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:

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.