Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bush's Highway Deregulation Kills

It's gotten to be an old story in this administration -- industry contributions flowing to Republican candidates, government oversight agency filled with appointees from the industry its supposed to regulate, relaxed regulations and continuing, but preventable deaths.

It's a familiar story, but it bears retelling over and over again, and Steve Labaton of the NY Times has done a masterful job describing how deregulation of "America’s most treacherous industry" -- the trucking industry -- has increased danger on the nation's highways. Almost 5,000 large trucks were involved in accidents in 2005, killing over 5,000 people -- both workers and "innocent" drivers and passengers. The direct cause of most of the accidents is driver fatigue.

But as Labaton points out, despite pleas to reduce the number of hours that fatigued truckers can spend behind the wheel, the Bush administration, caving in to lobbying and contributions from the trucking industry, actually rejected proposals to tighten drivers’ hours and instead relaxed the rules on how long truckers could be on the road.

The trucking industry is, of course, delighted; industry safety experts not so much:
But advocates of tighter rules say the administration’s record of loosening standards endangers motorists. The fatality rate for truck-related accidents remains nearly double that involving only cars, safety and insurance groups say. They note that weakening the rules has reversed a course set by the Clinton administration and has resulted in the federal government repeatedly missing its own targets for reducing the death rate.

“It is a frustrating disappointment that has led to a tragic era,” said David F. Snyder, an assistant general counsel at the American Insurance Association who follows the trucking industry closely. “The losses continue to pile up at a high rate. There has been a huge missed opportunity.”
In fact, the Bush administrations cave-in to industry influence was so egregious that even a Republican-appointed judge was appalled:

In July 2004, a three-judge panel from the federal appeals court in Washington issued a harsh opinion in a lawsuit brought by several safety organizations over the trucking work rules.

Judge David B. Sentelle, a conservative Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan, wrote the opinion, faulting the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for “ignoring its own evidence that fatigue causes many truck accidents.”

The opinion continued, “The agency admits that studies show that crash risk increases, in the agency’s words, ‘geometrically’ after the eighth hour on duty.” The judges said they could not understand why the agency had not estimated the benefits of electronic monitoring, saying the agency’s “passive regulatory approach” probably did not comply with the law. The panel struck down the hour and service rules.

But a year later, in August 2005, the agency issued virtually identical rules, which the safety groups and the Teamsters union are again challenging in court.

Despite Labaton's valuable description of how a powerful industry takes over a regulatory agency, I have a couple of problems with important omissions in the article. More than most workplace incidents, trucking accidents tend to get blamed on individual worker (driver) behavior. Truck drivers drive too much, they drive too fast, they falsify their logbooks, they take drugs to keep awake. The obvious solution is to drug test, monitor their driving (electronically), monitor the logbooks, and severely punish any who break the rules. But are those actually good solutions? Why do truckers cheat? Are they just a bunch of greedy bastards, thoughtlessly putting our families in danger in order to earn a few more pennies?

Actually, the answer lies more in the changing structure of the trucking industry than in the low morals of truckers. During the late 1970's the trucking industry was deregulated, making it easier to enter the trucking industry, increasing competition and reducing rates. Wages fell, particularly for non-union drivers. This led to the rise of the so-called owner-operator which has increasingly replaced unionized employees of large trucking companies. Whereas an employee of a company gets paid by the hour or is on a fixed salary, owner-operators who get paid by the trip are not compensated for waiting time, loading time, unloading time or time spent on maintenance. Combine these factors with increased competition in the deregulated industry that drives down their rates, and you have an industry where the only way you can earn a living is to cheat on the log books, speed from origin to destination and take drugs to keep awake.

For an excellent discussion of the industry, check out a recently published book, Working Disasters, edited by Eric Tucker. One chapter in the book: "Trucking Tragedies: The Hidden Disaster of Mass Death in the Long-Haul Road Transport Industry" by Michael Quinlan, Claire Mayhew and Richard Johnstone discusses the changes in the structure of the long-haul trucking industry mostly in Australia and New Zealand, although many of the conditions are similar to those in the United States. Quinlan et. al cite studies showing that such factors as earnings and regular contracts correlate with safer driving. And the number of unpaid hours (loading, maintenance, waiting) was the best predictor of unsafe speeds. Other studies found that drivers with higher earnings exhibited lower speeds. In fact, improving driver payment is the best way to improve safety. But they point out that under the current structure, "drug use in a long-term feature of the industry and is structured into the work process in a way found in no other occupation aside from prostitution. "

Of course, the fatigue issue is no secret. Since 1990, "Reduce Accidents and Incidents Caused by Human Fatigue" has been on the National Transportation Safety Board's list of Most Wanted Transporation Safety Improvements. NTSB has recommended that the Department of Transportation

Set working hour limits for transportation operators based on fatigue research, circadian rhythms, and sleep and rest requirements.
The NTSB says that progress on this objective is "progressing slowly."

Finally, take a look at workplace fatality statistics in the United States. 43 percent of workplace fatalities are transportation-related, 25% highway related. 993 1,428 workers died in highway incidents in 2005. drivers/sales workers and truck drivers were killed on the job, almost 70% on the road. But despite these numbers, trucking deaths are not really seen as occupational fatalities. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no authority over trucking safety. The Department of Transportation (DOT) preempts OSHA's jurisdiction. DOT regulates driving over public highways, the health and safety of drivers involving their use of drugs and alcohol, hours of service, and use of seat belts.

OSHA's absence from the highway safety debate is not a good thing. To a much greater extent than other occupational fatalities, trucking accidents are blamed on the drivers. Little attention is paid to the responsibility of employers (who, as Labaton documents, often encourage drivers to cheat on their logbooks), nor is attention paid to the structure of the industry which encourages employers to place unreasonable demands on drivers, in essence encouraging drug use and discouraging sufficient rest periods. Indeed, as Quinlan et. al. point out, when a trucker dies in a highway accident, "there is very seldom an investigation of possible corporate responsibility, let alone the launching of a prosecution. "

And leaving occupational health authorities and experts out of the the debate makes it impossible to address the problem successfully:
A regulatory approach that meerly focuses on individual crashes and the responsiblity of drivers for those crashes will routinely ignore the systemic causes of road injuries and death, and will persist in the isolation of each incident from its underlying causes and the tendency to understimate the disasterous nature of the road toll attributable to long-haul trucking.
With over 5,000 truck-related deaths on the highways each year, we have a slow motion disaster that the public only tolerates with because they happen a few at a time and are generally blamed on "bad" drivers. But the real story, the real blame, lies more in the structure of the industry, the overwhelming political influence of the trucking industry over those who control the regulatory agencies in this administration, and our tendency to deal only with the symptoms, rather than the underlying causes of these accidents. Only when people realize the root causes of the transportation toll can we begin to seriously reduce it.


Disclosure 1: Baywood Publishing, the publisher of Working Disasters (referenced above), is a Confined Space advertiser. Click on "Pathbreaking Collection" over on the right for more information on how to purchase the book.) I do not, unfortunately, profit from sales of the book (other than spiritually)

Disclosure 2: My entire family came close to being obliterated nine years ago on the Interstate outside of Allentown, PA when we were rammed from behind by a trucker who had probably fallen asleep. My kids still have nighmares. I still get shivers.