Wednesday, December 17, 2014

From the “You Had One Job” file

One of the folks in OOIDA’s Business Services department passed along this story that we thought was too funny not to share.

About a week ago, one of the staffers in the compliance department was exploring the FMCSA’s Hotline Complaint website, and used “Concentra” as a stand-in for the company he was complaining about.

Concentra, as you probably know, is one of the largest providers of DOT physicals, performing more than 750,000 a year from nearly 600 locations in 40 states, according to the company’s website. In 2012, the company began working with FMCSA to develop the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners (which took effect in May) and changed the eligibility requirements for physicians who perform DOT physicals.

But did you also know that Concentra has its own “fleet” of nine commercial vehicles? Based out of Houston, the company hauls mobile medical equipment and boasts 10 drivers.

According to FMCSA, on May 27, 2013, one of those drivers received a Driver Fitness Violation 391.41A-F, otherwise known as “operating a property-carrying vehicle without possessing a valid medical card certificate.” See for yourself here.

Read that again, then join me in doing your best Nelson Muntz impression. Because it’s pretty hilarious that the company literally responsible for the new DOT physical rules would have a driver get popped for not having a valid med card.

When reached for comment, Anne-Marie Puricelli, Concentra’s chairman of the transportation committee, said the company “took immediate action in 2013 to correct this isolated incident.”

No word on whether or not the driver in question failed Concentra’s sleep test. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Paging journalistic integrity, STAT

I’m just sick of it. Plain tired.

Trucking gets a bad rap. Far, far too often. And it’s largely at the hands of my so-called colleagues in the media. These lazy hacks are an insult to any of us with work ethics and downright plain, unadulterated ethics.

This fight over the changes to the 34-hour restart has provided an abundance of write-and-rip copy (that’s journo talk for just slamming out a story without any effort). The trucking critics have preyed on the laziness of the mainstream media with scare tactics and wrong information.

And far too many writers buy all of it. Hook. Line. And sinker.

This is how the article that set me off this morning starts:

For the second time in three years, the trucking industry has found a friend in Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Collins got a rider attached to the spending bill approved over the weekend so truckers will no longer have to get two nights sleep in a row before starting a work week.

For the love of all things exhausting. Please.

This sounds like truck drivers never sleep. Never. They stay up for days on end. Eyeballs on stems.

And this isn’t isolated. Since the 34-hour restart changes were introduced, reporters have been glomming on to the “tired trucker” mantra. I Googled the term and there were 35 news stories from just this week. I assure you that term did not turn up any results from Land Line.

These reporters need to turn off the cliché trucker movies and put down the press releases and actually pick up the freaking phone and ask some questions. I don’t know, actually, ask someone who knows?

Journalism 101 tells you one thing. If it’s coming to you in the form of a press release, there is a reason it was sent. The reasons aren’t always nefarious. But, there is a reason that it was sent. You better know good and well what that agenda is before you dare waste the ink to put it out to those who should trust that your reporter BS filter is fully engaged.

Writers (I can’t even bring myself to call them journalists), before you sit down at your keyboard again, I suggest you take a long hard look in the mirror and remember what drew you to this profession. If it wasn’t to seek the truth and to make things better, it’s time you find another career. And, yeah, take trucking off the table of potential jobs. You don’t have the stomach for that. It’s actual, hard work.

Laziness in the journalism profession is rampant, and I for one am sorry for the damage that’s its doing to you, my readers.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Just in time for Christmas, it’s the ‘Truck-Eating Bridge’ calendar

If you or someone you know has had a literal run-in with one of the low-clearance bridges of Davenport, Iowa, let’s just be clear off the top that Land Line is in no way attempting to point and laugh at anybody’s misfortunes.

We just want to call attention to the Quad City Times for a fun, albeit tongue-firmly-in-cheek fundraiser to support the local affiliate of Literacy Leadership Inc., a nonprofit that uses newspapers to help promote literacy and critical thinking skills in K-12 students.

That said, copies of the 2015 edition of the “Truck-Eating Bridge” calendar are hanging side-by-side with the 2015 SuperRigs calendar in a place of honor at both Land Line and “Land Line Now” HQ.

The calendars, which sell for about $21 after taxes and shipping, can be purchased here. With the paper providing the photos and absorbing the printing costs, 100 percent of the proceeds go directly to services provided by the program, which include educational materials and lesson plans for teachers and students. The program distributes more than 25,000 newspapers to area students per week.

Jennifer Praet, Literacy Leadership coordinator for the Quad City area, said the calendars started about four years ago, in response to the tremendous amount of website traffic for photos of the aftermath of both straight trucks and tractor trailers getting their tops cropped by the notorious bridges (clearance on one of the bridges is only 11 feet, 8 inches).

“We have two bridges in Davenport that tend to be a problem,” Praet said. “The bridge over the Mississippi (River) is called the Arsenal Bridge, and then down Brady Street we have a bridge on there that also has very low clearance.

“About four years ago, (The Times) decided if people really want to see these pictures, let’s go ahead and put them out there,” she said. “They started a calendar and it has been a great fundraiser for our nonprofit.”

Bridge strikes in that area are so common, Praet said the calendar has been able to feature new and unique images every year.

“They are all current pictures; we don’t recycle any of them,” she said. “We have so many of them that happen in a year’s time, we can pull them from the last year or so. We’ve never recycled a picture.”

Like any good calendar, this one includes plenty of holidays, including Everything You Do Is Right Day (March 16), National Flip Flop Day (June 15), and World Pasta Day (Oct. 25). Of course, there’s also Truck Day (July 20).

Praet says all the holidays listed are the real deal.

“We’re a newspaper so we checked our facts and cross-referenced them,” she said. “They are actually all holidays. Who doesn’t want to know when it’s National Skip-Housework Day, or Eat Chocolate For Breakfast Day?”

The calendars can be purchased throughout the year, and there is no limited number of copies printed.

Praet stressed that the calendars are “absolutely meant to be in good fun,” and said that the owner of at least one local company that was “featured” in the calendar “thought it was a hoot, and he ended up buying them for that employee as a Christmas present.”

“We have had a huge response from truck drivers themselves and the companies thinking it’s great,” she said. “Obviously it’s an unfortunate thing, and you don’t want to see anybody go through that, but you know it happens. The response we’ve had is this is just great fun, and a neat way to support the charity.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

The newbie driver survey that wasn’t

Transport Topics recently reported that 51 percent of truck driving school graduates are white, 28 percent are African American, 12 percent are Hispanic, and 8 percent are women.

But that’s not the whole story. According to little-known but spunky research firm TGC (Two Guys with Clipboards), there’s a lot more to know about the latest crop of newly minted drivers.

For example, 23 percent graduated with honors, 72 percent graduated with a “C” average, and 5 percent hit the road without knowing which side to drive on. All found employment. However, 1 percent of the latter group drove off to pick up loads and were never heard from again.

TGC reports that a majority of the newbies prefer manual automatic transmissions to manulated manual transmissions, or even hybrid automated manual automacular transmissions. While 10 percent said they mastered a traditional 12-speed manual transmission, it turned out that most had actually trained with a walking stick in a bucket of spackle. All found employment.

TGC’s multiple-choice questionnaire asked why respondents had entered truck driving school. Forty percent selected “want to see the country.” Thirty percent picked “to get rich.” Twenty percent chose “to get away from wife/husband/in-laws.” Seven percent selected “other” and wrote “is that what this is?” Meanwhile, 3 percent entered an enigmatic smiley face.

Asked what they intended to bring along on their trips, 60 percent said they would bring a smartphone; 35 percent said fingernail clippers and tweezers. The remaining answers included nunchucks, Mace, Google Glass, emerald relish, a Monster Jam sheet set, 3D glasses, a bottle of Lysol, a change of clothes, a watch, a dog, a gerbil, a chain saw, and incredibly on each of two separate questionnaires, a tuba.

According to TGC, 20 percent of newbies do not use maps, 29 percent cannot read maps, and 10 percent cannot pronounce maps. However, 90 percent of newbies use GPS navigation at least part of the time. Of this group, 75 percent use truck-specific routing and 24 percent use cheaper car-oriented products. The remaining 1 percent have yet to arrive at their first pick-up destination and responded to this survey through the United States Forest Service.

Not surprisingly, that group had few opinions to offer about truck stops. Among those who did have opinions, 50 percent rated the restaurant their favorite part of a truck stop. Thirty percent preferred the showers while 20 percent voted for the game room. However, a small number of that group were surprised to see the highway racing games showed footage taken from their own trucks.

Despite that, virtually all the newbies said the company-installed cameras did not record them in the sleeper off duty -- except for one woman driver whose dispatcher asked where she had gotten “those cute Dale Jr. jammies?”

Finally, TGC reported that only 30 percent of the newbies completed the questionnaires. The rest quit and went home.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Trucking critics, take a chill pill – and let’s talk some facts

Trucking critics have the rhetoric and spin machine launched into overdrive. To say they are in a fizz over reinstating the previous version of the voluntary 34-hour restart would be the understatement of the century.

Blind emotions are driving these critics to grab at every inaccurate statistic they can. And, if they can’t find one to misconstrue, they are making stuff up.

First, the Tracy Morgan crash. The crash that is the critic's poster child reason for not changing the voluntary restart provision happened under the new version. Not the old one. There is no direct connection between the two. It’s like taking a flight from Kansas City to Dallas and going through Nova Scotia to connect those dots.

Second, please, please, please, give the 82-hour workweek a rest. You can make it happen on paper. That’s it. Real world scenarios do not allow such a week. On paper I could be model thin and mega rich. That’s not happening either. And, who, beyond any profession that bills by the hour wants to work 82 hours in a week. Not me. But maybe I’m just lazy.

Third, quit overstating fatalities – especially when you’re going to ignore who is at fault in those crashes. I’ve beat this drum I don’t know how many times, but since the trucking critics are banging the trash can of bad stats, I’ll put it out there again.

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 (not 10,000).
  •          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.
Every life is precious. Every death is tragic. But, you cannot keep blaming truckers and ignoring the fact that the vast majority of passenger drivers who die on the road play a role in their own deaths. Training and safety measures need to happen for personal vehicle drivers, too. No one will go for that, though.

Finally, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, explains that the changes to the 34-hour restart provision will not do very well. So, I’ll use her words. Here’s what she told members of the Senate Commerce Committee prior to the amendment’s overwhelming bipartisan passage 21-9 in June.

“This amendment does not, does not make changes to the maximum number of hours per day that a driver can be behind the wheel … it does not change the mandatory 30-minute meal or rest break during a shift … it does not change the total on-duty window in each shift … it does not change the minimum off-duty hours required between shifts … it does not change the sleeper-berth requirement for splitting off-duty time,” she told committee members.

So let’s tap the brake on the BS and focus on facts. Death and mayhem will most certainly NOT follow on the highways if the changes are implemented. Give it a rest.

On a quick side note, truckers, OOIDA has a call to action out there encouraging support of the full appropriations bill so we can get these changes done. “One more call to your lawmakers – both your congressman and senators – would be a good move. The number for the U.S. Capitol switchboard is 202-224-3121. The message is short and sweet. Simply ask the staff person to convey your message to ‘pass the CRomnibus legislation’ and thank them for doing so,” the alert states. And feel free to use any of the above facts when mentioning your support. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Changes to inspection report requirements just a feel good move

FMCSA is really patting itself on the back over a regulatory change that eliminates the requirement to fill out an inspection report on a truck with no defects.

In complete honesty, this is merely a feel good move with an overinflated estimate on how much time and money it’s going to save the industry.

The Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports will no longer need to be filled out if there are no defects. The claim by the agency is that this will save countless hours and boatloads of money – $1.7 billion annually.

The requirement never applied to owner-operators of one truck. So nothing changes for them. And, in most operations, the report was on the very same logbook sheet that motor carriers are still required to keep on file, so no paperwork reduction there.

All of this is not to say that it’s a bad thing. Of course, removing a silly requirement of filling out a report that basically states, “Nope. Nothing’s wrong here,” is a good thing. But let’s not get carried away.

It’s a good thing, and I’m sure the truckers who were out there at the end of their day filling out one more report will appreciate it. It’s just that in the grand scheme of things, it would be so much nicer to see some concerted effort and progress in the agency toward connecting and understanding life on the road.

If they did, they would know the vast majority of drivers likely filled that report out after their pre-trip inspection. They would have also known that the “paperwork reduction” happened a long time ago when those reports were incorporated into most logbooks truckers use.

This shouldn’t have been so much a “woo hoo” in their minds as it should have been “well, that was a waste of time.”

Sure wish FMCSA would punch in and realize you can’t regulate from behind a computer if you don’t truly understand the ins and outs of the job you are regulating. Bet I’ll just keep wishing … 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Trucking lost one of the good guys

There are people in your life whose mere existence is so profound that it’s hard to find ways to come to terms with the fact they are no longer here. That they have died.

This has turned into an ongoing struggle for me ever since I learned of the death of David Mike Pennington. He died of a heart attack on Friday, Dec. 5, at the age of 64. If you knew him, you know what I mean about trying to process this. If you didn’t, I’m going to do my best to explain.
Mike Pennington. Photo Courtesy of Meritor.

Mike has been involved in the trucking industry for years, since 1972 to be exact. For the longest time he worked with Meritor in marketing and public relations. That’s what he was doing when I first entered trucking journalism some 15 years ago and met him. Once you met Mike, you didn’t forget him.

There was never a time when you interacted with Mike that you did not feel as if you were the most important person in the room. His infectious smile and kind heart made us all feel a little bit better.

Mike had a passion for the trucking industry that many would say is unparalleled. His press conferences were visionary. I mean who else could get a bunch of ink-stained wretches to sit in uncomfortable chairs for an hour.

He was always quick with support and a word of encouragement to the newbies, like I was, in the industry. He was the guy you could count on, no matter.

He was a founding member of Truck Writers of North America. Journalists and associated members like PR folks came together to network, to support each other and to, in general, raise the level of professionalism in the trucking journalism community.

I’m chairman of the board of that group. We’re going through a transition right now that is not necessarily comfortable. But, you can bet at every turn Mike was there, ready to lend a hand, offer a word of encouragement, or just tell me “Hang in there, kiddo.”

But Mike wasn’t just about journalists. He was about the truckers, too. More than you will ever know, really.

He recently embarked on a new adventure – being instrumental in the formation of Trucking Moves America Forward. He believed in what we all do and, more importantly, believed in the men and women behind the wheel, out on the road every day. The people we all work for.

He wanted truck drivers to be respected by the public. He wanted to promote professionalism within the industry so there wouldn’t be as many of those who give truckers a black eye. He believed we could all work together and make that happen.

Trucking Moves America Forward is still in the growth stage. And if they stick to the mission as Mike saw it, his legacy will live on in the trucking industry in so many ways.

I think everyone hopes to leave a mark on life here on Earth when we depart. But the profound impact that Mike had on the lives of so many of us, is something that I’m sure he didn’t realize. He was humble like that.

We will miss Mike Pennington. We will miss what he meant as a leader, mentor, friend and kind soul.

This sort of loss cannot be summed up easily. It can only be honored in striving to raise the bar and be the kind of professional and person that Mike Pennington was.

Editor’s note: The Celebration of Life will be held Friday, Dec. 12, 2014 at 11a.m. at, The Amelia Island Club, 5 Ocean Club Drive, Amelia Island, Fla. The Omni Hotel at Amelia Island is offering villa rates for those wishing to stay overnight. Contact Romi Woodin at (904) 491-4700 to make arrangements.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Any job worth doing …

For quite some time now we’ve been hearing a refrain from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration about the need to regulate shippers and receivers and get a handle on detention time in the trucking industry.

It’s been encouraging. Dare we say we were almost hopeful that for once FMCSA was going to do something that would actually help drivers and (gasp) maybe even empower them.

I was rather excited when I received my copy of the agency’s study on detention time. That excitement didn’t even last past the 10th page. It was quickly replaced by anger and disappointment.

FMCSA contracted with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to conduct the study. To gather the “real world” field data, VTTI hired two third-party vendors.

The half-hearted effort put into this study shows a crystal clear case of highway robbery of taxpayer money. The third-party vendors surveyed 31 motor carriers. Not a typo. Really, just 31. There will be some who might argue that surveying 31 motor carriers out of 2.4 million is “statistically valid.” Whatever.

But what launched me into orbit was the fact that out of the 31 motor carriers they surveyed, only two had fewer than 50 trucks. Two.

Let that sink in. Two.


Friday, December 5, 2014

So about all those crashes on the Tennessee-side of “The Dragon”…

By now, you’ve probably heard that Tennessee is joining its neighbor North Carolina in banning vehicles over 30 feet in length from traveling on a mountainous section of U.S. Highway 129 in Blount County along the western edge of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, a stretch known as “The Tail of the Dragon,” or in some instances, just “The Dragon.”

Enforcement is expected to start in January, once the state DOT installs signage to warn of the upcoming change. Fine amounts and other penalties are still being worked out.

There’s an illustrated photo of The Dragon’s many curves and switchbacks hanging in Land Line Editor-in-Chief Sandi Soendker’s office (which is pictured in the photo with this piece). Boasting 318 curves in 11 miles, the stretch is a magnet for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts looking to put their performance machines to the ultimate test.

My favorite thing about the poster, though (besides the fire-breathing Dragon-Lady, obviously), are the names of some of the turns – Beginner’s End, The Pearly Gates, Wheelie Hell and the Crossroads of Time, just to name a few. The whole stretch kind of reminds me of a real-life “Wolf Creek Pass.” Talk about Hairpin County and Switchback City.

In an announcement on the agency’s website Tuesday, the Tennessee DOT said there were 204 crashes along that stretch of roadway from 2010 to 2012, “a critical number” according to the release. Six of those crashes were fatalities, but only one of them involved a tractor-trailer. The agency also said there were “a number of incidents involving large trucks.”

“Due to the curvy and narrow roadway, incidents involving tractor trailers usually block the highway for several hours and prevent travel for all motorists,” according to the release.

Other media reports were quick to carry stories about the DOT’s decision, touting that big trucks had long been “a bane of motorcycles and sports car enthusiasts.”

Here’s the rub though. Of those 204 crashes that occurred from 2010 to 2012, 167 of them (roughly 82 percent) involved motorcycles, not large trucks, according to DOT spokesman Mark Nagi.

In fact, the exact number of incidents involving large trucks – including the fatality crash mentioned earlier – is … four. Four total crashes involving large vehicles (or .02 percent of all crashes).

Now, it’s fair to point out that because of the narrow roads, the many curves, it’s very difficult to maneuver a tractor-trailer through The Dragon, particularly without said tractor-trailer taking up more than just one lane of traffic. And Nagi said when accidents do occur involving large trucks “the roadway is shut down for an extended period of time.”

“Due to the large number of curves and narrow lanes, it is a difficult roadway for vehicles to maneuver,” Nagi said in an email to Land Line. “Very often large trucks drift into the other lane, putting others at risk. In addition, accidents involving large trucks have shut down the roadway for hours, making it impossible for emergency personnel to get through.”

Fair enough. But if safety is the primary concern, why not ban motorcycles too? After all, they make up the overwhelming majority of the crashes. And the department’s own numbers show that, other than one tragic fatality, big trucks aren’t playing a substantial role in the number of motorcycle crashes?

It’s the state of Tennessee’s prerogative to ban large vehicles from tackling The Dragon, something that North Carolina has done for years now. But the suggestion or even implication that the ban will reduce the number of crashes on this famous stretch of roadway is one curve around which the data can’t hold the line.

Editor’s note: As a side note, in the summer of 2003, “Land Line Now” Host Mark Reddig was associate editor of Land Line. We were hearing so many stories about this stretch of road, Mark stepped up and accepted a special assignment to actually “drive the Dragon” to see what the big flap was. His story, “Beware the Dragon” has been an enduring favorite of Land Line readers ever since.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hoffa’s first Teamster joke

I told Jimmy Hoffa his first Teamster joke. He didn’t like it.

Okay, it wasn’t James R. Hoffa, the fabled, mobbed-up, union boss who went MIA in 1975. It was his son, James P., current head of the union who despite that middle initial is still known as Jimmy Junior.

It was May of 1995; James P. was running for the Teamster presidency against incumbent Ron Carey in an election set for June the following year. On assignment for Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, I met the aspiring union leader at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City. Outside, it was a clear spring day. Inside, three of the half-dozen bulky guys in Hoffa’s suite were smoking cigars. Breathing was a challenge.

Hoffa was talking forcefully about the 15-year (now 40-year) decline in working people’s incomes. I don’t remember exactly how, but for some reason the subject of Teamster jokes came up.

“What’s a Teamster joke?” Hoffa asked. He wasn’t smiling.

Teamster jokes may have been a New York City phenomenon. I don’t know for sure. But I first heard them among the production people who worked in the city’s film industry. Wherever the actors went on location, so did the trucks that brought the cameras, lighting, and sound equipment. Those trucks usually arrived very early in the morning, parked at the curb all day, and left late. For all the hours in between Teamster drivers had nothing to do. Fairly or not, they were famous for eating and sleeping behind the wheel.

“Oh, they’re just jokes that some production people tell,” I said, trying to back away from the subject.

“Tell me one,” Hoffa said.

Uh oh.

I tried to remember a relatively mild one, even if it was lame. One second, then two ticked away as I thought. But for all the trying, only one Teamster joke surfaced. There were at least a dozen making the rounds at the time, yet I could only think of one. Please no, I thought to myself, not that one.

Hoffa was looking at me with steely blue eyes.

“Okay,” I said. “How do you know when a Teamster is dead?”

“I don’t know,” Hoffa responded. “How?”

There was no choice but to deliver the line.

“The doughnut falls out of his mouth.”

Silence.

Then Hoffa launched into a rather loud diatribe from which I learned, among other things, that Michael Eisner, then the head of Disney, made $100 million in one year while Disney warehouse workers were earning $7 an hour.

The interview was over.

(Just for the record, Hoffa lost to Carey the following year, but won a special election in 1998 and three more since. The next election is set for the Teamster convention in Las Vegas in 2016.)