Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bad food, few choices, rotten results

Have you eaten at your favorite truck stop lately?

If you have, it’s very possible that the old sit-down restaurant has been replaced by a fast-food joint.

And that’s a problem. A longtime OOIDA member, Leland Jennings, told us recently that it’s no wonder truckers’ health is in trouble. Look at what they have to eat.

It’s not just truck stops. The local restaurant, or any restaurant that offers something that wasn’t pre-packaged and developed in a lab, is quickly disappearing.

So how do we address this?

There’s only one way: You’re the customer. Talk to the local managers, and let them know what you want.

But don’t stop there. Get the phone number for their corporate headquarters. If the manager won’t give it to you, just Google the company. Most of them put the headquarters number somewhere on their Web site. Call and make them aware as well.

Any company that hears from a large number of customers – well, at least any company whose officers have half a brain among them – will respond.

It’s about the only way to get some action. We can’t expect the government to step in and force truck stops or other restaurants to offer better or healthier food. And I’m pretty sure it’s not a good idea to get them involved.

It’s going to be a hard battle, something that’s especially obvious when you look over this situation. When I’m thinking about eating out, and I see what we’re offered, I start to think that the kind of food all of us like is a thing of the past.

Let’s hope not.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Why bad laws get piled onto good people

If you’ve been reading the pages of Land Line Magazine’s Web site, you’ve seen that officials in Dane County, WI, were pursuing an ordinance that they hope will reduce truck idling in unincorporated areas of that county.

Here are some of the basics:

  • The proposal would restrict idling to five minutes an hour.
  • If temperatures are below 39 or above 80, trucks could idle an additional 15 minutes an hour.
  • And, like other proposals, ordinances or laws of this kind we’ve seen all around the country, this one focuses on the effect diesel emissions have on the health of the area’s population.

It doesn’t sound much different from what we’ve seen elsewhere. But it raises some questions, such as:

  • Why do they keep ignoring the health of the trucker?
  • What about truckers who take along their kids, or pets?
  • What ultimately is the end game of this; how far are they going to carry this idea?

I had a few thoughts about that.

First – and this is the sad part – in most places that have an idling restriction, the trucker’s health is not protected. But many of those same cities will fine a car driver for leaving an animal in a vehicle that doesn’t have the heat or air conditioning operating.

In fact, when I used to eat lunch every day at a bar and grill up the street, frequently, all the K-9 officers from this county would be eating there, too.

Every single one of those vehicles was idling so the animal would be safe and comfortable.

Second, why is this happening – why are public officials going out of their way to protect some citizens, and not others? Why don’t they understand what this is doing to the trucker?

In part, this is a plain lack of understanding. Some public officials that I’ve spoken to, or that truckers have told me they’ve talked to, say they never thought about what it was like for that trucker to sit in the cab. Some didn’t realize that the regulations require them to be in there at certain times.

I’ve even had one insist to me that all the truckers stayed in hotels every night. Seriously, this person really believed that.

These laws can be set by any level of government, they can be different from town to town, and you can face a fine without ever knowing in advance, or even having a chance to know, that you’re in violation of some law.

I’m no fan of federal regulation, and I prefer a lot of things to be done locally instead. But sometimes the feds or some other nationwide force needs to be setting the rules.

That’s why we have federal trucking regulations. That’s why we have IFTA and IRP.

If only one idling law applied nationwide, at least truckers would know what they faced. And we would have the opportunity to make our case to the feds once, instead of having to deal with the governments of 50 states, as many as 3,000 counties, and tens of thousands of cities and towns.

Again, this is why it’s so important to start calling all your public officials – not just the ones in Congress, but also in your state legislatures, your county commission, your city council.

Otherwise … look at how out of control things can get.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What, is there no crime in Jersey?

This past week, Land Line Magazine reported about a bill in New Jersey that could put local law-enforcement officers into the truck inspection business.

State Sen. Shirley Turner of Mercer, NJ, introduced a bill earlier this year that would authorize “appropriately trained” local law-enforcement officers to inspect trucks.

Apparently, New Jersey police are brimming with free time – going about their days lacking any actual crime to combat. How else would they get the time needed to conduct Level I inspections?

Plus, don’t we have a state agency doing this now? Why the duplication of effort? Do large convoys of problem trucks clog the highways there, requiring hundreds, if not thousands, of additional inspectors?

The simple answer is no – on all counts. Those officers have some other things to take care of, real crimes, that should take precedence over this.

So why is the state training local cops to fulfill a state function?

The fact is, training local officers to inspect trucks is not about safety. It is – and has always been – a local government fundraiser.

The DOT doesn’t even train those local officers the same way state inspectors are trained. In most cases, one local officer is trained by the state, and then that officer trains the other local police to do the inspections – usually in a much-abbreviated fashion.

Local police should not be involved in this. Period.

If New Jersey needs more money, perhaps they should ask their citizens.

And maybe if they had spent those citizens’ money wisely, they wouldn’t need so much more.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pirates of the Subprimean

Friday was “Talk Like a Pirate” day – and that raises the question, are there still pirates out there?

My sources tell me yes – only they wear suits and work on the 40th floor of big investment banking companies.

Their latest caper was a little raid on the subprime housing market. That could end up costing the rest of us $1 trillion or more.

But instead of walking the plank, I’m betting these pirates sail off happily into the sunset with the treasures they amassed just before the subprime ship went down to Davey Jones’ locker.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Another bone-headed idea that needs to die

Is a 6-foot-5-inch man who weighs 265 pounds and has a 36 inch waist obese?

To most of us, that would seem like a ridiculous question. Of course not – looking at just those statistics, without additional information, it seems to describe someone who’s in pretty good condition, who works and is reasonably muscular.

Obese means something entirely different. I know from obese – I’ve been that way a good part of my life.

The American Heritage Dictionary – which I’ve always regarded as pretty authoritative – defines the word this way: “Extremely fat; grossly overweight.” I may be off-base (although I really doubt I am), but I don’t think of a 36-inch waistline as extremely fat or grossly anything.

And yet that’s exactly what the FMCSA Medical Review Board wants all of us to believe.

For some time, we’ve been following the proposal by the FMCSA Medical Review Board to use BMI – body mass index – as a way to determine which truckers should be tested for sleep apnea.

This idea has brought in as much reaction as any other issue we’ve explored in the three plus years we’ve been on the air.

Part of that reaction was a call from a trucker named Kevin, who is 6-foot-5-inch, 265 pounds and has a 36-inch waistline.

I put those figures into a widely accepted body mass index calculator. And guess what? His BMI is 31.4.

Under the Medical Review Board plan, any BMI over 30 would require you to have regular testing for sleep apnea – testing that can cost thousands of dollars.

Considering the financial state of trucking, the state of the economy, and the number of truckers who lack any kind of health insurance – double the percentage of uninsured in the general population – this is unconscionable.

I sincerely doubt our friend Kevin is a prime candidate for apnea.

In fact, I don’t think he’s overweight, much less obese. But the medical folks are trying to tell us he is.

Wonder why? Here’s the answer: The test they’re using to calculate body mass index is highly inaccurate.

It has no way to tell the difference between weight from fat and weight from muscle. And of course muscle weighs more, so a lot of people who are in very good shape, and who have a very low risk of apnea, are going to get caught up in this if the plan becomes a formal proposed regulation.

Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. It may not. But if it does, we’ll make sure all of you know.

Meanwhile, I want to put out a challenge to any trucker out there who’s in good physical condition. Plug your height and weight into an online BMI calculator. You can use one here.

If it says you’re overweight or obese, here’s what I want you to do. Next time you see your U.S. senators or representative, ask them to look you up and down and then ask if they think you’re obese.

I’m betting that for many of you, the answer would be no. It’s a great way to show your lawmakers how ridiculous this proposal is.

As some of you know, I have sleep apnea. I know it can be a serious problem if it’s not treated, and if someone really does have it, I want them to get help.

But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to needlessly drain other people’s wallets or subject them to unnecessary medical tests to do that. That kind of activity is why health costs in this country keep spiraling upward, which helps no one but harms all of us.

We need to make sure this bone-headed idea never sees the light of day. Please, make your voice heard today.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Do you see what I see?

I have to be very careful how I word this. I know a lot of truckers like to ride motorcycles in their spare time, so let me just say this is not really aimed at you.

I live in the Kansas City area and lately I’ve been seeing a lot of signs up around town – some billboards, some on those electronic signs that usually have traffic updates on them. These signs are telling me to watch out for motorcycles. “Look Twice for Motorcycles.” “Watch out. Motorcycles are everywhere.”

I have no problem with this message, and I agree with it wholeheartedly on general principle. Where my problem comes in is this: Not a day goes by that I don’t see some yahoo – usually on a crotch rocket, never on a Harley – come zipping down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic like he’s the only one with someplace to go.

I usually drive the speed limit, or close to it anyway. Maybe a few miles to the north of 65 or 70, whatever it happens to be. Not excessively fast. These guys come whipping by me like I’m standing still. And usually they’re going so fast I don’t even realize they are there until I hear the engine go buzzing by my ear like a horsefly on steroids. I even saw one guy doing a wheelie for several miles, thinking he was impressing everyone around him. I was not impressed.

I’ve been startled by these idiots on more than one occasion. So much so that I’ve jerked the steering wheel. Thankfully, not enough to cause my car to swerve, but enough to scare the bejeezus out of me. Oh, and did I mention I drive to and from work each day on 40 miles of Interstate with my 19-month-old daughter in the car?

So you can see why I might be a little agitated.

My point is this – somebody at the Missouri Department of Transportation (maybe Kansas, too, I’ve seen the signs on both sides of the state line) has decided to put up all of these signs promoting motorcycle awareness and safety.

And yet every day I see these morons on wheels driving so recklessly it’s a wonder there aren’t more news reports of tragic motorcycle accidents every day in this town.

But you know what I don’t see? A single sign telling folks to share the road with trucks. Not a one.

You know what else I don’t see? Truck drivers swerving in and out of traffic putting other people’s lives in danger because they’re in a hurry or they just want to show off.

Which, again, is not to say that I don’t support the message of motorcycle safety and awareness, because I do.

I just wonder if maybe those messages aren’t being aimed at the wrong people.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Supply and demand rears its lovely head

Something very profound has happened in the global oil market.

The price of a barrel of oil is suddenly becoming responsive to supply and demand again.

As a result, oil (at this writing) is selling for less than $92 a barrel – as opposed to $147 a few months back.

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister thinks, based on actual demand, it should be selling in the $50 to $65 range – and maybe it soon will.

Some say the big change dates to late summer when the politicians started screaming for the heads of speculators on platters – since some analysts were saying that speculation was accounting for as much as half of the price of a barrel … or even more.

Even the toothless Commodity Futures Trading Commission vowed to “investigate” (but naturally, came up with nothing).

Apparently the CFTC concluded the $69 billion that was pumped into the futures market by big, institutional investors had no impact at all.

Most fourth-graders with a pocket calculator would say otherwise.

In any case, the political and regulatory activity seems to have had a chilling effect on whatever was causing oil to just keep going up in price.

Most chilling is the call by some politicians to close the so-called “Enron loophole” that allowed big investors – who have no intention of actually taking delivery of any oil – to buy as much as they want to protect their money against the weak dollar.

We’ll see how it all unfolds.

But it’s refreshing to actually see oil prices reacting to apparent demand – after being told by fast-talking analysts for years that a single broken pipeline in Nigeria … or a refinery retooling in Botswana … or seagull droppings on an off-shore rig is behind the latest big jump in crude.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A no-brainer the ATA doesn’t get

Why should a trucker haul two loads for one paycheck – a paycheck no larger than that trucker would have received for the single load?

It seems like a simple question with a simple answer: The trucker should say no.

But that’s exactly what would happen if the ATA is successful in its push for longer, heavier trucks.

This idea is nothing more than a scheme by some of the larger carriers through the group that represents them – the ATA – to save some money and make more profit.

Frankly, they’re not the ones I’m worried about in this economy right now. I’m far more concerned about the plight of small-business truckers, both owner-operators and the small fleet owners. It’s far harder for them to afford upgrades to their equipment or to recover increased costs.

And if the big carriers do upgrade, let’s face it – to survive, most everyone will have to follow suit.

But that isn’t the only reason to oppose this.

First and foremost, there are real safety concerns about these trucks.

That’s not intended in any way to run down the truckers who drive these rigs. But those trucks have to share the road with four-wheelers who have enough trouble figuring out how to drive around a single 53-foot trailer.

I’ve watched how they react around doubles. Believe me, we don’t want the kinds of things I saw happening more often.

And then, there’s the question of what they do to the highways.

Some folks say they aren’t a problem for roads to handle. I even heard from one trucker who pointed out that if you spread the load out over enough axles, the weight per axle is less than a standard, 80,000-pound, 53-foot, 5-axle tractor-trailer.

OK, I’ll admit, that sounds like it makes sense – at least, until you consider this: Which wears more on a highway. One SUV, or 10 SUVs?

Obviously, it’s 10 SUVs. Frankly, it’s a no-brainer.

Yes, if you spread that weight out over more axles, you distribute it, and you lower the pounds per square foot.

But you’re still putting that much more net weight onto the road.

Our roads today were designed with the 80,000-pound semi in mind. And they can occasionally handle larger loads when needed – which is why we have permit processes to handle those loads.

But they’re not designed to handle that much more weight on a day-in, day-out, hour-by-hour basis. And if you add that much, it is going to wear them out faster.

At some point, we have to set some limit on the weight and size of trucks allowed on our highways. And frankly, I think the limits we have now – the ones our roads were designed for – are just fine.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Don’t take the chance

We recently warned truckers about problems with two drugs – Byetta and Chantix. Both were the subjects of warnings from the FDA – the federal Food and Drug Administration.

But despite the evidence and warnings from that agency, at least one trucker thinks the warnings may have been overblown.

I think that trucker may have a point, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. If you’re taking Chantix, the FMCSA has told your doctor to revoke your medical certification to drive.

Here’s the key sentence from the statement by FMCSA Administrator John Hill:

“… It appears that medical examiners should not certify a driver taking Chantix because the medication may adversely affect the driver's ability to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle.”

That may sound innocuous, but it means that you could be taken off the road. In this economy, I don’t know many truckers who can afford that kind of vacation.

And I’d add this – Chantix may well have worked well for you as an individual. I don’t doubt that one bit. And I absolutely believe that many, if not most, folks on the drug didn’t experience the side effects.

But that doesn’t mean it will work well for everyone, or that everyone won’t get the side effects.

The FDA issued the warning because so many folks did experience the negative side effects that it’s not worth the chance. The fact is, you don’t know till you take a drug whether you will experience bad effects or not, and in this case, it’s just too much of a gamble.

But even with that aside, truckers can’t work without medical certification. And I’d urge everyone out there to not take that risk.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

To tax or not to tax … that is the question

The proposal in Canada that could lead to a carbon tax – essentially, a tax on anything that has exhaust emissions – hasn’t drawn nearly the attention it deserves.

But some folks are paying attention. And some are thinking of ways to divert that tax away from one of its most likely victims – truckers.

First, let me say this: I’m not going to get into the whole discussion on global warming. But the reality is this: Whether you agree with the idea of global warming or not, it is going to drive policy, including proposals to create taxes like this.

So back to our carbon tax. One truck driver called with an interesting suggestion – why not put the tax on the producers of carbon – the oil companies.

I’m no fan of our friends in the oil business, though I use plenty of what they make. But here are a few things to consider.

Number 1: Guess who will really pay? That’s right, you and me, because they’ll pass on the cost to their customers.

Number 2: Do we really think the oil companies’ lobby will allow this? Probably not, and they throw around a lot of money in the U.S., and I suspect in Canada.

Number 3: No matter how a carbon tax is implemented, some businesses will come out ahead and some will get the shaft. There is an incredible danger that this could end up, as so many things do, as corporate welfare for the big guys, and a burden on the small guys. And small businesses make up the bulk of trucking.

We need to find a way to address this issue, to deal with tax proposals like this, that also addresses the needs of small businesses.

A carbon tax that crushes small businesses is not a good idea for trucking, for the economy, for America and Canada, or for the environment.