On July 11, The Associated Press issued a release stating that Senate Republicans in Washington have filed a bill to allow 18 year olds to drive tractor-trailers interstate in an effort to help address the shortage of American tractor-trailer drivers.
On Aug. 21, the National Transportation Safety Board released a statement regarding an accident involving six vehicles, the fatality of comedian Jimmy Mack, and the near-fatal injuries of Tracy Morgan, the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock alumnus. Altogether, at least six vehicles were involved in the chain-reaction crash, which affected 21 people. The point is, the tractor-trailer driver, Kevin Roper of Jonesboro, Ga., had been behind the wheel for 28 previous hours, as reported by the National Transportation Investigation Board.
Roper was an independent tractor-trailer driver contracted to Wal-Mart at the time. Tracy Morgan’s involvement in the accident (Morgan was in a coma for two weeks and had two broken legs, broken ribs and head trauma) spotlights the reasons behind this unfortunately not-uncommon type of accident, and how the trucking industry got to be this way.
At any given moment, 13 percent of tractor-trailer drivers are driving drowsy. One in every eight interstate crashes results in death or injury, often severe, and are attributable to equipment failure. Between 80 and 90 percent of tractor-trailer drivers are independent truckers (owner/operators), since the implementation of deregulation in the early 1980s.
On Sept. 11, 2001, after the collapse of the Twin Towers, when fear of the unknown was running rampant, the clarion call went out to the eyes and ears of America, the American trucker. He (or she) is the one at the airports, on the docks, at the power plants, the chemical plants, the oil refineries or any and all vital, vulnerable soft targets in the US. Before deregulation in the trucking industry, freight rates were determined by the Interstate Commerce Commission. These rates factored in hourly wages for the driver, driver’s benefits and wear and tear and maintenance of the trucks. There were so-called “trucking barns” dotted across the interstate of the country. Hours and maintenance were scrupulously regulated by the major trucking firms, which don’t exist today, due to deregulation. But when they did, freight moved seamlessly and timelessly, with the pony express method of fresh drivers and safe tractor-trailers.
In the era of independent trucking, with the owner/operators bidding against one another, it is almost impossible to make a living, let alone pay for maintenance, equipment repai, and save for benefits. When it takes $1,500 to $1,800 just to fuel up a tractor-trailer, with the addition of the NAFTA tax sticker, a surtax on fuel and the massive tolls, it becomes apparent very quickly why the independent trucker can’t maintain his truck and make a living, with the present bulk rate method of payment.
In the present era of homeland security, the safety of America, its highways and all the aforementioned issues should be paramount, but the powers that be in Washington have decided that the final solution is to turn interstate trucking over to underpaid and untrained teenagers. Talk about multiple catastrophes waiting to happen!
Wouldn’t it be more prudent to re-regulate trucking, revive the Interstate Commerce Commission’s authority to factor in living wage and expenses and monitor freight movement and driver’s hours and to provide living wage jobs, particularly for the returning Middle East military veterans whose unemployment rate sits at 26 percent? America needs jobs you can raise a family on – and additionally, what better homeland security can we have in the era of terrorism than taxpaying, professional veterans, instead of hemorrhaging tens of billions of dollars to private security firms to protect America?
Joseph F. Doyle is a freelance writer based in Salem.