Friday, May 23, 2008

Lessons not learned

Our focus this week is on Pennsylvania, their turnpike, their lease proposal and their highway financing.

But whenever you look at a future possible lease, it’s useful to see how it worked out when it was tried before.

Our best example is the Indiana Toll Road. We kept hearing from the state how the private operator wouldn’t let the road run down, wouldn’t let prices get too high, that private business efficiencies would help them run the road better and make a profit.

OOIDA and others said that was balderdash.

Well, guess who had it right? Just ask the truckers. We did, and this is what one of our listeners told us he encountered:

  • Long waits just to pay the toll, to get on or get off the road;
  • Higher-than-ever prices for goods sold at the service areas;
  • Increased toll rates;
  • And even some toll tickets that don’t tell you what you’ll pay while on the road.

What a crock.

There’s no reason for that kind of wait, no reason for that level of prices, no reason for the lack of service, and certainly no reason to expect you to run that toll road without knowing what it will cost you.

I wish we could get that road back in the state’s hands. Before this lease was signed, how long had it been since tolls went up? How bad were the lines?

The fact is, while every other cost in our lives went up during the years the state ran that road, the cost of the tolls was stable. The state ran the road well, maintained it well, lines were not so long, things were OK.

We know that some toll roads have problems. And many folks have pointed to inefficiencies in the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority.

So, here’s how you deal with that: Fix it.

Folks in Pennsylvania's government don’t have the courage to do that. Instead, they figure they can sell the road, get a big wad of cash they can spend to ensure their own political futures, dump the job of fixing turnpike management on a private company with no accountability, and leave the cost to our children and grandchildren.

Privatization won’t fix the problem here. It’s just another way for politicians to avoid their own responsibility for how the government is run.

BMI – a bloody mess, indeed

We reported recently about a proposal that could force hundreds of thousands of truckers to undergo required, annual, expensive medical tests.

Here’s the basic concept: the FMCSA’s medical review board wants to track truckers’ BMI – body mass index – a method of questionable accuracy at best.

Those above a certain body mass index would be required to undergo testing every year for sleep apnea. And those tests can run into the thousands.

If this idea did become the law of the land, then thousands of perfectly safe truckers could be forced off the road.

One of the biggest reasons that this is a bad idea: Muscle weighs more than fat.

I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t say it enough: According to the BMI test, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was Mr. Universe, he was morbidly obese.

And even if these folks are overweight or obese, that doesn’t automatically mean they have apnea or that they’re unsafe.

OOIDA has made truckers’ views on this known. And I think you can count on us to fight this very foolish idea.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Speed limiters and economics: Looking for feedback

I would love to get some comments from Canadian folks (or people who regularly run into Ontario) about the closing of a transmission plant in Windsor, Ontario, by GM, and on the efforts of the Premiere and the Transportation Minister to implement speed limiters despite the recent job loss.

Speed limiters will have a direct correlation on the price of goods in Ontario. Who can afford this? Speed limiters will economically disadvantage Ontario trucks and put small-business truckers out of work. Why is this legislation being pursued particularly at this time? I would love to hear some thoughts and feedback from drivers.

You can read an article by The Globe and Mail about the closing here.

You can send me an e-mail with your thoughts here, or post a comment on this blog.

You’re on your own

I passed a fatal truck accident on my way home from work yesterday.

And, like more than 60 percent of the accidents in which truckers die, it was a one-vehicle wreck.

It happened just east of Kansas City on the exit ramp that westbound I-70 traffic takes to get onto southbound I-435.

The exit is the old-fashioned tight circle type – as close to a hairpin curve as any I’ve ever seen on an interstate.

Once you’re on it, you see a yellow caution sign that depicts a tractor-trailer tipping over.

Trouble is, by the time you see the warning sign – positioned right where the exit curves sharply – it’s too late. You’re already into the hairpin.

As I drove past, emergency personnel in day-glo, lime green vests were crawling over the overturned Marten truck.

The cab was crushed and split open so that personal items were strewn about.

I learned later that the 27-year-old driver was from Brooklyn Park, MN, and that police think a load shift may have caused the wreck.

In my opinion, the poorly designed exit ramp and the lack of adequate signage may have caused the wreck.

Witnesses say the trucker was not speeding.

Being young and from Minnesota, the trucker may not have been familiar with the dangerous exit.

Besides being sad, it also seems unfair.

Unfair that a hazard well known to Kansas Citians, but unfamiliar to many out-of-towners can claim a life.

But it’s a reminder that whether it’s a dangerous exit in Missouri, a snow storm in Washington, a steep grade in the Rockies or smoke and fog on a Florida highway, truckers are expected to deal with it.

In the end – after all the safety regulations and law enforcement – truckers are on their own.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bringing truckers into focus

The image of the trucking industry is getting better. But the fact is, we’re still fighting the battle to improve our image with the public, and we will be for some time to come.

Some groups have made a huge difference, and are laying the groundwork for the day when the general public once again realizes what great people truckers are.

And that’s why I love calls like the one I received on the “Listener Comment Line” from an OOIDA member named Matt.

Matt’s a regular caller, and he’s also a Trucker Buddy. He called to thank the truckers who took part in one of that group’s events. It sounded like a success, an event that a load of kids really enjoyed.

This kind of thing is always good news to me.

First, I think we should all thank those truckers who took part, and all the truckers who take part in Trucker Buddy. You’ve not only done a service for those kids – you’ve helped all the folks in this business with you.

The Trucker Buddy program, the World’s Largest Truck Convoy for Special Olympics, the Truckers for Troops Telethon, and on and on. If you ever doubt how good truckers are, take a look at the folks who take part in these events.

But don’t just look and admire. Share what you’ve seen with everyone around you. The best advertising is word of mouth. And when we spread the word to our friends, our neighbors, our families, to everyone we know … that’s when we’ll begin to truly change the public’s perception of this industry.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The three R’s – recovery, rally, reality

Words are funny things. Unlike numbers, which have the same meaning no matter what context they are placed in – a 3 is a 3 is a 3 no matter what – words can change meanings faster than Hillary changes accents on the campaign trail.

Look at the word “recovery.” What does it mean to you? When I think of recovery, I think of someone getting better after an illness. Someone lying in a hospital bed eating Jell-O after a surgery. Someone bouncing back after being down.

Recovery is a term used a lot by folks who talk about the oil markets. Given the definitions above, you wouldn’t think it would be used much these days. After, all, at upwards of $120, $125 a barrel, what is there to recover from?

And yet, there it is. Day after day, I see reports on how the oil market “recovered” from its latest dip of 10 cents per barrel, or 20, or, heaven forbid, sometimes even 30 cents per barrel.

Recovered, they say, as though we were supposed to be concerned when it fell. As though we are supposed to breathe a sigh of relief now that it has bounced back.

Rally is another term they like to use. When I think rally, I think of the Red Sox coming back from a three-run deficit to beat the Yankees. Or a group of truckers gathered in Pennsylvania or DC desperately trying to get the attention of lawmakers who supposedly work for them.

But to oil market analysts, the market can rally, much like it recovers, after a dip of a few cents per barrel. It rallies, like a come from behind victory, like the underdog coming from 10 points down and scoring the winning basket at the buzzer. Everybody stand up and cheer.


I think it’s time we introduced these oil market traders to another word I like to use – it’s called reality.

See, in reality, boys and girls, the recovery will come when truckers don’t have to take out a bank loan to fill up their tanks. The rally will come when they are able to make enough on a load to earn a decent living.

And reality will hit these folks in the oil market square in the face when they discover that their rallies and recoveries can’t go on forever.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Speed doesn’t kill – but stupid government proposals can

The Ontario Minister of Transportation recently put on what we in the media call a dog and pony show.

He appeared at a truck show and “turned on” the speed limiter in a new truck. He was trying to demonstrate how easy it is to just turn a speed limiter on and off.

The demonstration was part of a publicity campaign to encourage Canadian lawmakers to mandate speed limiters to be activated on big trucks. Truthfully, it’s not that easy.

So, I think I need to address something about that idea.

The road speed limit is one of the settings on your ECM, and it’s a setting that must be programmed. That means you need a computer – and a trained mechanic – to set it or to adjust it. And that means money – real money – out of the trucker’s pocket.

Let me get this straight. If the mandate passes, then all truckers traveling in Ontario … and possibly Quebec … will have to activate a limited road speed on the truck’s ECM, right? And unless their carrier has set up a geo-fence around Ontario or Quebec via GPS, that means they’ll have to leave them on when they leave, right?

That’s way more complicated than just a switch on, switch off.

Plus, if it’s so easy, it flies right in the face of Ontario’s edict that the speed limiter be tamper-proof.

Why don’t they just enforce the speed limit laws? The reason they give is that they don’t have enough officers to do that.

Heck, even if they require the limiters, it won’t stop speeding. That’s because it’s not the trucks speeding up there. It’s the cars. Their own figures show that.

Even beyond that, the government’s own speed limiter proposal contains funding for dozens of additional enforcement officers – but not to enforce speed limits. These new officers would be added to enforce the speed limiter rule.

So why not just hire the officers to enforce the speed limits?

That’s because this isn’t really about slowing down traffic or stopping speeders. That was just an issue they used to generate support from the general public.

This issue has been pushed from Day 1 by the Ontario Trucking Association. The big carriers they represent use limiters. And like American carriers who use them, they have problems recruiting drivers, in part because many truckers don’t want to drive a limited truck.

So they figure if they force everyone to use limiters, it eliminates the possibility of driving a truck that’s not limited.

No government should force an unsafe road speed limit onto trucks just to give some of their corporate buddies a competitive advantage.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What happens when the race is all tortoise, no hare?

One of the biggest issues today in the trucking industry is the attempt by two Canadian provinces to require all trucks traveling through their borders to have a speed limiter set at 65 miles per hour.

Few issues have generated this many calls to our program.

One of the chief concerns that some truckers have is the so-called “turtle races” or “elephant races” that develop when one limited truck tries to pass another.

And that aspect of the limiter issue brings up all kinds of issues.

Here’s one:

We hear all the time that the federal Department of Transportation wants to use congestion pricing and tolling to reduce traffic clogs on our highways.

If the government really cares about congestion, how about we avoid a system that guarantees huge backups as one limited truck tries to pass another?

Of course, the reality is that they really don’t care about congestion. They’re just using it as a backdoor way to achieve their real goal – selling off our highways to private corporations, mainly companies from foreign nations.

Here’s another:

One of our listeners witnessed one of these elephant races recently, a passing maneuver that took 7½ miles to complete. And that points to some real safety concerns.

What happened after the first truck finally finished passing the slower rig 7½ miles later? I’m betting that one four-wheeler after another scrambled to get by the two rigs, jumping in and out and accelerating to wild speeds.

I only say that because every time I see that situation on the highway, that’s the next thing that happens. It’s like they all think they have to make up the time they lost while the trucks were side by side.

Well, guess what? Those maneuvers, the passing, the lane jumping, the cutting off, the speeding past slower vehicles … all of that is behavior that leads to accidents.

If the two trucks were allowed to move at the prevailing speed of traffic, if the passing truck were allowed to accelerate enough to complete the passing maneuver in a reasonable amount of time, if it weren’t limited … far less of that activity, if any, would take place.

That makes the roads safer. And it’s just one reason why speed limiters don’t.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Keep on TRUCCin’

Since OOIDA announced the introduction of the TRUCC Act, some folks have expressed concern about having the government involved in the surcharge.

Of particular concern is the idea that the bill would add to the government bureaucracy, create a new agency, or give the government more power.

This shouldn’t require any additional bureaucracy at all. It’s a simple statement that the surcharge must be passed through, that it must be disclosed. The bill says nothing about creating a new bureaucracy.

Remember, the government’s already involved in trucking up to its neck. But right now, all of its power is aimed at the truck driver, and virtually none of the government’s efforts target the brokers or the carriers.

This is intended to put some power in your hands, not in the hands of the government, not in the hands of the carriers, not in the hands of the brokers.

Some have even expressed a concern that this bill would create additional costs for truckers or others. This shouldn’t add to the cost of doing business; it should bring money that should rightfully belong to the trucker and put it in the trucker’s hands.

Far too often, we find government working against the interests of truckers and in favor of those who exploit truckers. This bill is nothing more than an attempt to level the playing field.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Roses and Razzberries rationale

I shot a RAZZBERRY into the air. It fell to earth, I knew not where.

Excuse my waxing pathetic there, and my deepest apologies to Longfellow, but a lot of times when I send out Roses or Razzberries – be it in the magazine or on the radio – I never know if anyone is listening (or reading).

And then there are times when I am made all too painfully aware of the fact that, yes, someone is listening. And they are not happy about it.

Take this RAZZY we gave out on a recent radio show, for example:

A tow truck driver in Troutville, Virginia gets a big, fat RAZZBERRY from OOIDA member Steve Pina.

Steve was hauling a load of insulation not long ago when the load shifted and came loose. He stopped and called for help. The police called for a tow truck. Steve was billed for more than $1,600 – $450 an hour for a wrecker that was never used and $100 an hour in labor for the two men driving it. Plus fuel and a fuel surcharge.

Steve said he was billed for 2½ hours of work, when the men were only there for a little over an hour. He asked if he could pay the bill in installments and the towing company refused and called the police, threatening to impound the truck. The police were no help, either, telling him to shut his mouth and get his stuff because they were impounding the truck.

Pretty outrageous stuff, right? Well, I got several calls wondering why we didn’t give out the name of the towing company and that’s a good question.

The answer is, not that we doubt Steve’s claim, but being journalists we have to verify it. And we get so many of these kinds of Razzberries that we just don’t have the manpower to verify them all. But every once in a while, one comes along that’s so outrageous it needs to be said.

Now, if Steve himself wants to shout the name of the towing company from the rooftop or, say, post it in the OOIDA member’s only forum, well, who am I to stop him?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A backdoor path to tolling?

The price of fuel is driving the national debate over many issues right now. It’s even made its way into the presidential campaign.

Not that it’s a big surprise, with fuel topping $4 a gallon.

A recent round includes a proposal by Sen. John McCain – the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – to drop the fuel tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

One of our listeners wondered if the idea wasn’t just a backdoor scheme to promote more tolling and privatization.

After all, if the Highway Trust Fund – which is where the fuel tax is supposed to go – runs out because nothing’s coming in, it would justify all the folks who say we should do away with it and replace it with tolling.

I’ve wondered myself if some folks in DC look at the senator’s plan as a path to getting their way on tolling. Even if that’s not the intention, it probably would have that exact effect.

We already have so much money diverted from the Highway Trust Fund that it’s going to go empty not far in the future.

And please note the reason it’s drying up. It’s not because the fuel tax can’t fund our highways. It’s because they keep taking fuel tax money meant for roads and spending it on God knows what.

No one likes taxes. But if the tax is actually spent on what we paid it for, I think that would be fine.

One other problem with this idea: Fuel taxes aren’t what caused the price of fuel to be so high. OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer pointed out recently that the fuel tax per gallon now is the same amount it was when fuel was less than a dollar a gallon.

How do we know the price of fuel will really come down? How do we know the oil companies won’t just charge the same price and keep the extra money? Would this idea just be a new way for oil companies to make more profit? I think they have more than enough profit now.

A fuel tax holiday, good as it sounds, won’t help. We need a real solution.

Oh, and one more side note. Some folks have the impression that this trend toward tolling is the work of one political party – the Republicans.

Unfortunately, this is a bipartisan effort to screw us. Remember that one of the biggest advocates of tolling free interstates and then selling our roads is a Democrat – Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.

In the matter of tolling and highway privatization, we have opponents – and friends – in both political parties.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Maybe the FMCSA should sleep on it …

A recent decision by the FMCSA’s Medical Review Board that recommends all truckers above a certain body mass index be tested for sleep apnea has plenty of folks up in arms – and rightly so.

We’ve even heard from some truckers who think the new proposal would disqualify anyone above a certain weight.

That’s not the case. In fact, it’s far more insidious than that.

The proposal would require any truckers above that body mass to undergo testing for sleep apnea, a process that costs thousands of dollars. That makes it unaffordable to any trucker whose insurance doesn’t cover it, or who doesn’t have insurance.

Plus, for those few who actually do have apnea, this proposal would require CPAP use.

If you actually have apnea, that’s a good idea. However, some of the discussion I saw on this revolved around monitoring the use of that machine. And I have a real problem with Big Brother watching me while I sleep.

That being said, I agree with what one of our callers said. Government rarely thinks about the consequences when they look at one of these regulations – even though the law requires them to consider the costs to small business.

Truckers will get the chance to speak out on this. And when the time comes, we’ll make sure you know where, when and how you can make your voice heard.