- THE MAGAZINE
There is nothing that can diminish the tragedy of two recent, high-profile truck crashes. With all due respect for the victims and their families, there are issues the industry must address. That discussion should in no way be construed as minimizing the significance of their loss.
During the recent Eye for Transport conference, Derek Leathers, president and COO of Werner Enterprises, took the opportunity to go off-topic with an appeal to the audience of logistics and supply chain executives from all sides of the industry. His message was simple and succinct. We need to get close to our representatives in Congress in the wake of these tragedies because of the potential backlash that could result in highly restrictive regulations.
As close as we can tell from the information that is available, Leathers noted, the driver of the Walmart truck that was charged in the accident that involved Tracy Morgan had not violated hours of service rules – not the current rules, not the prior rules, and not even the rules as they had stood before that revision.
Based on the driver’s reported admission that he had been awake for 24 hours prior to the accident, Leathers commented that it was clearly a case of bad judgment.
Accepting the current reports as accurate, it appears Walmart had not asked the driver to do anything that would have violated hours of service rules, and the driver had gone off duty at an appropriate time and returned to duty on schedule. What actually occurred during the mandated rest period will be part of the accident investigation.
If the driver had chosen not to rest during the period, common sense would have suggested that he contact his dispatcher and say that he was not fit to return to duty. The issues of excused or unexcused absences for medical or personal reasons are for human resources to address with the driver (as with any other employee), but there should be mechanisms in place that put safety first and would allow the driver to exercise some good judgment about his fitness to drive., In retrospect, any financial or other consequences for his absence couldn’t begin to approach the actual outcome in this case.
A number of industry executives, in casual conversation, have noted that the general media appear to have no understanding of hours of service rules or trucking operations. This doesn’t stop some of the reporting from reflecting some bias. Even the best-case reporting has resulted in stories that recounted the huge volume of trucks on the road, the high numbers of truck accidents, and the number of fatalities. The latter number is always unacceptable when it is above zero. That said, do those same reports indicate improved safety performance – including under the prior hours of service rules? The numbers on improved safety are also impressive and are needed to balance the discussion.
One report by a major network anchor gave the appearance of objective news reporting as it rolled through the larger numbers (drivers, accidents, fatalities) first and then closed by saying that 13 percent of truck accidents are a result of driver fatigue. Is that 13 percent of all accidents? Is it serious accidents? Or, is it accidents involving fatalities?
It isn’t clear to the causal viewer, and by the time the relatively low number of 13 percent is mentioned, the bigger numbers have already had time to sink in.
How much different would the story be if you start with the 13 percent?
Here is a case of a bad outcome as a result of driver fatigue. How much of a problem is driver fatigue?. Driver fatigue is a factor in 13 percent of accidents.
Heavy truck crashes are 5 percent of the total highway crashes.
Heavy trucks traveled over one quarter of a trillion miles in 2011, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (267 billion vehicle miles). With hundreds of thousands of drivers moving freight billions of miles, the accident rate industry wide for heavy trucks was 287,367 in 2011, down from over 429,000 in 2001. There is some fluctuation in the numbers over the years, but the overall trend is clearly in the right direction.
The accident rate per 100 million vehicle miles during that period has gone from 206 large-truck crashes in 2001 to 108 per 100 million vehicle miles in 2011. Again, the number is moving in the direction of more safety.
Again, this doesn’t minimize the loss for the victims of this crash. But as bad as this situation was, it is difficult to extrapolate this incident into a systemic problem. And, it would be wrong to impose system-wide restrictions based on one incident. It would amount to punishing the many for the actions of the few. That too, is bad judgment.