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The Dangers of Sensationalized Data


     With a number of high-profile accidents in recent months, the media seem focused on a perceived unwillingness or inability of the trucking industry to improve its performance and enhance safety.  However, in their pursuit of sensationalism the media fail to address many fundamental flaws and misconceptions about the industry, and the system under which it operates.

    The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was created to collect and evaluate relevant data to this topic, and provides most of the hard statistics on which industry and media alike rely.  However the department is underfunded, and a lack of staffing and resources results in unclear reports which are open to misinterpretation.  For example, in the event of an accident, the current system does not recognize or assign fault.  It is then easy – though inaccurate – to infer that commercial vehicles are responsible for every accident in which they are involved, which leads to carriers and drivers being portrayed as less safe than they actually are.  This misconstrued data contributes to the incorrect perception that commercial vehicles are inherently unsafe.

    In addition to problems evaluating and reporting the data, the disparate number of DOT-certified officers in each state leads to irregularities in collecting the data.  The federal government appropriates limited funding to each state to train officers to perform safety inspections.  This leaves some states with as few as 25 to 30 individuals qualified to perform inspections, while others set aside a budget of their own to make sure all troopers are trained to recognize DOT violations. As a result, states perform more inspections or less depending on the number of qualified officers, which creates vast inconsistencies in the commercial vehicle data collected.  A company operating in a state with a robust inspection regime will receive more inspections, and likely more violations, than one operating under less oversight.  So the latter will seem to be operating more safely while the opposite may in fact be true, but simply underreported.  This lack of funding has raised concerns among the FMCSA and state agencies as to whether or not the data is accurately reflecting the situation on the roads.

     And this is merely a symptom of a larger problem for the public perception of the trucking industry; most ordinary drivers have no idea of the regulations in place, or the ramifications – to individual drivers and companies – for violations.  It is lost on the public that the trucking industry is one of the most highly-regulated in this country.  Rigorous mandates regarding hours of operation, proper maintenance of equipment, and driver behavior are well-known within the industry, but virtually unheard of among the general population.  As is the fact that these mandates are frequently at the forefront of such regulation. For example, in October of 2010 the FMCSA implemented a universal rule mandating hands-free operation of cell phones in all commercial vehicles.  To date only 14 states have similar regulations for drivers of passenger vehicles.

    And this stringent regulation continues at the state level.  Many legislatures and departments of transportation have increased penalties for violations committed by commercial drivers and those operating commercial vehicles.  Many more have instructed judges and prosecutors not to amend or reduce charges for professional drivers.

    The industry as well takes safety very seriously: any company will terminate a driver for excessive violations, and for many companies that threshold can be a single ticket.  Companies actively seek not only to prevent the serious tragedy of automobile accidents, but also to preserve their reputations with clients.  They are motivated not only by humanitarian concerns, but also by hard financial realities.

    However, in the absence of this knowledge the implication becomes that commercial drivers are completely unregulated, and free to drive any way they please.  Trucking companies are portrayed as recklessly profit-driven, refusing to install safety equipment and manipulating the federal government for more lenient regulation.  In reality, flawed collection and compilation of safety data allows the media to manipulate an uniformed public into believing the entire industry is a hazard.