Thursday, August 11, 2011

White knuckles and a bad impression

The public perception of heavy trucks is not going to improve much as long as we have sensational reporting, perpetuation of myths and a few bad apples that are intent on spoiling the whole bunch.

If we surveyed a cross-section of the general, non-trucking public and asked, “Should heavy trucks be forced to slow down and be restricted to the right lane?” we would undoubtedly get a lot of “yes” responses.

It’s a loaded question and one that craves a quick and impulsive response.

People rarely remember the trucks they pass, cut off, force to apply the brakes or follow too closely in a given day, but they always remember the one that passes them. Those white-knuckle memories lead to complaints. Add in a story about a fiery truck crash and you’ve got a formula for a new law or regulation.

I think the public understands in a general way that trucks bring everything we eat, wear and use on a daily basis. But I also think that people are naturally afraid of large, heavy moving objects.

Let’s take a look at some of the rules or laws brought about in the name of safety. They had to start somewhere, whether with public complaints, a safety group or a sympathetic policymaker catering to voters.

On the surface, some regs have the appearance of being about safety and are certainly sold that way, but it doesn’t take long to see beneath the surface.

Proposed changes to hours of service are a good example. Even a leading expert on fatigue recently told us that the talk about HOS as a safety measure is overblown and we’re just spending way too much time and effort to “prove” the connection.

Then, there are speed limiters. Again, they are touted as safety features by special interest groups and big industry trucking. But when all things are considered, limiters are really more about leveling a competitive playing field than about making the roads safer. How can a truck speed-limited to 62 mph be safe when the flow of traffic on major routes is up around 75 mph?

Let’s move on to electronic on-board recorders. They were once championed as safety tools, but supporters have changed their argument a few times after it’s been pointed out that they’re no different than paper logs on the issue of safety when it’s all said and done. They’re just tracking tools, is all, and another way for unscrupulous carriers to hold their workforce hostage.

Let’s talk about lane restrictions for trucks and the split speed limits between cars and trucks. Lawmakers try to sell these ideas to the public on safety promises, but common sense tells us that they only complicate matters.

If people actually took the time to think about it, it makes no sense to force the truck speed down below the flow of traffic and to restrict truckers to the right lanes on urban highways.

Studies show that the safest speeds are uniform speeds because there are fewer traffic interactions.

Think about how tough it is already to merge when vehicles in the right lane are queued up in a long line. We’ve all been there. Now think about bunches of speed-limited trucks clogging up the right lanes as you try to make your highway entrance or exit. Why not let through traffic, including trucks, stay left? At least traffic could enter and exit the roadway.

While we’re at it, how about enforcing current laws on speeding, weaving, inattentive driving, construction zone safety or the biggie – following too closely? That would solve some problems out there.

The vast majority of truckers are the safest drivers on the roads today. But everyone seems to remember the incident that scared the sense out of them.

It’s time to stop overreacting and use some common sense in the way we think about transportation.