Monday, December 22, 2008

2008’s Top 10 Truckin’ Headlines

With the end of the year comes a natural impulse to reflect on the past 52 weeks, on the highs and lows that flickered by like yardsticks, and ask “How did I make it through all that?”

What follows is my totally arbitrary list, in no hard-and-fast order of importance:

The Rise and Fall of Diesel Prices: As Land Line Senior Technical Editor Paul Abelson sometimes says, “I’m doing fine, but I’ll get over it.” After getting more or less used to higher prices over the past couple of years, truckers must have felt that way as the price of diesel soared like an evil angel hopped up on meth and, for now, have crashed back again toward what we thought of as normal.

Reopening of I-35 W Bridge in Minneapolis: Almost a year after a collapse that killed 13 people, a new bridge opened in September. The span is studded with sensors to tell officials how healthy it is. The August 2007 collapse spurred great concern over the U.S. infrastructure, but not much activity toward actually fixing it.

The Economy: As diesel prices soared, freight slid and fleets large and small constricted, consolidated or ceased to exist. The rapid decline in diesel prices, while welcome, comes at a time when the economy appears to still be contracting. Truck and trailer builders, as well as vendors, are hunkering down and cutting hours and workers to try to ride out the slide.

Environment: It’s hard to believe in global warming when it snows in Las Vegas, although the weather wonks say the unusual temperature and humidity conditions in Clark County reflect changes elsewhere. Believers or no, truckers in California are staring at some of the most restrictive environmental regs ever. Anti-idling laws are spreading and truck builders and others are scrambling to find ways to keep drivers comfortable without idling.

Tolling: The battle over toll roads is far from over, and – with governments increasingly strapped for cash and fearful of raising taxes – the idea seems destined to remain an option for those who think calling a tax a fee makes a difference.

Hours of Service: After considerable legal maneuvering and grappling over the past five years, nothing has really changed in the HOS regs. Many in the industry found themselves protesting the “new” regs alongside trucking watchdog Joan Claybrook of the consumer group, Public Citizen. She announced Dec. 15 that she is stepping down as its president after 27 years, but will remain on the board. Politics does make odd bunkfellows indeed.

Truck Size: Like any good celluloid monster, the slavering beast of longer, heavier trucks keeps stomping back to life. A group called Americans for Safe and Efficient Transportation has been pushing for legalizing combos up to 97,000 pounds or more, saying this will save fuel and improve efficiency in the transportation industry. One has to question the notion of increased safety (see “The economy” above, for starters), and, as for efficiency, that translates as “we can pay the driver the same for hauling eight and a half tons more cargo.”

The Election: Of course, “the election,” comprised many elections on many levels, from property assessors to president. It became topic Numero Uno on CBs as Nov. 4 neared, often in bitter, angry and downright nasty language. OOIDA worked hard to get members and readers to register and then to actually vote. All elections are important, because the process hands power over some aspect of your life to another person. Given the challenges we face today, this national election may rank as one of this century’s most important. On a personal note, I am sad that my friend and ace gearjammer Rufus Sideswipe received nary a vote for president. I told him he should apply to be named Secretary of Transportation, but he said he wasn’t a good typist and wouldn’t make coffee for anyone.

Passages: Trucking is a hard life, and it exacts a toll on drivers and loved ones alike. This year some quit; some passed away. Some got divorced; some got married. New folks entered the industry, full of hope and anxiety over the future. Most of us labor in relative obscurity. Two who did not were Mary Johnston, wife of OOIDA Founder Jim Johnston, and Bette Garber, the undisputed boss queen of trucking photographers. We mourn them, but I think they would both urge us to return our energies to fighting for the rights and dignity of truckers and their families. As we reflect on 2008, how about making that our first New Year’s resolution?