Full speed ahead

If you follow what goes on in Washington regarding trucking, you probably are familiar with the debate over enforcement versus outreach. Industry supporters often decry zealous enforcement of rules and regulations as mere paperwork policing. The pro-enforcement crowd considers outreach to be just a rationalization for letting carriers do what they want without fear of any real discipline.

Something happened last month, however, that could recast the debate significantly. In a speech given at an international safety symposium, American Trucking Associations President William Canary called for a nationwide crackdown on speeding by automobile drivers and truckers alike. He cited federal safety data showing that driving too fast for conditions or in excess of the posted speed limit as the contributing factor in 29 percent of all fatal accidents in 2000.

ATA called for more federal money for existing enforcement programs so state and local law enforcement agencies have the resources and motivation to crack down on speeders. Efforts to ensure trucks are in good working order and to reduce driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs have been effective, ATA acknowledges. But the greatest payback in safety spending would be to target aggressive driving, especially speeding.

Canary even coined a new rallying cry: Safe speeds save lives. In the coming months, you probably will see and hear it as much as you saw and heard “Without trucks, America stops.”

ATA’s announcement may sound like an easy public-relations ploy, and it is. Obviously, the industry’s official position has never been that speeding is good. But while “just say no to speeding” isn’t a tough stance, there’s far more to the campaign than a sound bite.

The initiative could, for example, be the cornerstone of a clever legislative strategy. Highway development and safety programs come up for renewal next year. Imagine how many more troopers, cops and sheriffs we would need to maintain “zero tolerance” for speeding. It’s an expensive proposition, and the discussions surrounding it probably would drown out other initiatives that, coincidentally, might not be to the industry’s liking.

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But the implications go beyond lobbying tactics. ATA isn’t saying carriers shouldn’t follow the rules. It’s suggesting the government shift its enforcement priority directly toward its stated goal: saving lives, whether that enforecment focuses on large trucks or cars.

The current approach to highway safety is flawed. First, most of the regulation and enforcement is directed at a group that causes only about 30 percent of the fatal accidents in which members of that group are involved and only a small percentage of all highway fatalities.

But even if our legislators and regulators decide that trucking must bear the lion’s share of enforcement, focusing on traffic violations still might be more effective than the current regulatory scheme. In an analysis of the state’s 100 worst carriers in terms of crashes, the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center found moving violations to be better indicators of unsafe truckers – as defined by the most crashes – than out-of-service violations. UNC researchers concluded that enforcement should be focused on “observable, on-the-road driver behavior of the type addressed by serious CDL violations.” Excessive speed is one such violation, Canary notes.

At the end of the day, the conclusion is inescapable: Slowing down all highway users will save more lives than any combination of strategies directed solely at the trucking industry. All ATA is proposing is that everyone – not just the trucking industry – be accountable for highway safety. Who could argue with that?