Why Trucking Accidents Happen

There is an interesting–and disturbing–dynamic in the world of corporate profits which is present in companies across the business spectrum: from the financial sector to the trucking industry. We wrote in a recent post on our consumer protection blog about the reason that the credit reporting bureaus are so slow to respond to consumer complaints about inaccurate credit scores. That reason, in a nutshell, is that the credit bureaus do not make money by responding to consumer complaints. They make money by selling your credit report to potential lenders, and it is to this work that they commit their energy and resources. To a consumer, getting his or her credit report straightened out is crucial; to the credit bureaus, it is a money-losing hassle. Why commit resources to an activity that does not make money? After all it’s a company for profit; its managers have a legal obligation to focus entirely on profit. So the public good is sacrificed–stop us if you have heard this before–on the altar of corporate profits.

Though a totally different model, the trucking industry exhibits the same principle at work on the subject of public safety. Ask yourself how the trucking industry makes money. It makes money by developing relationships with shippers (the people who have freight they need moved), having its dispatchers take orders from those shippers, and then sending its drivers out to pick up and deliver the freight. For this service the trucking company (called the motor carrier in the transportation business) is paid a fee by the shipper. Presto: the motor carrier has made money from hauling that freight.

What the motor carrier typically does not make money on is its efforts to preserve the safety of the motoring public while its drivers haul that freight. Indeed, safe operation of commercial motor vehicles (tractor-trailers, cement mixers, flat beds, tankers, logging trucks, etc), and the avoidance of tractor trailer accidents, is a very expensive proposition. Making commitments to safety costs motor carriers money, just as straightening out your inaccurate credit report costs the credit bureaus money.

Sadly, many motor carriers take the same cavalier, profit-first approach that the credit bureaus take. Even more sadly, in the trucking industry this behavior causes people to lose their lives, or their limbs, or their friends, or their family members. What expensive corners do motor carriers cut in terms of safety, in order to preserve profit? At the specific level the possibilities are endless. In general, there are three main categories: hiring, supervision and vehicle maintenance.

On the hiring front, the main problem is that motor carriers frequently hire unreliable, sometimes flat out scary guys, and then put them behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound truck. And then send them out onto the road with an unsuspecting public which includes children, wives, mothers, husbands and fathers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) impose minimum driver qualification standards on the industry, but they are just that: minimum. Drivers with DUI’s, drivers with serious criminal records, drivers with mental health problems, drivers who have been fired from numerous positions- these are more common than you would imagine. In fairness to the industry–which TLO partner Ben Traywick represented for six year with a large Charleston firm–there simply are not enough competent, qualified, safety conscious drivers to meet the industry’s demand. Frankly, this conundrum is baffling, considering that unemployment is at historic sustained highs. The difficult economic realities faced by trucking industry human resource managers provides little comfort, of course, for innocent people who are injured or killed as a result.

Supervision deficiencies are a bit more subtle than the blatant hiring of unqualified drivers. Once again being fair to the industry, the very nature of the transportation business involves drivers picking up a load at the motor carrier’s terminal, and then disappearing down the highway, with no supervision, for several hundred or several thousand miles. The necessity of supervision gives way to the reality that commercial drivers simply cannot be supervised on a daily basis because, at root, they are solitary actors out on the American highway. They have to be trusted to do what is right, to follow the law, and to operate their vehicles in a safe fashion. Sadly, history shows that this trust is frequently misplaced.

But even with these inherent limitations, motor carriers are not doing everything they can to supervise drivers. Dispatchers charged with monitoring the federally mandated maximum driving time are sending drivers out on runs for which the driver does not have the hours necessary to complete it lawfully. Safety departments assigned to review the drivers’ trip documents–dispatch orders, bills of lading, logbooks, fuel receipts, etc–are understaffed and not meeting their obligations. The list goes on. Oftentimes these supervisory tasks are left incomplete because safety department budgets are strapped, and the departments understaffed. More dispatchers, more compliance officers, and better training for all would enhance safety. Profits, though, would suffer.

Deficiencies in the third main safety area, vehicle maintenance, are once again a function in large measure of cost savings for the motor carrier. With three mechanics for every twenty tractors rather than one; with the very best diagnostic equipment rather than more outdated models; with quality pay that will attract the best mechanics rather than offering just enough to keep the garage staffed- with these investments in rigorous vehicle maintenance protocols, motor carriers can enhance safety for the public. Once again, though, it is all too frequent for lawyers who represent trucking accident victims to find that these investments were not made, with horrific consequences.

This is merely an outline of the threats to which the motoring public is exposed by the friction which exists between safety and profit in the transportation industry. In future posts we will delve into greater detail on these broad topics.


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