing on those HOV lanes, another money grab. But don’t get me started.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The privatized Indiana Toll Road goes belly-up

The private operator that was supposed to run the Indiana Toll Road until 2081 might not make it. Seems they’re broke, unable to pay their bills, and so have filed for bankruptcy.

In case you’ve forgotten, in 2006 the state of Indiana sold rights to the 60-year-old, 157-mile toll road to a Spanish-Australian consortium for 75 years. The price: $3.8 billion. Somehow, according to The Wall Street Journal, the consortium is now $6 billion in debt and they just missed an interest payment.

How can you buy a toll road for $3.8 billion, collect tolls for eight years, and owe $6 billion – unless you borrowed the original $3.8 billion from payday lenders? Of course, the ability to understand such things is not given to us little people.

But don’t worry. Indiana assures us the Chapter 11 restructuring won’t noticeably affect day-to-day operations on the toll road.

At least not until 2017.

That’s when toll increase restraints in the original privatizing agreement relax, according to a former toll road oversight board member who spoke to WSBT-TV, the CBS affiliate in South Bend. So whoever operates the road then will be able to raise tolls “substantially,” WSBT-TV reported. That probably explains why some payday lenders – excuse me, I mean hedge funds – are buying debt from the consortium and lurking about to see who gets the keys to the Indiana Toll Road cash register.

Should the consortium collapse – or whatever dying consortiums do – it isn’t entirely clear who takes over. Some say the state, some say the circling credit buzzards. My money’s on the buzzards, and if that’s the case, say some financial experts, lawsuits will be launched. Aggressive new owners will want to renegotiate the original agreement with the state to allow them – the buzzards – even fewer restraints.

To be fair, Indiana now has $3.8 billion worth of capital improvements because of the original deal. A supporter pointed to projects in St. Joseph and Elkhart Counties, a new U.S. 31, added lanes on the toll road itself, and lots of other improvements.

Great. I hope they are truly monumental improvements because the money is gone now. But the Indiana Toll Road lease has another 67 years to run and one opportunity after another to increase tolls.

Back in 2006, OOIDA said the sale was a bad idea, and we would love to celebrate having been right. But there can be no joy when OOIDA members will probably end up paying way more than their share for this debacle.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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: