Friday, January 23, 2015

Washington senator should switch to decaf

Police brutality. A widening socioeconomic gap. Global warming. Erecting a statue of a local hero.

These are things that politicians are expected to be concerned about. You know, important issues. Top to bottom is a great way to tackle the issues. For one state senator in Washington State, working bottom to top seems to be preferred. And we’re talking scraping the bottom of a barrel … or coffee pot.

Washington State Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, has recently filed legislation to make sure everybody knows about free coffee. More specifically, he wants to erect road signs along the highways notifying drivers when and where free coffee at the state’s rest areas is available.

Pearson states his concern that volunteers who serve the coffee are losing donations from travelers. His other concern, of course, is driver safety. According to Barbara LaBoe of the Washington Department of Transportation, the state quit replacing the “free coffee” signs back in 2012. By 2015, the signs have all disappeared. LaBoe explained that 35 signs plus two electronic ones will need to be replaced. Each sign costs $400, with the electronic signs costing $6,000 apiece, bringing the grand total to $26,000 … to inform people about free coffee.

That’s a lot of taxpayers’ money for caffeine jolt awareness. Last year, Washington’s state debt was more than $89 billion (16th worst), with a per capita debt of $12,988 (32nd worst), according to nonprofit organization State Budget Solutions. More than 70 percent of that debt stems from unfunded pensions. A lot of hardworking people may not receive a pension because expenses like “Free Coffee Ahead” signs are taking priority.

Don’t get me wrong; coffee is good – nay – nectar of the gods. Nancy Gagliano, Chief Medical Officer of CVS MinuteClinic, noted that caffeine is known to restore mental alertness when people are experiencing fatigue. In the short term, it can improve the ability of sleep-deprived individuals to learn and make decisions.

“I think it’s reasonable for a professional driver to stop for a cup of coffee when fatigued, but if sleepiness is not resolved, the driver should pull over for some ‘zzz’s,’” Gagliano told Land Line in an email.

No doubt coffee is helpful for drivers everywhere, but do we need to spend thousands of dollars for coffee signs? If safety is the issue here, aren’t there more significant aspects to focus on?

Perhaps Sen. Pearson should grab a cup of joe when making future decisions.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

C.R. England among most ‘engaged’ workplaces?

Utah-based mega carrier C.R. England was recently named one of the Achievers 50 Most Engaged Workplaces in North America.

Hmm. Engaged workplaces?

Are we talking about the way they “engage” drivers at all hours and during rest breaks via their fleet-management systems and electronic logs?

If so, they would certainly qualify.

Apparently the real award recognizes top employers that display leadership and innovation in engaging their workplaces.

England sounds like a perfect candidate.

Like the way they recruit new drivers who quickly become trainers that train their new drivers who quickly become trainers. That’s innovative leadership, right?

This is also the same company that recently asked the FMCSA to allow drivers that pass their skills tests but don’t yet have a physical CDL in hand to haul paying loads for the company. Their innovation knows no boundaries.

Always thinking outside the box.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crash fault, crash risk, CSA and falling bridges

The overpass collapse onto Interstate 75 in Cincinnati could not be a more sobering example of the FMCSA’s delusional approach to crash risk.

On Monday, just two days before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration released a report to Congress on its plan to study crash risk and announced it will be seeking public input on the study, a man lost his life and a truck driver was injured when an overpass scheduled for demolition collapsed onto I-75 below.

The J.B. Hunt intermodal driver, Eric Meyers, was approaching the overpass just as it collapsed. Just driving along. Doing his job. And, bam, a bridge falls in front of the truck. Not much in the way of options. The truck hit the fallen bridge and Eric was injured by the flying debris. Minor injuries, but injured nonetheless.

Most that hear or read about that would think it to certainly be an unfortunate turn of events. A case of wrong place, wrong time.

But not anyone familiar with the FMCSA’s safety measurement system, Compliance, Safety Accountability – or CSA.

CSA has a one-size-fits-all approach to calculating (internal to FMCSA only) scores in the Crash BASIC – a category designed to score motor carriers and their likelihood of crashing based on previous crashes. All crashes, regardless of fault. It goes into the system, chewed up and spit out by FMCSA’s fancy math and, voila, a score is calculated.

I cannot honestly think of a scenario any more clearly not the fault of a driver. The bridge collapsed. The sky fell. Mr. Meyers played absolutely no part in that scenario going down.

Yet his motor carrier and the driver, internally in the scoring side of CSA, will be saddled with a reportable crash.

The insanity of that scenario should not escape anyone.

Two days after the bridge collapse, FMCSA has released a report to Congress on its intention to study a motor carrier’s role in crashes as an indicator of future crash risk.

One of the scenarios the agency is pitching to analyze crash data is to resurrect the Large Truck Crash Causation Study methodology. The mere mention of that study has me muttering, cussing and wanting to bang my head on my desk. It’s just junk.

The study, rather than reporting who was at fault and why, is actually a collision-avoidance or crash-prevention study focused on pre-collision events rather than the consequences.

That purpose and the intention of the study have escaped many who began citing statistics – erroneously – from the study almost immediately following its release.

That’s not too hard to understand when you look at an example cited throughout the methodology summary:

“A truck turns across the path of an oncoming car at an intersection. The critical event is the truck’s turn across the path of the other vehicle. The truck had the turn arrow, observed the oncoming vehicle, and assumed that the oncoming vehicle would stop, which proved to be incorrect. (Right-of-way, which is captured separately, does not necessarily determine the critical event, because the collision may still be avoidable.) The critical reason is ‘false assumption of other road user’s actions.’ ”

Huh? The car ran the red light, so it is the cause of the crash. Why is the trucker being hit with statistical labels of “critical event” and “critical reason”?

Poor Mr. Meyers. With that kind of twisted logic, the trucker is the critical reason he was hit by the bridge because he was there.

Makes your eye twitch, doesn’t it?

Fault matters. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having a bridge fall right in front of you could not be considered an indicator of future crash risk.

FMCSA’s approach to all this is flawed and their study needs a serious reboot before it ever gets started.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Dear Florida DOT …

We’re still waiting on the truth, or at least a valid explanation about why the Florida SunPass toll collection system overbills customers and, more importantly, what the agency plans to do about it.

Are your overcharges a result of an accounting mistake? A software glitch? Or something, dare we say, concocted?

Your explanations vary on why it happens, and that is troubling. So too is your customer service and bare-minimum approach to remedy a complaint. Your status quo has been to let the problem continue until someone calls you on it.

A lawsuit filed by a trucker and OOIDA member from Plant City is an attempt to ferret out information about how often these overcharges occur, why they occur, and what you’re doing to correct the problem. The lawsuit seeks damages to force you to refund overcharges to anyone who has been wronged.

An FDOT senior official told a state Senate committee last year that data about the problems exists and that you work with customers to find refunds. But others who work for you have said there’s no way to track how widespread the problems are. So which is it?

Meanwhile, we know that the overbilling and wrongful billing keep happening at SunPass collection points and from your back offices.

WFLA in Tampa just added another story to its growing archive on the subject. They’re not giving up. Your customers are not giving up, and we’re not either.

We understand that there are lawyers involved now and that you cannot comment on pending litigation.

We sincerely hope the lawsuit forces the truth out in the open and requires you and your technology vendors to make amends.

You are a taxpayer entity and should be held to a high standard. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Golden parachutes for a lead balloon

The boondoggle that is the Indiana Toll Road continues to take. And take and take. Now word has come down that a handful of top executives from the private company that operates the toll road stand to split a $1 million golden parachute on the back end of their bankruptcy trial.

Wait a minute. The folks who racked up billions in debts and declared bankruptcy just eight years into a 75-year lease will somehow cash in once they give the road back to the state?

Something is not right here. How could this happen?

Well, perhaps it’s because this was one of the worst roadway contracts ever signed – one of those deep pains that tollpayers and taxpayers will feel for decades to come.

According to documents from the bankruptcy trial of the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., the Spanish-Australian firm that famously leased the toll road in 2006 for $3.8 billion, the golden parachute awaits the top four or five executives if the toll road fetches enough money on the resale to another investor.

Specifically, if a new company comes along and bids $4.5 billion to take over the lease, the outgoing executives split a cool million. If a bidder comes along and offers $6 billion for the road, the bonus pool stands to double to $2 million.

Oh, and this executive bonus pool is separate from another payout to lower level managers that totals nearly $750,000.

The court documents say the executives deserve bonuses for helping the state and future operator transition to the future.

I guess a lead balloon requires a lot of golden parachutes to come back to earth. They should have just let it fall.

The now infamous lease of the Indiana Toll Road was nothing more than pawnshop mentality in the beginning and has cost users millions. For what? Only to see the road turned over to someone else for more of the same.

Anyone who tells you this was a good deal for highway users is somehow in on the joke or stands to gain from other likeminded projects.

I suppose there’s a chance that a brand-new deal could improve accountability and perhaps keep toll rates in check for truckers and other users. But we’ll only believe that when we see it happen, and until then this bankruptcy proceeding deserves every ounce of scrutiny it’s been getting.

Shout-out to the Northwest Indiana Times for continuing to report the latest and “greatest” involving the trial. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Grab a press release, c'mon get happy!

You drivers are a lot better off than you let on. I know because press releases tell me so.

I’ve read thousands (and written a few) over the last 20 years. And every single one has been happier than hell. All are about products, services or fleets that have vastly improved just about everything.

I have never seen a press release with a headline like, “Carbuncle Carrier Implements New Software; Productivity Plummets.” That just doesn’t happen.

So you see, things are obviously getting better and better.

Years ago it was super-comfortable seats and powerful drive trains that reduced driver turnover. Now technology does every task that doesn’t require opposable thumbs, and you drivers are absolutely thrilled.

Don’t try to deny it. Press releases tell us how happy you are to be monitored, evaluated and rated against your fellow drivers as you compete for toaster ovens and lube shop coupons. Own up to it. If you were any happier with your current job, you’d super-glue yourself to the driver's seat.

It’s not just products and services. Things are always looking up in personnel too. I know because the press releases are always about promotions or appointments. I've never seen one that says “Carbuncle Dumps Driver Donovan for Cursing Out OS&D Manager Jones.”

Oh sure, when corporate results tank for 12 consecutive quarters a release might mention a departing top exec, but only to explain he’s leaving to pursue new opportunities and spend more time with his family (wink, wink).

Otherwise, the release will be super positive, all about the well-groomed new president. That will be him in the slick headshot. He’ll be smiling if the fleet still has some cash in the bank or stern-looking if the prosecutor has already hauled off the office computers.

Either way, things will be looking up. They always are in press releases.

It’s true. Looking over 20 years’ worth of press releases, things have just been getting better and better.

In those 1995 press releases, technology had already pushed driver efficiency up by 15 percent! It was the dawn of the web, the very beginning of affordable GPS, and the productivity returns were astounding.

Actually, checking those press releases over the years, it’s clear to me that you drivers have it made.

Adding up the efficiency increases documented in press releases since 1995, some amazing facts become clear.

For example, the fuel efficiency gains cited in press releases for various technologies mean that trucks in 2015 actually produce fuel rather than burning it.

And it’s no wonder. All those productivity improvements reported in all those press releases clearly mean that most if not all of you reach your delivery points immediately after leaving the pickup locations – and sometimes even before.

And it just keeps getting better and better.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cross-border failed. How many ways do we have to say it?

Give it up, FMCSA. Your insistence that the cross-border pilot program was a success and now your persistence in opening up the border is just pathetic.

Reality is, you fought the fight and you lost. It’s really that simple. The cross-border pilot program offering long-haul opportunities for Mexico-based motor carriers was a bust – even though you’re insisting it wasn’t.

It was the party no one came to. There were only 15 motor carriers that participated. Far less than the 46 you were looking for. And of the 15, only two showed up for a little bit. They mainly continued their commercial zone ways, venturing out beyond on a rare occasion.

But let’s back up.

It’s not like you didn’t try, FMCSA. You rolled out the red carpet. You even went to Mexico trying to gin up participation. Remember your recruiting trips to Tijuana? I want to embellish and claim there were some wild times, but that would be a complete guess on my part and overreaching. Suffice it to say, you went on their home turf and did all you could to get them to go truckin’ long haul in the promised land.

Those recruiting trips to Mexico didn’t last long, either. In fact, FMCSA, your trips into Mexico didn’t meet requirements.

Half of all the pre-authority safety audits were to be conducted on-site, in Mexico. That didn’t happen. It was too dangerous then and it’s even worse now. U.S. State Department Travel warnings and restrictions on government employees helped put an end to those.

So, if it’s too dangerous for a government entourage to go to Mexico to conduct audits, what U.S. trucker is going to go down there willingly, unarmed and unprotected? This whole cross-border song and dance is supposed to run both ways.

Instead of accepting the attendance and participation in your pilot program party for what it was, you decided to pretend like enterprise carriers were a part of it. That’s like pretending that the “cool kids” showed up at your party. Problem is, they aren’t really Mexico-based motor carriers. They are U.S. companies with 55 percent Mexico ownership. That’s a very, very different creature.

All of the lame justifications and the insistence to move forward is just needy and desperate, FMCSA. Face it. Your party bombed. This move to keep the party rolling is just insane. It’s cowardly when paired up with your mission to improve highway safety.

This move is simply inviting the unproven motor carriers to come on over. You know the type. They are like the kids who trash your house and leave you with the mess. How many lives will be lost because of this irresponsible move in opening the border? Your guess is as good as mine, since the pilot program party proved nothing.

Quit acting like the pimple-faced teenager sitting there in the ruins of the party that never was. Instead of continuing with this bad decision and opening the border, it’s really high time for you to quit cowering to economic pressure, clean up your paperwork, and move on and accept that it really should be over. All you’re doing is selling out safety on our roads with this delusional façade you’ve created to justify opening the border.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cartoonists and terrorists: Why free speech matters

The terrorist attack in Paris on Wednesday, Jan. 7, was a terrifying assault not just on the offices of a satirical news magazine, but on free speech and journalism. Twelve people died in the shooting massacre, four of them editorial cartoonists.

Charlie Hebdo, which was described by Drew Rougier-Chapman of Cartoonists Rights Network International as “a cross between Mad Magazine, Playboy cartoons and ‘The Daily Show,’” was founded by cartoonists and journalists.

What relevance could this event in Paris possibly have to us here in North America?

A great deal, actually. As a press release from the Society of Professional Journalists put it, “This is a barbaric, appalling attempt to stifle press freedom. Extremists feel emboldened to attack and kill journalists anywhere in the world for lampooning religion or reporting on political and governmental activities.” You can read the entire statement by the SPJ president here.

Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Iranian Opposition, condemned the attack yesterday. In an “it’s a small world after all” moment, I saw her name and remembered my own frightening experience. I’ve been a copy editor at Land Line Magazine for seven years, but for 17 years I was an editor at a national newspaper syndicate.

I edited at least one syndicated newspaper column in 1994 about Mrs. Rajavi, who had become president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in 1993, and who lived in Paris. Shortly after the column was published in newspapers nationwide, I received a phone call.

A man who claimed to be with an Iranian resistance movement was furious that such a story had run. He was furious that we wrote about an Iranian woman leader. I can’t remember exactly what he said (it’s been 20 years now), but he had a heavy accent. He said I was in danger and that he knew I had children (which I did, 9- and 7-year-old sons).

I remember that it sounded like a death threat. I was shaken and talked to my editorial director, who strongly advised me to call the FBI.

The FBI agent I talked to reassured me, saying it was probably a bluff designed to frighten me (it did) and that the man probably lived out of the country or on the East Coast. The man was unlikely to travel to Kansas City to threaten an editor and was making sure we never wrote about Maryam Rajavi again (we didn’t). The agent did, however, say to call the FBI back immediately if I got another call.

Such threats have an incredibly chilling effect. And, believe it or not, cartoonists are particularly threatening to “true believers” because their art and words have such a powerful effect.

One example is the “Doonesbury” comic strip, which has had many controversies in its 40-plus year history. In 1985, Garry Trudeau drew a series of strips depicting Frank Sinatra alongside famous mobsters. Trudeau based his strips on a soon-to-be-published (and unauthorized) book titled “His Way.” Sinatra’s lawyers wrote an angry letter, threatening a lawsuit against the author and against the syndicate. I recall that at least one syndicate person had to travel to Washington, D.C., to study author Kitty Kelley’s documentation for her claims.

After much discussion and “vetting” by lawyers, it was decided to go ahead with the series. Several major newspapers, however, were sufficiently intimidated that they decided not to run the strips. The Los Angeles Times was one.

A true democracy needs a free and credible press. It is difficult to pin down all the facts, to ascertain the truth – especially in a breaking news situation – and to cover a story completely. But good reporters work very hard at it.

And sometimes in the face of threats or stonewalling, one has to fight back.

Land Line Staff Writer Greg Grisolano passed along one of the most inspired and well-written editorials I’ve seen in a long time. The Frederick (Md.) News-Post was responding to an angry city councilman who threatened a lawsuit if the newspaper dared to print his name. The newspaper’s editorial was titled “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter.”

Another Frederick councilman had accused the media outlets of being cowards who hide behind the label of journalists.

The News-Post’s answer to that crackled with indignation: “Cowards? Tell that to the families of the 60 journalists killed in 2014, or the 70 in 2013, or the 74 who died in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. All in pursuit of the truth, or the most reliable version of it at hand in the most dangerous regions of the world.”

When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, the French newspaper Le Monde’s headline read “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We Are All Americans). After yesterday’s tragedy in Paris, “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) trended worldwide as a social media hashtag and message.

Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the First Amendment, of course. But we can’t let those protections be eroded. And attacks on free speech, wherever they occur, are a grave threat to us all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What should you do if you’re robbed at gunpoint? Be the best witness possible

The recent arrest of two Canadian men on charges of kidnapping androbbing a trucker serves as a sobering reminder that life on the road can be hazardous, even when you’re not behind the wheel.

OOIDA Director of Security and
Operations Doug Morris
OOIDA Director of Safety and Security Operations Doug Morris sat down for a safety Q&A on what you should do if you find yourself being robbed by an armed assailant.

Morris, who worked for 25 years in law enforcement with the Maryland State Police, has been OOIDA’s director of security since 2008. He administers OOIDA’s Transportation Alert Communication and Emergency Response (known as TRACER) program and coordinates the Association’s participation in the First Observer program. He has also served as the chairman of the Department of Homeland Security’s Highway and Motor Carrier Sector Coordinating Council. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Land Line: Hello, Doug. Thanks for taking the time to do this. We’ll start off with a question about how truckers can make themselves a less conspicuous target for would-be robbers and thieves.

Doug Morris: First of all, you should never flash cash or expensive items such as cellphones, iPads or jewelry. Be cognizant of people around you when you’re using an ATM. And never open your truck door to strangers. Crack the window and yell if you have to.

LL: In the Canadian robbery and kidnapping case last month, the victim told police he was attacked by the suspects while walking from a restaurant back to his truck. What advice would you offer to a trucker who has to step away from their vehicle in an unfamiliar area?

DM: If you’re out of the truck and walking, walk with purpose, especially through dark areas. If someone calls out to you, continue walking until you are in a well-lit area with other people around you. Many robberies start with “Hey, can you tell me the time?” or “Can I get some spare change from you?”

LL: What should you do if you’re confronted by one or more armed suspects?

DM: In that case, it’s more about what you should NOT do. Don’t argue, don’t fight and don’t use weapons unless you are well-trained in self-defense. Robbers are unpredictable, and resistance in any form may escalate the level of violence. One other thing you should not do. Do not delay in calling the police, even if the robber has threatened you. You should hesitate only long enough to ensure your safety. The faster police are able to respond, the better the chances the robber or robbers will be arrested.

LL: Once the police arrive, what are some of the most important pieces of information you can provide to help them potentially catch the suspect?

DM: If you are robbed, the following information is very important to the police: your direction of travel; time of robbery; whether or not the suspect(s) were armed; the number of suspects involved and their descriptions; if a vehicle was used, a description of the vehicle and direction of travel if known. If possible, you should write down the license plate number to give to the police.

LL: Anything else?

DM: Memorize the suspect or suspects’ physical and clothing descriptions, especially tattoos, scars and other prominent features. If a weapon is used, focus your attention on its size, type and color. If there are any witnesses, ask them to wait until police arrive, or get their names and addresses if they can’t stay. Your safety is of utmost importance, so never chase or follow a robber. Just focus on being the best witness possible.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Median income way too little

The American Trucking Associations’ 2014 Driver Compensation Study was announced in a press release that happily declared that “median pay for drivers was on a par with the national median for all U.S. households.”

The study “shows that now more than ever, trucking is an excellent career path,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello.

For those of us born to the job, sure. There’s not much choice. But for those just trying to put food on the table and make the car payment, Bob is, how can I put this politely ... delusional.

Let’s begin with the $53,000 “national median for all U.S. households” as reported by Sentier Research, a private research company. Sentier distills data from sources including government statistics.

Those statistics don’t consider what has to be endured to earn that median $53,000.

Do those other median earners require training and a special license? Are they responsible for a Class 8 truck and trailer plus cargo worth who knows how much? While doing their job are they personally subject to volumes of federal, state, and local road laws as well as enforcement that can at times be arbitrary or worse?

Do they have to work 70 hours a week and sleep at hours that are irregular at best, restart rules notwithstanding? Are they away from home for weeks at a time? Do they have to support themselves on the road as well as a family at home? Do they have to miss birthdays, back-to-school night, and other family events big and small?

Are they subject to regulations that incrementally but inexorably constrain their day-to-day, hour-by-hour options creating personal stress that does not figure into government safety calculations? Do they have to defy those regulations and sometimes the law under company pressure, putting their livelihoods at risk, simply to retain their job?

Do they have to work with little or no respect from their company and its customers, never mind the public? Do they have to work with a company camera in their face and other kinds of electronic harassment?

Do their jobs subject them to unhealthy foods, too little beneficial exercise, and a lifestyle that could shorten their potential lifespan?

And do they work at jobs that routinely experience annual employee turnover of 100 percent or higher?

I don’t know why Bob is so sunny about these figures. They only serve to demonstrate that the “median” income for truck drivers isn’t close to enough.