Thursday, June 26, 2008

Who else would tolerate this?

We’re continuing to get reaction from truckers on Reed Black’s interview with a motor carrier executive on speed limiters, mileage and pay.

And many of those reacting still have things to say that we haven’t heard in this debate yet.

Again, I respect anyone who has a different opinion on this. But I don’t think anyone – truckers included – should have to donate their time.

When you take a trip that requires an extra day because you’re compelled to run under the legal speed limit, and you’re paid by the mile, that’s what you’ve done – you just worked a day for free.

Who else in American society is asked to do this? Who else would tolerate it?

Truckers have to donate time for loading and unloading; they have to donate time for inspections; they have to donate time for all kinds of activities that they perform unpaid.

I understand that for some when you’re going slower that the trip is more relaxing, that there’s less stress involved. Some drivers who favor lowering the speed on limiters have made that point when they call me, and I understand their point about driving slower … even agree with it.

But if that’s what you want, shouldn’t it be your choice? Why should you be forced to whether you like it or not?

And remember, all of this talk about pay and relaxation leaves out the fact that speed limiters hurt safety.

I’m just having a tough time figuring out how this is a good deal for any trucker.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Finding the dark cloud around the silver lining

On Monday’s show, we brought you several comments by Herb Schmidt of Conway Truckload, and from truckers, about speed limiters, mileage and trucker pay.

The issues are pretty much familiar to all of you out there – but what’s surprising us are the reactions we’re receiving.

Several more of you called in after our latest installment, and one of you had an interesting take on the situation.

That trucker, a woman named Teresa, said that now that her carrier has turned her speed limiter back, if the dispatcher gives her an impossible deliver time, she can basically say, too bad, can’t do it, you set my speed too slow to get it there by then.

She then, very politely, very “sweetly,” in her words, tells the dispatcher that if they have a problem with that, to see the president of the company. After all, that’s who set the speed.

I noticed that when Teresa talked about this, she said it was “the only good thing that I’ve found” about turning down speeds.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume that means she normally finds plenty wrong with that.

However, I like her point of view. A carrier really can’t complain about you running compliant, or push you to get there on time no matter what, if you can’t move the truck faster.

I still have concerns, though. And that’s because speed limiters compromise safety.

I have no objection if a trucker – a person actually behind the wheel – looks at the road they’re driving, looks at conditions and traffic, and makes a determination that it’s safe to slow down to save some fuel.

I have a real problem when an accountant who’s never been behind the wheel of a semi, who’s not there, and who can’t see the traffic or conditions, then determines that a truck needs to slow down … even if doing so is unsafe.

I do like the way you’ve found a silver lining in this dark cloud, Teresa. But the fact is, the dark cloud is still with us.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hot fuel: It’s baa-aaaack

It was all but certain that hot fuel would become an issue once again.

OOIDA first brought this issue to light years ago through the work of John Siebert, a project leader at the OOIDA Foundation.

Later it became the subject of an investigative series in The Kansas City Star, written by reporter Steve Everly.

That series led to articles in newspapers across the nation and, eventually, coverage on CNN and other television networks.

Now, with a new summer season and record fuel prices everywhere, Fox News has picked up the story again.

Several truckers called to tell us about the coverage. Some were just informing us; some were giving a little ribbing to Fox News for treating it as a brand new story.

I kind of agree – it’s pretty clear that others beat Fox News to the punch on this. But who cares? I’m glad they’re covering it, and I hope all the other networks bring the topic back as well.

We need to convert the outrage that all Americans are feeling toward pump prices, and direct that toward this issue.

It won’t solve the fuel price crisis. But every penny we save counts.

And solving this sure won’t hurt.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Change the channel on this idea

We continue to get calls about the enforcement effort by Arizona against truckers who use laptop computers in the cabs.

Once again, at this point, the state has declared a moratorium on enforcement, pending a ruling from the FMCSA and CVSA.

A lot of truckers are still hopping mad about this. But some are not so sure.

I have heard from some truckers who talk about folks texting behind the wheel, diverting their attention from the road for long periods while moving, looking at videos on Web sites … the kinds of behavior that I think we’d all agree are best avoided.

But if you glance occasionally at the screen, just as you would glance at any other gauge or meter or device on your dash, and if you only glance, and don’t stare at it – in effect, if you use some common sense – it should be no problem.

We can’t legislate common sense. I wish we could.

But those who act responsibly with their laptops will continue to do so, while those who act irresponsibly about this will either continue to do so in spite of the threat of tickets, or they’ll act irresponsibly in some other way.

Cutting off a useful function for truckers who do act responsibly won’t fix this.

And incorrectly enforcing a regulation meant for televisions on some other unrelated device won’t fix it either.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Disposable people

A while back, we reported on the show about a problem with drive-through scanners used at border crossings.

The scanner operators are supposed to wait for the cab – and the trucker – to pass through before turning the device on, so the truckers won’t be exposed to the scanners rays.

One trucker called in recently to say operators at some border crossings were being more careful.

I had hoped that was a sign that media attention and complaints had caused them to be more cautious. And while that may be true in some cases, it turns out it wasn’t in all cases.

We heard this week from one of our regular listeners that at least one border crossing in Washington state hasn’t changed their behavior at all. And that is terrible news.

This is plain irresponsible. And especially in light of a sign that same trucker saw posted there. It read, “Caution, High Radiation Area.”

We see this attitude all over – that companies, government agencies, and others regard their workers as important, set up safety protocols for their people, take steps to keep those folks from harm, provide them with benefits and facilities.

But, at the same time, those same people regard truckers as disposable people.

It’s bad enough when a shipper or receiver won’t give a trucker the simple decency of using a clean bathroom. To expose directly them to danger, to risk their health out of pure laziness … that is inexcusable.

I’d urge any other trucker who’s facing this to call the agency involved, call your state lawmakers, call your member of the U.S. House and both your U.S. Senators.

If you don’t get action, call again.

We need to put some public pressure on the workers who are being so careless. It’s worked in some cases, and hopefully it will finish this problem off for good.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

All truckers suffer from the high price of fuel

What is the impact of fuel prices on your life?

It’s a question everyone has an answer for. And none of the answers are good.

We’ve actually heard from some truckers whose carriers pay for their fuel, saying that the price doesn’t affect them.

I wish that statement really hadn’t been made. It seems pretty obvious to me that we are all affected by the high fuel price, no matter what we do for a living, or who we work for.

Even if you don’t pay for one ounce of fuel in that truck, you and your family eat. You buy groceries. You have to pay for fuel to drive to the store, and you have to pay at the store for the extra cost of fuel to haul it there.

Here’s the real kicker, pointed out recently by a trucker named Floyd Miller: Very often, the person who paid for that fuel doesn’t get the extra money you paid at the store.

Pretty much everyone in trucking knows that brokers absorb a lot of the fuel surcharges paid by grocery warehouses, food retailers and other shippers and receivers.

So why does that matter to you, or to your husband or wife, or to any other trucker or their spouse.

Simple. Here’s just one example.

If your carrier isn’t getting that surcharge, you can bet you won’t. Maybe large carriers are getting that money, but what about smaller carriers that often get their loads from brokers.

If you work for one of them, you can bet that raise is even further off than it was before.

Once again, this is an issue where all truckers need to stand together. If we don’t, we’ll all be in a world of hurt.

Remember what Benjamin Franklin said: “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It’s a bad idea, I ga-ron-tee

Lawmakers in the state of Louisiana recently considered a bill that would have kept tractor-trailers from using all the lanes on multilane highways in the state.

For those who haven’t heard of this yet, or who missed our broadcast the other day, the bill is SB341.

The bill is dead now, but it could come back in the future – and we see this kind of bill come up in other states on a fairly regular basis.

It makes no sense to do this. It could have an effect we’ve described on our program many times – an impenetrable wall of trucks in the right lane, keeping cars from merging on or exiting off.

Does that really sound safe? Should we really be doing this? Or is this just a way to make some four-wheelers feel like something’s being done when, really, nothing that actually improves highway safety has happened.

Like we haven’t seen that trick before.

Some states handle this with signs that say “slower traffic stay right.” The problem is all those drivers who simply think to themselves, “I’m not slower, so I’m OK here in the left lane.”

By the way, for any four-wheelers reading this, if you’re going 55 miles per hour in the left lane, and the speed limit is 70, you are slower traffic.

Just a little tip for you there.

In Kentucky, the signs say “stay right except to pass.” You can debate whether you are slower, or what that word is intended to mean. Whether or not you’re passing is a little less subjective.

States that pass this kind of bill aren’t moving ahead … they’re taking a giant step backward. Let’s hope that before any other state considers a measure like this, their lawmakers wake up and smell the coffee.

Monday, June 16, 2008

‘Nobody does anything about it’

There’s an old quote from a man named Charles Warner. He said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

The problem – and the irony – is obvious. No one does anything about the weather because they can’t.

The same can be said about the price of oil. We can’t change it. The only thing we can do is cope.

One of the ways truckers are coping with current fuel prices is by asking for a fuel surcharge.

I don’t need to tell anyone here that truckers aren’t all getting it, that, in fact, most aren’t.

Now, one of our regular callers has found a new aspect to the situation. It turns out that some shippers have been listening to XM Satellite Radio, and heard some of the folks there saying that they’re on a mileage contract, and pay only $1.25 – or a similar, incredibly low figure – for their fuel … no matter what.

The shipper our caller talked to was furious. Why, he said, should he have to pay a 58-cent surcharge for fuel when the trucker was paying a buck 25?

Good question.

I hope our caller explained the reality of the situation as most truckers experience it.

A very limited number of truckers have that deal, where they only pay a set price for fuel, and are insulated completely from the free market forces the bulk of other truckers face.

To those truckers, I say good for you. I’m glad you found a carrier who’s willing to shoot you that deal, and I wish all truckers could get the same deal.

But we all need to be careful and explain to folks outside the industry how this really works. We need to explain how rare that situation is, how most truckers really do pay the price at the pump.

If we don’t, we risk a misinformed public turning on the whole industry. And that would be very bad, indeed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The only thing limited here is brainpower

You can always count on truckers to come up with reasons for or against something that you never thought of.

The debate over speed limiters has been no exception.

The big argument being pursued now in Canada is the green one – that speed limiters will save fuel and cut emissions.

One trucker who called in ran the numbers. And he points out that if big carriers are interested in saving fuel and cutting emissions, why not install an APU on every truck in their fleet?

That would save far more fuel than the limiters would. Again, he ran the numbers – and it’s not just a little more savings … it’s a huge savings over what limiters would do.

Yet larger carriers are often the slowest to adapt use of APUs or other idle-reduction technology. We hear from company drivers every day who don’t have any alternative to idling on their trucks.

The fact is, the large carriers who are pushing for speed limiters do it for this reason:

Their bean counters have determined a speed that they think is optimum for fuel mileage. Mind you, this is a figure that leaves out the effect of driving techniques on fuel mileage, but that’s what they arrive at.

So the company limits its trucks to that speed.

Well, turns out many truckers don’t like to drive limited trucks. So recruiting becomes tough. Those truckers who don’t like the limiters sign on with other companies.

So how does a big carrier solve this dilemma? By getting their government to pass a law forcing all trucks to have limiters. If all companies are the same, there’s no recruiting advantage.

The best way to do that? Take some hot-button words – safety, environment, green – and plug what you want into those issues.

Let’s face it folks – speed limiters don’t make you safer, they don’t make you greener and the environment won’t get any better if you have them. There are things that accomplish those goals, but this isn’t it.

There is science for these conclusions – studies conducted, for example, by Professor Stephen Johnson of the University of Arkansas.

His research shows that while the one limited truck may use less fuel and put out less in emissions, because the rest of the traffic has to accelerate and brake and then accelerate again to get around it, they all use more.

Want to get green? Buy an APU. That will actually have an effect.

The arguments used to support speed limiters are false. Those debate points are created to hide the real reasoning; they are smoke and mirrors, a magician’s trick meant to distract you with illusion so you don’t notice the reality that’s about to bite you in the behind.

It’s time to shatter this illusion, break down this false argument, and stop a proposal that will do the exact opposite of its stated purpose.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Don’t forget the hot fuel

With the price of diesel fuel and gas at an all-time high, with crude oil finding new and exciting ways of rising in price, and with no sign of relief in sight, we need to keep an eye out for any method, any idea that will help truckers get through.

Which brings us to a familiar subject – hot fuel.

A regular caller to our show reminded us of hot fuel recently, and I agree – we will never see a better time to ask lawmakers to address this problem.

There’s a great explanation of how hot fuel works on OOIDA’s special web site,

The basics are this: When you buy a gallon of diesel fuel at 60 degrees, it contains 139,000 Btu, or British Thermal Units. That’s a measure of how much energy the fuel contains – essentially, the stuff you buy the fuel to get, the energy that makes the truck go.

If the fuel you buy has a temperature of 100 degrees – not really a stretch, as we’ve seen this in a number of fuel outlets – it contains 2,000 to 3,000 fewer Btu.

Now, let’s put it in even more concrete terms.

Let’s say you run 2,500 miles a week – 10 hours a day at an average 50 miles per hour, over five days. Some may run less, but for our example, let’s use this.

Let’s also say you get 6 miles per gallon on average. We usually use 5 mpg, but most truckers who have survived this long are working hard to increase that. So we’ll use 6 mpg.

That means you’re using roughly 417 gallons a week.

If your fuel comes out of the pump at 100 degrees instead of 60, you better make it 428½ gallons. Because that’s how much 100-degree fuel it will take to get you across the same 2,500 miles.

Doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? Try this on for size:

At $4.50 a gallon, that’s $52.50 extra a week.

And over the roughly four-month summer season, when hot fuel is most common, that adds up to roughly an additional $830.

If you faced that extra expense for the entire year – say, if you strictly drive along the southern tier of the United States – that could add up to an extra $2,700 a year.

Sounds like real money now, doesn’t it?

Lawmakers are looking for ways to help consumers with high fuel prices, not only at the pump, but also at the grocery store, the department store, everyplace where the price of fuel affects the costs the general public pays.

And that makes this a perfect time to call your elected representatives about this issue.

The number to call your U.S. senators and U.S. representative is (202) 224-3121.

Call your elected representatives today. And ask for change.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The only thing politicians value more than money

One of the newest ways federal and state politicians are using to sneak tolling onto roads is a scheme called “congestion pricing.”

The idea is simple – charge higher tolls during rush hour, lower tolls on off hours.

Of course, first you have to add tolls. And they also never account for how the hours of service work for truckers, and how that – along with shipper and receiver schedules – affects when those truck drivers move through cities.

Plenty of truckers have voiced objections to congestion pricing. And many have suggested alternative schemes to cut congestion, or achieve other goals associated with this scheme.

While I like some of the ideas I’ve heard, they miss the real point. Officials may say this is about saving fuel or cutting congestion or helping the environment, but in reality, it’s about one thing – money.

You can always count on politicians to find new ways to take that money from you. And there’s only one thing they want more – votes.

The fact is, there are more four-wheelers than truckers, so it’s unlikely they would do anything that would punish the larger group of voters.

Also, why take cars off the highway. They want those cars out there. More cars means more tolls.

That’s why they like congestion pricing. It makes them look like they’re doing something, and it brings in the cash. As far as the politicos are concerned, everybody – at least everybody they care about – is happy.

That truckers get screwed isn’t on their radar now. It’s our job to put it there.

If you see one of these snake oil schemes in your state, call your lawmakers, and let them know you oppose congestion pricing. Tell them how it would affect you.

We need to make those politicians understand that this will cost them that one commodity they value more than money – votes.

Money for nothing …

Another aspect to the energy situation that has received attention from Congress is the granting of tax incentives to the oil companies, for such things as exploration.

Congress has indicated they’d like to do something different with that money … besides giving to mega-corporations that do nothing once they receive it.

One of the possibilities Congress has listed is research into alternative fuels.

A trucker who called us recently pointed out that many of those same oil companies do some of that research. Why, he asked, should we stop them from taking money out of our right pocket and then simply let them steal the same money from our left pocket?

Here’s a thought: How about we give some of that research money to our universities, and then make the results of that work public domain?

How many times have we heard about energy-saving discoveries by major corporations that were shelved? Remember what happened to all of the GM electric cars in California once the leases were up – the company crushed them. Although later, a GM official said they were “recycled” instead of simply crushed.

Although we’re no longer convinced that alternative fuels like biodiesel and ethanol are where we’re headed as a nation, the development of those industries is pretty instructive.

Small companies took government subsidies and used them to make those fuels viable, not mega-corporations. Small companies promoted them, developed them, pursued them. The big guys were Johnny-comes-latelys.

We clearly have to pursue some kind of alternative fuel. However, simply putting that task in the hands of the same companies that allowed the current crisis to occur makes no sense whatsoever.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Speculating about speculation

On one of our recent programs, I spoke with Mike Joyce of OOIDA’s Washington, DC, office about speculation in the energy market.

Experts, public officials and others have serious disagreements about how much of the crude oil price is caused by speculation. But it’s certain that a good part of the price is directly rooted in market manipulation. The question is, how much.

It’s caught the attention of Congress, it’s been the subject of a hearing in the U.S. Senate, it’s on the minds of truckers across the United States.

Several truckers who have called in have suggested that we force people who buy commodities on the market to take delivery, rather than simply buying oil on paper and then selling before it even reaches our shores.

Another said, why not just eliminate the futures market altogether?

I have to admit, it’s an interesting idea … but highly unlikely to happen.

Unfortunately, the futures market is so well established in so many commodities, that I doubt we could ever dislodge it. It’s kind of like a tick that really has its head dug in.

Farmers have complained about this for years. The farmer plants the crop, weeds the crop, fertilizes the crop, raises the crop, harvests the crop … and then gets less income out of it than a trader on the futures market.

And none of those traders ever have to take possession of a single bushel of wheat or a single pork belly.

So what can we do?

For one thing, we can restrict who can trade, or the number of seats on the market. OOIDA’s Todd Spencer pointed out recently that number has increased fivefold in the past few years.

We can also increase the amount of their own money they have to spend to invest in futures.

According to Fox News and other sources I checked, if a trader wants to buy oil on margin – essentially, to buy the oil using borrowed money – that trader has to put up 5 percent to 7 percent of the total in his own money.

On the other hand, on the stock market, regulations require that the trader put up 50 percent of the cost of a stock purchase bought on margin.

That requirement was put in after the big stock market crash in 1929, because one of the many causes of the crash was the huge number of people who had bought stock on margin.

And now, look at our current situation. The price of oil – driven in part by speculation – is causing enormous harm to the economy.

Why should oil traders get by with this when stock traders have been regulated in this fashion for nearly 80 years? Why should these traders be allowed to endanger our economy the same way it was endangered 80 years ago?

We stopped this kind of irresponsible behavior before. And there’s no reason we should hesitate to stop it again.

Friday, June 6, 2008

‘Please, sir, may I have some more’

We recently ran an encore of our investigative series into highway funding in Pennsylvania.

One of the aspects of highway funding in places like Pennsylvania is the use of road taxes for so-called “transportation enhancements” – things like bike and hike trails, parks, street beautification, museums, historic buildings and so on.

As we’ve made clear all along, this is not a problem restricted to any one state. And it needs to be addressed everywhere it occurs.

Some truckers are taking action, calling their lawmakers and demanding change. And that’s something that’s great to hear.

Calls like that will become more and more important as we inch closer to the next highway bill.

A new highway bill is supposed to be written every six years, not only determining each time how federal road taxes will be spent for those six years, but often guiding how they’ll be spent long into the future.

And while calls to Congress are important, the pressure shouldn’t solely be on them.

State officials are the ones who are making the big decisions on creating new toll roads, tolling existing roads, and privatizing our highways.

We need to make sure they understand that we’re watching how they spend our highway tax dollars, and that we expect those dollars to be spent responsibly.

When they misspend our money, say then that they’ve run out and then return to the trough asking for more, it’s a little like someone finishing a 12-course gourmet meal, letting out a huge belch, and then walking up to the waiter like some bloated, overfilled version of Oliver Twist and saying “Please, sir, may I have some more.”

Until they spend what they have properly, it makes no sense to give them any more. It’s time to say no.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

They couldn’t stop Charlie, but they sure stopped those price hikes

A recent Associated Press story began, “Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has moved inflation up on his list of worries …”

When I was in Vietnam, the Saigon government one day announced it was sick and tired of rampant inflation and that, from that day on, merchants who raised prices would face imprisonment or even death.

Yeah … death.

Inflation in Vietnam ground to a screeching halt.

If Ben took a similar approach here, it would be a bloodbath.

After all, the top dogs at Dow Chemical just announced they’re raising prices across-the-board by up to 20 percent – mainly to offset fuel costs.

And we all know diesel fuel costs 40 percent more this year than last, while gas is up 20 percent.

Come to think of it, the price of eggs is up 60 percent.

Milk is up 26 percent, pasta up 30 percent, and fruits and veggies are up 20 percent.

Amy Brunger of Portsmouth, NH, tells The Boston Globe that she fed her family for years on $125 a week. But this year the cost suddenly shot up to $200.

And now, the natural gas industry is warning that this winter our heating bills will skyrocket because the price of natural gas has gone up 50 percent.

Put all those percentage increases together, and we’re talking some Big Time Inflation.

For the sake of a lot of nice grocers, gas station owners and truck stop fuel desk managers, I’m glad Ben’s in charge – instead of the Saigon generals.

Or at least … I think I am.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Just as smart as fertilizing tomatoes with a bag of salt

The speed limiter issue continues to boil over in Canada, as Ontario continues to flirt with requiring the devices.

The basic premise supporters of the idea are using is that the limiters promote safety – an idea any trucker knows isn’t the case.

Want some real world examples? Try this on for size.

A trucker called in to our office the other day to tell us what happened recently when he tried to pass another truck in Ohio.

Both trucks were moving at very close to the same speed. And although he didn’t say so, I suspect his truck and the other truck were limited.

As he was trying to pass the other truck, a four-wheeler became impatient, veered onto the shoulder, jammed the accelerator and sped around the two trucks.

This is an excellent case study in why using speed limiters for safety is just as smart as fertilizing tomatoes with a bag of salt.

Every study of speed limiters has told us this is the kind of behavior that’s likely if we require them. It’s what every scientist who’s actually studied the issue has said can happen, what all the evidence points to.

Here are the basics again, for those in the Canadian government who have been sleeping or not paying attention:

Speed limiters create speed differentials on the highways.

Speed differentials lead to increased interaction in traffic – more passing, more speeding up, more sudden braking.

And those things lead to only one end: more accidents, and – God forbid – more deaths.

It’s time supporters of speed limiters come out from behind the safety argument. It simply doesn’t wash.

The real reason this is being pushed has been made clear over and over again. The bean counters at larger carriers tell their corporate overlords that limiting speed will save money. But it’s harder to recruit drivers when you use limiters. So these same carriers want everyone to be limited so they can more easily recruit.

It is not the job of lawmakers to help companies with flawed corporate policies to recruit workers. It is the job of lawmakers to look out for the safety and welfare of the general public.

If lawmakers in Ontario, Quebec or anywhere else are really interested in safety, they should reject this back-door form of corporate welfare.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Putting lipstick on a pig

Some time back, we reported on a problem caused by the fact that some of the fuel pumps now in use were never designed to show a fuel price as high as the ones we’re facing.

Some states are dealing with it by allowing stations to show the price for a half gallon.

Needless to say, that brought in some calls from truckers, one of whom thought it was so silly that he laughed at the idea. Isn’t it funny, he said, that our lawmakers would step up to help out the very people who are charging us over $4 a gallon for fuel.

I thought the whole mess was a hoot, too.

I suppose we could be angry – everyone has a right to be – but it’s not like we all need something else to raise our blood pressure.

I will say this: At least the states allowing this are putting in some protections, such as requiring those stations to clearly mark on the pumps that the price is for only a half gallon.

On the other hand, that’s a little like putting lipstick on a pig.

But that trucker had a good point. Wouldn’t it be nice if those same state lawmakers who are so interested in helping small fuel businesses cope were just as willing to help small trucking businesses?

You might want to make a quick call to your state lawmakers and point that out. It never hurts to remind them that we’re out there.