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Trucking Safety: Propaganda Is An Ugly Word

5 comments

We need to get a few things straight here. You can think of this post as a wholesale reply to the IB posts listed at the end of this article. The list of IB posts that I’ve given isn’t complete — there were so many that I finally quit wading through them. All of them either reference the recently published AAJ or CVSA statistics.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines propaganda as "…the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect"

Let’s read a comment recently posted here on IB:

In response to this post was the following:

"Posted by Brandon
September 03, 2009 8:31 AM

This "study" by the American Association for Justice–formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America–makes numerous false claims about the trucking industry and appears to be nothing more than an attempt to scare citizens into suing motor carriers.

Facts show that the truck-involved fatality rate is now at its lowest since the U.S. Department of Transportation began keeping those statistics in 1975.

Many of the “violations” cited by the AAJ are merely de minimus paperwork violations that have no effect on safety. In addition, 28,000 motor carriers make up only 4.8 percent of the number of the 579,759 motor carriers in the United States as reported by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Regarding AAJ’s mention of the July 2009 Government Accountability Office study, except for two references, the report is focused exclusively on bus companies. ATA supports efforts by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to put unsafe trucking companies out of business, and supports giving further resources to FMCSA to help them prevent those companies from reopening under a new name.

The overwhelming majority of fatal truck-involved crashes are caused by passenger vehicles. According to a 2002 study by the American Association of Automobiles, 80 percent of fatal truck-involved crashes are caused by passenger vehicles. A 2006 Virginia Tech analysis of two studies conducted for the Department of Transportation found that 78 percent of crashes were caused by passenger car drivers."

Much has also been made of the 20% Vehicle Out Of Service (OOS) rate during the 2009 CVSA Roadcheck event.

Let’s talk a little bit about trucks, defects, the CVSA, and their annual Roadcheck event. According to the 2009 CVSA RoadCheck numbers, about 20% of the vehicles inspected were placed OOS. Of that number, about 70% were for brakes, lights, or tires. Sounds pretty bad, until you look at it’s actual impact. According to the LTCCS, tire and brake failures together accounted for less than 1% of crashes in their sample. Hmmm….that seems to be considerably less than 20%, Let’s take a more detailed look at a couple of the most common defects that inspectors find — air leaks, and brakes out of adjustment, and look at how things really are.

First, let’s deal with brake adjustment. Most air-brake equipped trucks nowadays have automatic slack adjusters on their brakes. These actually do an excellent job keeping brakes properly adjusted. Paradoxically, good drivers are actually more likely to have brakes that have drifted out of adjustment. This is because automatic adjusters only function when their preset stroke length is exceeded. Light brake applications (which is what good drivers do) don’t usually reach full stroke, and over time, fail to compensate for wear, causing the brakes to gradually go out of adjustment. This is actually easy to remedy — all it takes is applying the brakes firmly a few times, and that will bring them back into adjustment. Having any of the 10 sets of brakes on a tractor-trailer out of adjustment is DOT OOS.

Air leaks are the other common defect that inspectors find. The DOT OOS criteria are "more than 4 pounds of air loss in a minute for combination vehicles" and "any audible air leak". The most common are audible air leaks. Are these really hazardous? Mostly not. For example, the air compressor in my truck is capable of maintaining safe operating pressure in my braking system with a completely severed 1/4" air line. It will also keep up operating pressure for a completely severed 3/8" air line, as long as the engine rpm stays high enough. That’s actually quite a lot of air. Leaks of this severity are very much the exception rather than the rule — and get fixed quickly. Mostly what you get are minor leaks — a little seepage around a fitting, or a pinhole chafed through a line, both of which are simple (and cheap) to fix. A little twist of a wrench, or cutting the line and inserting a splicer fitting quickly remedies the problem. These air leaks don’t even have to be in the actual braking system at all. There are many accessories on trucks that are air operated, but have nothing to do with the braking system, other than sharing a common air supply, yet are still considered OOS if leaking.

Most of the time, when these minor items are found on an inspection, the result isn’t a citation and being placed out of service. The inspector will simply say "fix it". A quick twist with a wrench will correct that maladjusted brake, or tighten up that leaky fitting. During Roadcheck, it’s another matter entirely. Then, the idea is to write as many citations as possible, for every flaw that can be found, no matter how minor.

The manner of selecting trucks for inspection also influences OOS rates. Inspectors frequently target older trucks, or from particular companies, or use other strategies in an attempt to raise the probability of finding something wrong. In other words, the 72,782 truck and bus inspections conducted during Roadcheck 2009 are far from being a truly random and representative sample of the trucks on the highway. Therefore, the 20% OOS figure being applied to all trucks on the road, is (at best) a seriously flawed use of statistics.

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Fear always springs from ignorance."
Bertrand Russell continues in the same vein with "Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”

If fear springs from ignorance, then what springs from misinformation?

As I said (in part) in a response to this post,

"...Rather than using such scare tactics, wouldn’t it be more productive to do something to help alleviate these problems? How about supporting Jason’s Law? What about the serious long-term problems with grocery warehouses?.

Truck bashing doesn’t solve problems; what it does, is give us badly written regulations and ineffective programs, which is the situation we’re in now. Things are slowly changing, but until the hysteria stops, and logic, science, and good sense are applied, there will be a lot more preventable deaths and injuries."

Mark Twain said: "The history of the race, and each individual’s experience, are thick with evidence that a truth is not hard to kill and that a lie told well is immortal."

This seems to be the case with the constant reappearance of this same flawed information over and over.

One of my purposes in writing a blog here on IB is to try to correct this type of misinformation, and to help educate IB’s members and readers about trucks and truck safety. If fear comes from ignorance, then respect comes from education. I’d really like to see more diligence by authors when writing about trucks. If there’s something you’re not sure of, or have a question about, send me an email and ask. That’s what I’m here for. Please help me to educate and inform, and stop with the scare tactics and sensationalism. Leave that to the grocery store tabloids.

Comments welcome.

The following is the list of articles that this is a reply to:

Virginia Beach post
Wilmington post
Bentonville post
Vancouver post
Charlottesville post
Nashville post
Bloomington post
North Dallas post

5 Comments

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  1. Mike Bryant says:
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    Well this certainly should raise some interest. I read the posts and the comments and can see a number of issues. The thing is that big trucks can do a lot damage. I see them as getting a lot of freedom and privileges on the roads and at the same time they have a lot of responsibilities. While I respect professional drivers, they also have to accept what comes with being professionals. I found the AAJ study to be overall significant in it’s warnings and in its depth. But, I appreciate your concerns about it. Maybe one of the differences for me , is that i look at these cases one at a time and in almost every case with the negligence being pretty clear.

  2. Mark Bello says:
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    Truckie: Misinformation, of any kind, is still misinformation. I don’t care whether it comes from AAJ or the US Chamber, if it is misinformation, it is wrong. Having said that, I agree with Mike Bryant. Looking at these cases, one at a time (like the one I posted today), it is clear to me that when a car encounters a truck on the road, the car loses and a catastrophic injury usually occurs. Thus, common sense would suggest that truckers be overly cautious about checking safety devices and making sure they work correctly, being careful when changing lanes or when autos try to pass their vehicles, driving at safe speed limits, driving in accordance with weather conditions, etc. The study you quote says that 80% of fatal truck involved accidents were caused by passenger vehicles. That means that 20% were caused by the trucks. That is too high (after all they are the “professional” drivers) and the statistic only accounts for the fatals. I agree that inaccurate reporting and “truck-bashing” can be unfair, but the ultimate goal is to warn the industry and the public to be more careful, whether we are talking about driving, inspection, loads or equipment. That, I think, is a good thing, yes? Regards, Mark

  3. Joe Crumley says:
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    Truckie D:

    As a trial lawyer and a guy who logs about 50,000 mile per year on the interstate, I can tell you that there are two main extreme types of truckers.

    One is the very professional driver who understands that he’s driving a Goliath among us Lilliputians(to mix references), and acts accordingly. I suspect that most of these guys recieved excellent training by an excellent teacher at a real driving school, have never taken a drink with 12 hours of a shift, always check lights, always do a complete inspection of their truck and trailer multiple times daily, never keep double DOT logs, never drive sleepy, and have endless patience with all the goofy things auto drivers do around them.

    Sadly, there are too many clowns out there who were taught by their Grandpa or their boss, who think they’re the best driver in the world, and thus can do anything, who hammer the accelerator and the brakes endlessly, who leave inspections for the guys back in the garage, or whoever had the truck before or after them. They cheat on their driving time and their logbooks, cuz laws and rules are for sissies, they party all night and get up early to drive still half-drunk or half-asleep, and they drive the same speed in a night snowstorm as a dry sunny day. Often they work doing short runs around town and not OTR. And if some idiot in a minivan or a subcompact dares pass them on the right, cuts them off a little, or drives under 80 in the fast lane, these clowns think it’s a good a idea to throw “a little fear o’ God in them” by putting the front bumper of his 80,000 pound behemoth inches behind their rear bumper.

    It’s rare, but I’ve seen it too many times.

    There are many degrees of skill between these extemes. And sadly, most of the killed and maimed who come to me have encountered someone closer to the second driver than the first.

  4. Pete Mackey says:
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    I would echo what the other three have said. Truckie, I understand your position and respect it. That said, a trucker driving down the road, a doctor operating on a patient and a lawyer representing a client in a legal matter share some common ground. All three have legal duties and all three can cause great harm by breaching those duties.

    When I am evaluating a case, I always want to be sure that the breach of a duty actually caused the injury. We all have a duty to to be licensed to drive, but the fact that a driver’s license has expired has nothing to do with the wreck he caused (though it certainly has something to do with the rules of the road that he did not follow). I know that the defense lawyer who will represent the trucker understands the distinction and will let a jury know if I am trying to establish that a technical violation equals culpability without considering causation.

    Sometimes, as you have pointed out in other posts, the rules make it hard (if not sometimes impossible) for a truck driver to follow the rules and do the safe thing at the same time. That presents more nuance to a lawyer evaluating a case. Nonetheless, it is still an evaluation of that fact situation only, as Mike points out.

    Finally, while I am not vouching for the statistics in the AAJ article, I agree with the main theme. It is good for folks like you to point out inaccuracies and challenge positions. You don’t have to scan this board hard to find our members doing the same thing about what the other side says about tort reform, arbitration, malpractice rates, etc.

    The key is honest debate. If someone that feels differently than I do on an issue misses the ball, that’s okay. It is my job to educate both the that person and those who listened to the message. If that same person knew the truth and spun a line simply to advance their position, that is another matter entirely. Thanks for engaging the debate – I learned a lot from the process.