July 20, 2015
Column | outbound

Highway hysteria

Road safety deserves thoughtful debate. Safety advocates' heated rhetoric over longer twin-trailers doesn't get us there.

By Mitch Mac Donald

In 2013, 3,602 people died on U.S. roads in accidents involving large trucks, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Thousands more were injured. Occupants of passenger vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists accounted for 84 percent of the fatalities, according to IIHS data. Not surprisingly, those who've lost a loved one in such a terrible manner have scant interest in finding common ground with the trucking industry's safety positions.

Safety advocates pay little heed to federal government data showing that from 2003 to 2013, truck-involved fatalities declined 21 percent, truck-involved injuries fell 23 percent, and truck-involved fatality rates per 100 million vehicle miles traveled dropped 38 percent. They don't want to hear about industry proposals that might reduce accident risk by eliminating truck trips and miles driven, while improving the productivity of a business crucial to the nation's economy. They assume supporters of such proposals are motivated to put profits ahead of safety. Which brings us to the Senate Appropriations Committee's June 25 vote approving the Department of Transportation's (DOT) fiscal year 2016 funding bill. The bill included an amendment requiring states to allow 33-foot twin trailers on all federal aid highways, up from the current 28-foot limit. The amendment passed by a narrow (16-14) margin, reflecting its emotional and divisive nature. Following the vote, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an anti-truck group, spun out of control. It issued a statement calling the bill a "lethal assault on public safety" by special trucking interests. It accused the committee of making highways "more deadly and our families less safe" as a result of the vote. It labeled the twin-trailer language the "FedEx double-33s amendment" after the company that supports its enactment.

In an e-mail, Jacqueline S. Gillan, the group's president, said FedEx and other backers are "running to Congress to ensure a larger market share of freight transportation." Gillan called Mark Rosenker, a former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a "paid advocate" of the Coalition for Efficient & Responsible Trucking, an alliance of less-than-truckload carriers, trade groups, and companies lobbying for the change. Rosenker, an adviser to the group, is using "his safety credentials as a former NTSB board member" to push its agenda, Gillan said in a separate communiqué.

We've called Congress many things, but accessory to murder isn't one of them. It is hard to fathom FedEx founder Fred Smith putting his life's work at risk by supporting an unsafe practice that would affect only the smallest part of its business. It is irrational to think the former head of an agency widely respected for its competence, integrity, and independence could be bought off to endorse a change in the law that might put Americans in harm's way.

Ironically, the industry is trying to convey what it believes is a pro-safety message: to wit, longer trailers have extended wheelbases, which improve stability and performance. Truck weight limits, which have sparked most of the safety concerns anyway, would remain unchanged. A fleet could load more cargo per truck, eliminating 6.6 million trips and 1.3 billion miles traveled. These are reasonable viewpoints that deserve consideration even if safety groups dispute their substance.

We support the longer-trailer proposal for the reasons outlined above. We also have loved ones, and we know that one highway death is one death too many. Members of Gillan's group are passionate and dedicated folks. On this score, it may be impossible to meet the industry halfway. However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which regulates highway safety, is being pushed by its parent agency, DOT, to retool its management and operations. A stronger FMCSA could be far more effective in protecting our roads than barring longer twin-trailers. That is where advocates should focus their energies.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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