Friday, August 3, 2007

Poetry perspective

Sadly, the deadline for poetry submissions into Land Line Magazine’s poetry contest has passed, and I am left wondering what I will do with my mornings now that I won’t be greeted with mail or faxes from my “poetry peeps” left in my chair and inbox for me to find and read every morning. But what an amazing response we received from our Land Line readers – we received more than 500 entries since announcing the contest in our November 2006 issue, including many from children of truck drivers. In reading your poetry, I have come to respect what you do and the sacrifices you make out there on the road every day. Many of your poems made me laugh, including the poem one clever poet wrote using the catchy tune everyone seems to know – “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot (aka the “I like big butts” song). This guy’s poem started with the line, “I hate big bumps,” which I’m sure is true for many truck drivers out there, given the poor conditions of many of our nation’s highways. From truck drivers to wives of truck drivers to friends of truck drivers to children of truck drivers, you have all written on a different aspect of the trucking lifestyle. One of the more creative descriptions in the “occupation” section of the poetry entry form was from a guy who wrote and said he was a former trucker, but was temporarily “out of service due to personal problems.” After further investigation, it meant “temporarily incarcerated” after looking at the address on the envelope. That was one of the reasons I think we had the response we had – it allowed everyone who had something to say about trucking to enter. I feel I have gotten a glimpse into many of your lives through the poetry you submitted. Many of your poems were about the long hours you spend out on the road away from your families. I even transcribed poems for a couple of truck drivers who had great poems, but had a “hot load” and couldn’t stop to fax or e-mail them by the Aug. 1 deadline. I promise they are in the stack, too, ready to be judged. (But just for future reference, that was a one-time thing!) Many Land Line staffers helped sort, count or kept the fax machine “fed” with paper in order to get your poems to me. Until next time, be safe out there – and thanks for sharing your poems.

Oh Deere, the irony: Ohio farm tractors can speed up

We reported this week that Ohio has passed a law that will allow farm tractors to kick it up a notch when rolling down the road.

The old speed limit was 25 mph, but since some tractors are capable of going up to 42 mph now, they changed the law to basically let tractors go at whatever speed they are officially rated to do. The reason is to reduce rear-end collisions and reduce frustration of motorists stuck behind the slow-moving equipment.

This first sounds like a sane idea, as I have been stuck like everyone else behind a tractor creeping down a public road or state highway.

But, wait just a minute. This is Ohio, the state where OOIDA has tried for YEARS to make legislators understand that slower moving vehicles mixed up with faster ones just plain ain’t safe. I don’t know how many unsuccessful trips Todd Spencer and Ohio truckers have made to Columbus to talk with those who have the power to make Ohio highways safer.

And despite the fact that at least 40 states have uniform speed limits, Ohio STILL requires trucks to go 10 mph slower than cars – with the exception, thank God, of the turnpike.

Anyway, it looks like suddenly they embrace the idea that faster speeds should increase safety by reducing the likelihood of rear-end crashes and illegal passing. How ’bout that?

I was ranting around the office on how freakin’ ironic that was when I got an e-mail from Ken Becker, Texas life member, who read the tractor news and had exactly the same thoughts. I’ve known Ken for years.

Ken unloaded on Gov. Strickland, the legislators and supporters, which included the Ohio Highway Patrol. As Ken said, so it’s horrible when a farmer dies because some idiot runs up on them and can’t stop, but it’s OK when the same moron drives under the back of a big truck reined in to 55 mph on an Ohio interstate?

We can’t be the only ones finding it ironic that Ohio likes this safety argument for farm tractors, but can’t buy it for tractor-trailers. Drop me a line at sandi_soendker@landlinemag.com if you have an opinion.

Dangerous curves ahead?

DISCLAIMER: This blog entry contains a link to material that may not be suitable for younger audiences

Every day at 9:15 a.m., the Land Line and “Land Line Now” staffers gather in the “war room,” where we hash over the day’s top trucking stories and decide what’s going on the Web site and radio show for that day.

Almost without fail, someone brings a story to the table that’s, well … let’s just call it “unfit for publication.” Imagine Jay Leno’s nightly monologue if it only pertained to the transportation industry, and you’re on the right track.

Everyone here is keenly aware of the fact that this is a family publication, and that’s why a lot of stories like this end up crumpled in the trash can, or as meeting-only punchlines. If it’s not too off-color, it might become fodder for the magazine’s “On the lighter side” section, or maybe what we call a “kicker” for the end of Reed’s newscast.

But sometimes, a story’s just a little too weird to let it slip through the cracks, which was the case today. With that, I present this story. Again, this isn’t for the kids to read – don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase “Stop means stop,” doesn’t it?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

We’ve been down this road before

With most state legislatures done for the year, many are taking time now to discuss how best to fill holes in budgets that will need to be confronted once the calendar turns over. Among those budgets where lawmakers seemingly are always trying to fit pieces of the puzzle together is transportation.

In my time covering state legislative issues I’ve grown accustomed to the practice. I know that for the first half of the year I will devote the bulk of my coverage following issues as they make their way through statehouses. Once the calendar turns to July and only about 10 states remain in active sessions, I know that my news searches will start uncovering talks around the country about what must be done for a given state to do what is needed to keep their transportation systems functioning. Lawmakers invariably are told by state transportation officials or other road-related groups about possible options to pay for needed road and bridge work.

By and large, none of the options ever sound too good to me – or most others. Few people are excited about the possibility of paying more fuel taxes, higher fees or tolls.

While some states use these talks for background on formulating opinions on how they see fit to tackle pressing issues during the next regular session, others take the step to prepare legislation for consideration once the floor opens early the coming year.

This summer is shaping up no differently. So far, the usual suspects again have reared their heads. Some states are calling for fuel tax increases that range anywhere from a few cents to nearly a quarter. At the same time, other states say charging more at the pump isn’t the answer. Another possible solution: tolls.

So, while there might not be many states in active session from now until the end of the year, there still are a plethora of legislatures that will fill their time looking at potential methods to pay for all the needed projects to keep traffic, and commerce, moving.

There’s no reason to believe these trends will slow anytime soon. I guess that means I won’t have any trouble staying busy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Spending an allowance wisely

I was one of the fortunate kids on my block to receive an allowance as an adolescent. It wasn’t big bucks, but I could almost always ask my parents for a dollar as long as I gave a reason. “Save some for a rainy day” was a common bit of advice, but I likely just ran off and bought junk food or something frivolous like a typical young person might. The human temptation of having cash in hand is too great sometimes. The more cash one has, the more junk one can find to buy, and responsibility diminishes. Federal and state governments do similar things with the allowance we give them for transportation, known as taxes. All we’ve ever hoped for is that our road dollars go for repairs and upgrades. Instead, elected officials run off and buy pork-barrel projects or divert the funds – and then have the audacity to ask taxpayers for more. If taxpayers like us really do own the highways as public policy suggests, we should have more say about our investment. Too bad we can’t ground the politicians for breaking the spending rules.

Mainstream media picking up on ‘hot fuel’

We all rely somewhat on the mainstream media as we get our daily dose of information. But, as we all know, they don’t always nail down the whole story or have time or space to dedicate to details.

The Kansas City Star deserves kudos for breaking the story to the mainstream with a provocative series beginning in August 2006.

Since then, more mainstream media sources – your major newspapers, radio stations and TV networks – have tried their hands at tackling the “hot fuel” issue, gasoline and diesel sold at retail above the temperature of 60 degrees. It is above that temperature where consumers get ripped off by purchasing fuel energy they don’t receive because of thermal expansion.

The Web producer at the CBS television news affiliate in Denver alerted us to a story done by reporter Paul Day that sums up the issue of hot fuel pretty well.

Click here to view the report. I think it’s one of the best summaries we’ve seen so far.

Day does a good job of presenting facts, rounding up relevant quotes and presenting the opposing sides in a four-minute segment – about the time it takes to fill up your passenger vehicle.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Driver health – for the industry, for the public, for yourself

I was talking last month with a trucker about the renewed focus on driver health. He described himself as an aging driver who sat on his worn-out butt most of his waking hours, legs numb from extension, blinking into the glaring asphalt, living “cheeseburger to cheeseburger.”

“The DOT wants to make sure you’re fit to drive a truck. Studies are telling us how bad our health is,” he told me. He said he’d been trying for 20 years and he still had not learned to ignore his circadian rhythms and make himself sleep 10 hours straight. Especially after drinking coffee all day and taking aspirin and B12.

“So what do I do?” he said.

I can relate to his dilemma. My own job as managing editor at Land Line keeps me in a chair at a desk most of the time, wrists numb from the keyboard and mouse, blinking into a glaring computer screen, overdoing it on the Excedrin. And yeah, if I’m working after 8 p.m., I might slam down a Red Bull.

I agreed with him that it is unrealistic to turn cigarette-smoking, hypertensive caffeine addicts into Health Magazine cover prospects. At the same time, we both agreed that “que sera, sera” was not an option.

I’ve been reading where companies like Con-Way, Celadon, Roadway and others are introducing “wellness” programs. This includes voluntary, confidential and free health assessments and medical services. Schneider recently announced a sleep apnea assessment and treatment program.

Be it driven by the need for improved statistics or reduced insurance premiums, everyone has their agenda for promoting healthy truck drivers.

A couple of months ago, I met Dr. John McElligott, who impressed me as having one of the most genuine agendas of all. This man’s valuable involvement in the trucking industry cannot be understated. He’s the physician behind the Professional Drivers Medical Depots. There are two depots so far – one in Knoxville, TN, and one in West Memphis. More are planned.

So many drivers on the road lack the means and access to get even the most basic of medical help, but truckers can find it at the PDMDs. OOIDA members get a break. Dr. McElligott has confirmed that OOIDA members will be treated the same as PDMD’s contract with fleets. PDMD will begin offering a 10-percent discount on treatment of illness, etc., and a $20 discount on DOT physicals – just the same as contracted fleets.

The August/September Land Line – now in the mail – features an article by Land Line’s Clarissa Kell-Holland about Dr. McElligott and some of his trucking patients. If you have XM and are a “Land Line Now” listener, he’s a guest on the show this week. By the way, he doesn’t mind being called “Doc in a box.”

Trucking needs for you to be healthy – for your company, for your family, for your insurance company, for the other drivers on the road, for your regulatory agency. Dr. McElligott is a reminder that, oh yeah, you should do it for yourself.

A cool, green way

I spent much of last week delving into the world of the California Air Resources Board and all its glory.

Even drivers who make only the occasional trip into California have been hearing talk of the state’s new rules set to begin Jan. 1, 2008, including a five-minute limit on idling and a restriction for diesel-fired APUs on ’07 and newer trucks.

After hours of research and writing, I got to leave the comforts of my office cube on Thursday and see new alternative power sources on display on an actual truck. I headed down I-70 and onto I-435 to the Kansas City Kenworth dealership, where the Kenworth Clean Power exhibit was on display.

Weighing about 550 pounds, the technology uses batteries to store enough power to keep a bunk warm when temperatures drop down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and will supply 110 volts of hotel load energy for 14 hours.

While I was there, I happened onto David Bones, an OOIDA member and owner of the Bones Company. David said he’s avoided buying APUs for his trucks because he is waiting to see what happens. Bones said he may be replacing his fleet sooner rather than later.

“I want to see what my shop guys are going to be faced with,” David told me.

Even though the temperature was soaring into the low 90s, the Kenworth Cab was pretty cool, powered by an AC system that relies on frozen ice.

The Clean Power System will be available in Kenworth’s 62-inch cabs early next year, Kenworth Sales Manager Jeff Farnsworth told me.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Expanding and contracting arguments

I’m sure you’ve heard about the issue known as “hot fuel,” what with two recent congressional subcommittee hearings and a failed vote at the National Conference on Weights and Measures that could have given states some incentive to correct the problem.

We’ve gotten some interesting comments by phone and e-mail relating to the issue in recent weeks.

One person wrote to me to imply that “everything balances out in the end” when it comes to temperature and fuel. He said consumer losses incurred in the summer due to the expansion of liquid fuel balanced out in the end because the same liquid contracts during winter.

But, as we’re finding out, the “balance” at the national level isn’t as cut-and-dried as that. There is no 50-50 split between what’s hot and what’s cold unless a particular state has an exact average fuel temperature of 60 degrees, and that every consumer in that state buys the exact same amount of fuel when it’s hotter as when it’s colder. Not likely to happen.

The average fuel temperature in the U.S. is a shade over 66 degrees, not the standard of 60 degrees that fuel companies compensate for when trading fuel at wholesale.

It does not balance out in the end, and that’s why consumers involved in lawsuits against the retailers and oil companies feel justified in going after their losses.

If you’d like more information on hot fuel, you can check out OOIDA’s Web site on the topic here.