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.
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.
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.