Does the D.O.T. watch T.V.?

Taking a little time off the road this week to get my taxes done.  Such a treat.  The good news is, it didn’t take as long as I thought it would, so I thought I’d watch a little T.V. for a change.  Three hundred channels, and nothing on…wait, here’s a show I haven’t heard of before — Big Rig Bounty Hunters.

When they start making reality shows about trucks, it would appear to me that they’re getting pretty desperate for ideas.  Trucking is mostly like the saying “hours of boredom, and seconds of terror”.  Not a lot of opportunity for much in the way of engaging footage.

This show was a bit different though — highlighting the truck recovery industry.  O.K., at least that’s a bit different.  Dealing with things like stolen and hijacked trucks might be a good thing, by publicizing what is a serious problem faced by every trucking company in the country.   My question is, where did they find all of these amateurs?

Let’s start with a basic item — seat belts.  During the episode I watched,  I only saw one driver use them.  Last I heard, wearing them was mandatory.  As in not optional.  As in will get any truck driver a citation.

Next, using a handheld cell phone while driving a truck.  Can’t do it.  Against the regulations. For the company that I work for, that would be an immediate trip to the unemployment line.

Also, backing up on a public street.  Really bad idea.  Another instant trip to the ranks of the unemployed if they worked where I do.

In addition, I never saw a single one of them perform even the most cursory pre-trip inspection.  Regs say that has to happen. It’s a requirement, not a suggestion.  I suppose it’s possible that the pre-trip was on footage that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Neither did I see any logbooks or logbook entries being made.  For local drivers that’s ok — if you’re within 100 air miles (among other requirements – located here:  One team was making a trip several states away.  Didn’t see any logs, although I suppose again that footage of that also could have ended up on the cutting room floor.  I can understand that — watching a truck driver do a logbook wouldn’t exactly be the most riveting footage ever shot.

Here’s a suggestion for all of the drivers featured on that show:  if you’re going to violate State and Federal regulations, doing it on camera for a show that’s being broadcast is probably a Bad Idea.  Here’s an even better idea:  obey the regs.  Your televised actions reflect on the entire industry.  Truck drivers don’t have much of a reputation as it is — don’t make it worse.

The one bright spot on the show was A to Z Distribution of Phoenix, AZ.  They get a Truckie-D Gold Star Safety Award for sending a recovery driver to complete a delivery for a driver who had run out of hours. Good Job!  So nice to see a company that does things the way they’re supposed to.

Like any “reality” show, I guess this one should be taken with a grain of salt — or maybe even a whole salt shaker.

As always, comments and questions are welcome.


this post is an echo of a post I made to


An odd observation about states

Just finished watching the results of the 2012 national election.  Looking at a map of “red” and “blue” states, I noticed that the blue states are all states where driving a truck is a particular pain.  Excessive traffic, few truck facilities etc. The red states are those that seem to be considerably more truck friendly.


Comments welcome.


The Constitutional Amendment We Really Need

With the elections just around the corner, I thought I would depart from my usual rants tirades educational articles about truck and highway safety and weigh in on the current election.

“Look out!” a passerby screamed. “Truckie-D is dragging out his soapbox”. The crowd gasped, groaned, and then rolled their eyes, being already half-numb from the deluge of political advertising. The absolute last thing they wanted was yet another political message.

Well, not quite.

Ok, maybe a little bit.

Actually, not really. At least, not in the usual sense, of coming out in favor of. or opposition to, a particular party, candidate, or issue.

As I see it, elections are all about choices — ideally, choosing the best person to fill some elective office from those presented on a ballot. On the face of it, a pretty good idea. Mostly works pretty well. The thing is, what do you do if you’re not particularly enamored of anyone on the ballot?

I suppose you could cast a write-in vote for someone, but unless there’s an even slightly organized movement of some kind, a write-in has roughly the chances of the proverbial snowball. When was the last time you heard of anyone running a successful write-in campaign? Cast a protest vote? Has any candidate or party (or anyone else) ever paid attention to protest votes?

What about the situation where a candidate is running unopposed for a particular office? If you think that person is totally unqualified for that office, what then?

To address these issues, I would like to propose the following amendment to the US Constitution:

“For each elective office, on every ballot, as the last entry for each list of candidates, shall be the option to vote for ‘None of the above’. Should the votes tallied for ‘None of the above’ equal or exceed those of any candidate or candidates for an office, then those candidates shall be disqualified from running for that office for the current term. Those candidates shall also be barred from filling that office by appointment in the case of a vacancy for that office. Nominations shall then be opened for that office for a period of five days, and an election for that office shall be held three weeks after the original election.”

I’m sure one of LegalExaminer’s attorney members could do a better job drafting such an amendment, (they didn’t teach much legalese in truck driving school), but I think the above conveys my meaning.

Give us the choice to say “We’re not happy with the choices we’ve been given. Try again.”

Vote safely,


This post is an echo of a post I made on


The Driver Shortage Myth

There have been quite a few articles lately decrying the shortage of qualified truck drivers.


There is no shortage.  There are plenty of well qualified and experienced drivers in the labor pool who are currently unemployed, or working other types of jobs.  So, where does the “shortage” come from?

If we rephrase the statement, the answer becomes immediately apparent:

There’s a shortage of drivers willing to drive trucks given current pay levels and working conditions.

Let’s take a look at just what goes on in the trucking industry.

First, since truck drivers are subject to Federal Hours of Service regulations, they’re not covered by things like the minimum wage and overtime provisions.  Most companies consider the DOT limits to be the standard work week — in other words, 70 hours in an eight day period.  No overtime.

Most companies pay by the mile.  Usually this is what as known as “Household Goods Mover’s Guide” miles.  This runs around 8-10% fewer miles that a driver has to actually travel to move a load.  A few pay on “Practical Route” miles.  This is a lot closer to reality, and generally is within one or two percent of actual miles.  A very few pay on “Hub Miles”.  Basically, this is odometer mileage — in other words, actual travel distance.

The big thing about mileage-based pay is that drivers don’t get paid for all of the work they do.  Stuck in traffic? Waiting at a loading dock? Effectively, drivers get NO pay for that.  Not many of us really like working for free.  The line that companies use (for that, and everything else) is “It’s included in your mileage rate”. How much is included? 1 hour? 10 hours?

Other companies use a percentage-based pay system.  Drivers get a percentage of the revenue from the load.  The percentage, and how it’s calculated can vary widely from company to company.  Under this system, empty miles are usually not paid at all — with the same argument that “It’s included in the percentage rate”.

So, we can now see some of the problems with compensation in the industry.  Now, let’s take a look at working conditions:

Let’s start with time away from home.  I was reading a truck magazine the other day, and an ad for a company proudly trumpeted “We get our drivers home almost every month!”  Month? So there are entire months that a driver won’t get home?  Typical.  Most companies get their driver home every two or three weeks, but usually only for two or three days.  Most companies figure one day off for every week on the road.  Not a lot of time, especially for drivers who have families, particularly those with young children.  Not surprisingly, truck drivers have a divorce rate well above the national average.

Then there’s the parking issue.  I’ve written numerous posts about the terrible parking problems that truck drivers face, especially in the east and northeast parts of the country.  The regulations mandate being parked for a minimum of 10 hours, and it’s getting more and more difficult to comply.  I generally don’t take loads that go east because the parking situation has gotten so bad.

When you’re parked, you effectively live in a box.  A small one.  While truck sleepers have gotten bigger and more comfortable over the last few years, it’s still a box.  A lot of jail cells are bigger, and prisoners are let out more often. To mangle a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Being in a truck is like being in jail, with a chance of dying in a crash”.

After parking, then there’s the issue of food.  Truck stop food is expensive, and frequently not very good, not to mention generally not very healthy either.  I was at a truckstop restaurant a while back, and decided I’d order the first entree on the menu that wasn’t fried or deep fried.  There was not one single thing that wasn’t.  Doesn’t make for a very healthy lifestyle.  Sitting in one position behind a steering wheel for up to 11 hours a day isn’t very helpful either.

While we’re on the subject of health, let’s talk about safety.  In terms of numbers of workers killed and injured, trucking is one of the most (if not the most) dangerous jobs in the country.  If there were an equivalent number of burger flippers or discount store employees killed, there would be an enormous outcry demanding immediate change.  That doesn’t seem to be happening with trucking.

Then, there’s the regulatory environment.  Trucking is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, and it’s getting worse.  While such things as CSA seem to be working to get bad drivers and trucking companies off the road, they’re putting too much blame on drivers, and not enough on the trucking companies responsible.  Yes, legally the driver is the “captain of the ship”, but usually has little or no control over equipment or operations.  Frequently, all a driver can do is quit — and in these economic hard times, that may not be an option.

So what to do?  The above are some of the worst driver irritants in the industry, but this list is by no means comprehensive. Addressing the above issues would be a good start, but until these (and more) issues are dealt with by an industry-wide overhaul, the myth of the “driver shortage” will persist.

For a little more info, you can read: and

Comments welcome.


this post is an echo of one I made at


Freedom of Speech

For a variety of reasons, I feel the need to get up on my soapbox and talk about some of the fundamental freedoms that the Constitution guarantees us here in the United States.  In this post, I’m going to talk about Freedom of Speech .

I’m not going to delve into the history surrounding the adoption of this particular amendment in the Bill of Rights, but rather some of the reasons why this right in particular needs to be protected.

Anyone trying to infringe, abridge, nibble away at, or otherwise trying to take away this right has their reasons — and they’re uniformly bad.  Whether it’s a government, corporation, or your next door neighbor, whatever reason they may give,  the bottom line is simply that they don’t want to hear, or have others hear, something that casts them in a less than perfect light.

As an example, in my post Restaurant Guide (you can see it here: ), one of the things I suggest is checking if the cashier asks “was everything was all right with your meal?”.  Good restaurants ask — if something was wrong, they want to know so they can correct it.  Bad ones don’t — they already know their food or service is bad, and don’t want to hear about it.

In other words, feedback. defines feedback as (in part):

“the furnishing of data concerning the operation or output of a machine to an automatic control device or to the machine itself, so that subsequent or ongoing operations of the machine can be altered or corrected.”

We can extend that definition by changing the word “machine” to government, corporation, organization or whatever.  The really important part is “so that subsequent or ongoing operations of the [machine] can be altered or corrected.”

For example, many employers are now making employees sign “no disparagement” agreements.  Hmmm…. it seems to me that if a company has earned (and yes, it must be earned) such little loyalty from their employees that they feel the need to write blog posts, letters to the editor, or whatever that cast that company in a bad light, that maybe there’s a reason for it.  I’m not considering disgruntled ex-employees.  No matter how good the company, there will always be a few who need to rail on after getting fired, no matter how richly they deserved it.  I’m talking about current employees who have to put up with substandard wages, or poor treatment, or bad working conditions — whatever.  The thing is, these companies are then missing out on that feedback that would allow them to correct the issue, and stop the (public) complaints.

In some cases, this is specifically protected (Whistleblowers).  Frequently though, employees fear losing their jobs by complaining, especially if it’s a complaint to an official organization (like OSHA for instance).  Even a bad job is generally better than no job at all, and economic pressure is one way that companies use to keep people quiet.  Others just don’t want the hassle, so they simply move on to the next job.  Even when protections exist on paper, in practice they can be circumvented.

Another area that seems to happen frequently in my own industry, is that of secret settlements.  Trucking companies will often settle claims resulting from crashes, with the condition that the terms of the settlement not be publicly revealed.  Why would this be?  To me, the answer appears obvious.  Is it obvious to you too?  Monetary judgements are also a form of feedback.  Do something bad, and it costs you.  The more it happens, the more likely it is to happen again, and be even more expensive the next time around.  So, it appears that they’re trying to avoid that kind of feedback.

There are also quite a number of governments that attempt to restrict information. Restricting the internet, or particular internet applications seems to be a modern favorite tactic.  Some say it’s to “protect” their citizens, or a particular group, but in reality, it’s to “protect” them from seeing the truth.  If a government, corporation, group, or organization is in such great danger of imploding because of criticism, then it’s my view that it should not only be allowed to implode, it should be helped on it’s way.  Quickly.  Get rid of it, and replace it with something better.  At least, take the feedback to heart and make some improvements.

Those repressive governments that seem to think that they can survive forever are deluding themselves.  No matter how repressive the government, or how tightly they attempt to control the flow of information, eventually the people will find out whatever it is they’re hiding, and take action.  One has only to look at the “Arab Spring” (among others) to see their own personal handwriting on the wall.  Mene Mene….

Comments are always welcome.

Muddying the HOS waters even more

Research calls into question the requirement for 8 consecutive hours of sleep.

A fascinating article at the BBC’s website (you can read it here: ) details the research of historian A. Roger Ekirch into what may be a far more natural sleeping pattern of two 4 hour periods, with one or two hours awake between them.

One of the changes proposed for the current HOS was the elimination of split sleeper berth time.  Maybe that’s not such a good idea after all.

I’d really like to see some serious research done on this, since if it is indeed better than 8 hours in a row, it could have profound implications for reducing driver fatigue.





How safe is safe enough?

I’ve been following the debate over proposed changes to the Hours of Service regulations for trucks for quite some time now.  One bunch wants to cut them back.  Another would keep them as they currently are.  There are probably also some who would like to see them actually increase.  Whoever doesn’t get their way files a lawsuit.  What to do?

The whole debate should be about safety.  It also appears to me that there are some who have other agendas (having nothing at all to do with safety) that they are attempting to further with these regulations.

It really all comes down to where to draw the line.

Let’s first take the case of extreme safety.  Suppose we fit all vehicles with big puffy bumpers.  The slightest touch on any of these bumpers will cause the brakes to instantly apply.  We’ll also cut the speed limit down to five mph.  Driving in other than perfectly clear and dry conditions during daylight hours will be prohibited.  Every vehicle will also have an interlock system that monitors drivers for impairment.  Driving time would be limited to a maximum of 30 minutes per day.

Would that cut crashes?  Probably.  Would it also pretty much kill commerce in this country as we know it?  Almost certainly.

Going to the other extreme, we could eliminate speed limits and HOS regulations, and just let everybody pretty much do as they please.

I’m sure we’d see an increase in crashes (although maybe not as large as you’d think).  It would be all about making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.

Most of us would probably agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

Wandering around the internet I came upon this quote:  “Man must exist in a state of balance between risk and safety. Pure risk leads to self-destruction. Pure safety leads to stagnation. In between lies survival and progress.”

I think that pretty much sums it up.

So how do we figure out exactly where to draw the line?  Well, there’s this really cool thing called Science.  Scientists study problems and collect data, and try to come up with solutions.  Absolutely amazing how that works.  The process isn’t perfect, but it mostly manages to make progress.

Solving this particular problem is actually a bit more difficult.  Statistically speaking, crashes and related happenings are quite rare events.  Generally,  they’re quoted as some (small)  number per million miles travelled.  A million miles is a really long way to travel in any kind of vehicle.  Your average motorist will probably only drive around half of that (or less) in a lifetime.  Collecting accurate data about crashes is also quite difficult due to it’s perishable nature and short duration.

Here’s what I think we need to do:

First, we need to have a really large, comprehensive study.  Sensor and digital technology keeps getting cheaper and better.  This would allow full instrumentation of an extremely large number of vehicles for quite a reasonable sum of money.  Much could be piggybacked on existing vehicle systems, further lowering costs.

This study would run for an extended period of time, and would make their raw data available to any researcher asking for it.

The data would be analyzed, conclusions drawn, and papers written.  Peer review would then attempt to resolve conflicting conclusions, weed out the best strategies, and then implement small scale testing.  Successful small scale tests would then be given broader trials.  Cash awards go to the researchers with the most successful results.

Until we take conjecture, politics, and sub-rosa agendas out of the process, we’re unlikely to ever have intelligent and effective safety regulations.


This is an echo of a post I made on


Freight better, parking worse, and what about CSA?

The good news is that freight volumes have been improving of late.  Rates have been going up a bit too, although not as much as I would like.  The bad news is, parking is getting to be even more of a problem.

Not only are there more trucks on the road competing for the limited number of parking spaces available, the number of available spaces keeps decreasing.  States are closing rest areas, parking of trucks is being restricted more and more by regulations, truckstops are going out of business, and nobody seems to care.

Areas in which I normally never had a problem finding a place to park are now becoming difficult.  For some time now, I’ve limited the areas in which I operate to those where it’s relatively easy to find a place to park.  Mainly, I stay west of the Mississippi river.  I’ll go a little way east of there, but anything east of I-75 is off limits for me.  It’s just too difficult to find safe and legal parking in that part of the country.

When it comes to CSA  the early results seem to be mixed.  On one hand, most drivers and larger carriers are quite concerned about it, and are taking actions to make sure their scores are low.  On the other hand, some drivers and smaller carriers are simply doing business as usual — and that’s a bad thing.  A carrier seems to have to be really bad (and/or have a fatality) before any action is taken.  A small local carrier could conceivably stay pretty much under the radar by simply not being inspected very often.  If you’re not regularly operating on the interstate system and crossing scales, you’re just not going to be inspected much.  Even if you are, as long as your truck looks halfway decent, you still probably won’t get inspected much.

What I’d like to see, is the DOT move away from their fixed scales, and go more to setting up checkpoints at various other locations.  They should take a particular look at occupational haulers — things like trash truck, gravel trucks, log trucks and the like.  Many of those types of jobs pay rather poorly, so they’re not getting the cream of the pool of drivers.  Some states do this quite often — others, only rarely.

What’s this, you might ask? A truck driver advocating more surprise DOT inspections?  You betcha.

To paraphrase John Donne, “Every truck wreck diminishes me”.  Whenever there’s a spectacular wreck that involves a truck, regulators and enforcers hurry to close the barn door after that particular horse has already gotten out.  For example, there was a major wreck some years ago in Maine that killed a number of teenagers.  It turned out that the truck driver involved had done some very creative mathematics with his logbook.  So, for about the next six months or so, if you went to Maine, you were almost certain to have your logbook looked at.

Ergo, by cracking down on the miscreants, putting the bad companies out of business, and getting the lousy drivers off the road, it will make my life on the road a lot easier.  Eventually.  Maybe.

Hang up and drive, and don’t even think about texting and driving.


The Diverging Diamond Interchange

Ok – Here’s my take on the DDI.  I’ve included the email correspondence (with permission) from Gilbert Chlewicki, P.E., who is the President of Advanced Transportation Solutions.


Hi Gilbert,

Very interesting website.  I first became aware of the DDI thanks to a post on, where I’m a contributing author.

The particular post is at:

I’ve been by the one on I-44 in Missouri many times, but haven’t been through it yet.

I watched the videos with the post, and gave your website a thorough read.

Here are my concerns:

1.  There’s no provision for proceeding back onto the original highway after exiting.

Truck drivers often pull off on ramps to check maps, answer calls etc. Also, they sometimes take the wrong exit.  With this design, there’s no way to get directly back onto the highway again.  This is something that can have very serious consequences in a truck.

Also, sometimes overdimensional or overweight permitted loads sometimes need to use these ramps to get around a low clearance, or weight limited bridge.

2.  The angle of the roadways shown is insufficient to give a semi truck adequate visibility to the right to safely make the left turn. The second attached file (left turn1.jpg)  shows where I’m talking about.

How would you address these issues?

Your comments to the post at InjuryBoard would also be welcome.



Thanks for writing Truckie-D.  Let me try to address your issues as best as possible.

1) No thru movement for ramp traffic – This is true and it is the one small set back of the design.  But for all the benefits that the design has, it is usually worth that one drawback, since the only people who generally need to go straight are people who get off a wrong exit.  But it is only a small inconvenience for most drivers to simply go to the next intersection and make a u-turn.  Admittedly, this movement is a little more inconvenient for truckers.  At the I-44/SR 13 DDI, I saw firsthand that it wasn’t that hard for trucks to make a u-turn at one of the nearby intersections or at a gas station.  There is a large volume of truck traffic through that interchange on both I-44 and SR 13 and that was taken into consideration.

A DDI shouldn’t be designed where there are clearance issues on the highway for trucks.  Any half decent engineer should realize this when designing the interchange.  So I wouldn’t worry about clearance issues at a DDI to force ramp thru movements.

With all that being said, I have designed a DDI that does allow thru movements for the ramps.  It is called an Expanded Diverging Diamond Interchange.  This would allow the use of a DDI in a place like Texas where the service roads next to the interstate will require some sort of thru movement.  The only issue with the Expanded DDI is that in order for it to be an efficient design, it needs a lot more land; at least the size of a full cloverleaf interchange.  And it is still a bit limited on how much ramp traffic that wants to go straight will be able to get through the intersection before the design becomes inefficient.

2) Visibility for left turns – The sketch that I have on the website is just to show clearly where each traffic movement goes.  When designed in real life, the angle takes into account sight distance issues.  Next time you drive through Springfield, MO take the opportunity to go through the DDI and make a left.  You’ll see that it is very easy and that everything has been designed for large trucks to make the turns easily and see the traffic very clearly.  For other DDIs, where the left turns are a little more difficult, a traffic signal will sometimes be placed for these lefts.

Please feel free to post these comments on to your blog.  If I can assist you in any other way, please let me know.


Hi Gil,

Thanks for your reply.

On Sun, Jan 23, 2011 at 7:37 PM, Gilbert Chlewicki <> wrote:

Thanks …

… But it is only a small inconvenience for most drivers to simply go to the next intersection and make a u-turn.  Admittedly, this movement is a little more inconvenient for truckers.  At the I-44/SR 13 DDI, I saw firsthand that it wasn’t that hard for trucks to make a u-turn at one of the nearby intersections or at a gas station…

I don’t consider this a minor item.  The company that I lease to has an extremely strict no u-turn policy – and with good reason. Doing one results in instant unemployment.  A u-turn in a semi is extremely dangerous. It exposes the side of the trailer to traffic, and has no underrun protection.  Any smaller vehicle hitting one tends to decapitate the occupants, which is generally frowned upon.  It also results in huge settlement costs.

Also prohibited, again with good reason, are turnarounds on private property.  Doing one is automatically considered as a chargeable preventable collision — even if there’s no damage.  Most of the time, things such as driveways aren’t designed for trucks, and a truck can cause severe pavement damage.  This can get very expensive very fast.   There may also be clearance issues with signs etc. that can be difficult to see.

A DDI shouldn’t be designed where there are clearance issues on the highway for trucks.  Any half decent engineer should realize this when designing the interchange.  So I wouldn’t worry about clearance issues at a DDI to force ramp thru movements.

Mr. Murphy constantly rears his head in the trucking industry.  If a bridge has n feet of clearance, someone will want a load moved through there that requires n+1 feet.

With all that being said, I have designed a DDI that does allow thru movements for the ramps.  It is called an Expanded Diverging Diamond Interchange.  This would allow the use of a DDI in a place like Texas where the service roads next to the interstate will require some sort of thru movement.  The only issue with the Expanded DDI is that in order for it to be an efficient design, it needs a lot more land; at least the size of a full cloverleaf interchange.  And it is still a bit limited on how much ramp traffic that wants to go straight will be able to get through the intersection before the design becomes inefficient.

I’d love to see a diagram of this. Can you send me one?

2) Visibility for left turns – The sketch that I have on the website is just to show clearly where each traffic movement goes.  When designed in real life, the angle takes into account sight distance issues.

Ok, that makes sense.

Next time you drive through Springfield, MO take the opportunity to go through the DDI and make a left.  You’ll see that it is very easy and that everything has been designed for large trucks to make the turns easily and see the traffic very clearly.  For other DDIs, where the left turns are a little more difficult, a traffic signal will sometimes be placed for these lefts.

I’ll try to get through there sometime and take a good look.

Please feel free to post these comments on to your blog.  If I can assist you in any other way, please let me know.

Ok, I’ll do that.  I will make one suggestion – that any of these interchanges that don’t allow thru traffic be signposted on the highway in advance of the ramp.  I really hate surprises like that.

Also, if you ever want a truck driver’s point of view on something, please feel free to email me.  I’m a safety fanatic, so I’m willing to do whatever I can to help.  If you’d like to know more about me, visit my blog, and take a look.




So, that’s the scoop.  I haven’t heard anything more from Gilbert about the through traffic version.

While it may be a good idea for use in limited circumstances, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come down quite firmly opposed to the usage of the DDI design, because of the issues noted above.



Solving the US-Mexico Trucking Problem

Ten steps toward a solution

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should be aware of the current trade spat between the US and Mexico over allowing Mexican trucks to operate in the US.

There are legitimate causes for concern, particularly from the US point of view.  The thing is, these could be addressed relatively easily.  This post will take a look at some of the items of concern.

First, if you haven’t already done so, read my post about Mexican cross-border trucking here:

For the purposes of this post, when I say truck, I’m referring to a five axle tractor-trailer, as is commonly operated throughout North America.

First on the list of concerns (at least my list) is safety.  We can divide this into three general areas:  vehicles, drivers, and cargo.

Let’s take a look at vehicles first.  The number one key to keeping a vehicle in good and safe working order is proper maintenance and inspections.  From everything I’ve seen, this just does not happen on a regular basis for trucks coming out of Mexico.  Please don’t accuse me of prejudice.  I can tell a safe truck from an unsafe truck.  The issue has been raised that the Mexican trucks I see in the border zone aren’t typical.  Maybe or maybe not.  The bottom line is, they’re being operated on US highways, and need to be in compliance with the regulations regarding equipment.  Period.  The good news is, there seems to be more action by the US authorities on cracking down on these trucks.  I picked up a load in Laredo last week.  When I got to the forwarder, I was told that the trailer hadn’t come across the border yet, but they expected it to arrive in an hour or two.  Nine(!) hours later, here comes the truck and trailer – on a wrecker.  Evidently, the truck had been inspected at the border and placed out of service, so they brought it in on a wrecker.  Works for me — I got my load and went down the road.

When it comes to properly maintaining trucks, it pretty much boils down to money — namely, the willingness (and ability) of the truck’s owner to pay for maintenance and repairs.  To be fair, this is true of all trucks – not just those from south of the border.  If freight rates are too low, profits are small, and one of the first things to go is maintenance — the old “we can get a few more miles out of it before we really have to fix it” mindset.

The ports of L.A. and Long Beach in California have been trying to address a similar problem with the drayage drivers that work the ports.  Their approach was to ban owner/operators, and require all drivers to be employees of a trucking company, the theory being that a company will run newer trucks, and maintain trucks better than o/o’s will.  The whole port thing has been the subject of a bunch of legal wrangling ever since it was proposed, and is still ongoing.

Action #1 – Set minimum freight rates for all freight moved within the US.

I’m not a big fan of government regulation of anything, but I think there should be a reasonable minimum freight rate set, that will allow companies to make enough that there won’t be any excuse for poorly maintained trucks.

Action #2 – Require more frequent vehicle inspections.

Other than a daily pre-trip inspection by drivers, the Federal requirement is only for an annual inspection.  A lot can break on a truck in a year’s time.  This should be bumped up to quarterly.  That’s still quite a while between inspections, but more frequently would help.

Action #3 – Require that vehicle inspections be done by a certified 3rd party inspector.

Right now, trucks can be inspected by pretty much whoever.  I can go buy a blank inspection form and inspection sticker, fill it in, and stick it on the truck myself.  Perfectly legal, as long as I’ve actually done the inspection.  Requiring inspections to be done elsewhere (and auditing inspectors) would help.

Next, let’s look at drivers.  We can further divide this item into operations, and qualifications.

Let’s tackle qualifications first.  All truck drivers are required to hold a valid Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).  There are a series of qualifications required to obtain and maintain that license, which I won’t address here, with one exception.  There are rumors and conjecture that obtaining a CDL south of the border is simply a matter of handing the right amount of cash to the right person.  That wouldn’t surprise me a bit, since it can be done that way here in the US, so I think it likely that is probably true.  Every now and then, some 3rd party CDL tester (in the US)  gets shut down for handing out CDL’s to people who can’t drive.  One of the usual results of this is that everyone who got their license from that tester get pulled back in for retesting.  The perception is, that such things are far more common south of the border.

Action #4 – Mexican drivers should be required to take and pass the CDL skills test at a US testing location.

It may seem discriminatory and unfair, but doing so would silence the critics on this particular issue.

The one CDL qualification that I will discuss here, is the requirement to be able to speak and understand sufficient English to communicate with the DOT and law enforcement personnel.  As mentioned in another post on my blog, there have been quite a number of citations handed out in the US for insufficient language ability.  This requirement should actually be modified to “be able to speak and understand sufficient of the language of the country being operated in to communicate with the DOT and law enforcement personnel”.  Specifically, every CDL holder should be tested on and in the appropriate languages.  There should be three possible endorsements: English, Spanish and French.  If a driver is operating in the US, that driver needs the English endorsement.  For Mexico, Spanish.  For Quebec, French.  Eventually, we may have drivers going to and from other South American countries, so possibly Dutch and Portugese will eventually need to be added.

Action #5 – Add language endorsements to the CDL

Some years ago, I took a load into Quebec.  I know just about enough French to be dangerous in a French restaurant, and that’s about it.  It was one of the scariest trips I ever had, so I can sympathize with how a Mexican driver with only a limited knowledge of English would feel driving in the US.  It may seem like a small thing, but take it from me, it’s really a major issue.

When it comes to operations, the #1 concern raised by many is driver compliance with the DOT Hours of Service (HOS) regulations.  This is nothing new, and has been a problem everywhere since the regulations were first put into effect, and is not limited to drivers from any particular country.  The solution is pretty simple – require Electronic On-Board Recorders (EOBR’s) for all trucks.  The DOT already requires them for trucking companies with safety problems.  Many other companies are also using them, since it simplifies the handling and auditing of driver logs.  The company I lease to uses them, and I like it a lot better than paper – much simpler and faster.  They’re not particularly cheap, but then, they’re not that expensive either.

Action #6 – Require EOBR’s for all trucks operated within the US.

There is a great deal of resistance from many drivers over EOBR’s.  Having one means the elimination of “creative mathematics” when it comes to logging hours.  The perception is, that it’s going to reduce driver’s wages.  My philosophy is, if I can’t make a decent living with one logbook and operating within the regulations, then I’m working for the wrong company.  I don’t want to work that hard, or expose myself to the liability risk.

There’s also resistance from some companies on two fronts:  first, the cost of installing an EOBR, and second, liability issues.  There are a lot of companies that do push drivers harder than they should, and an EOBR would show this.

Another concern is that of having the required insurance and permits for trucks operated in the US.  Our entire system of licensing and permitting trucks is still rather antiquated.  I carry a binder around an inch and a half thick, that has nothing but permits and the like.  Whenever I get inspected by the DOT, I have to drag it out and show the inspector my registration, insurance card, IFTA permit etc.  Usually they don’t check much more than that, unless I’m hauling hazmat.  It’s still an improvement from the days when I started trucking, when the binder was about twice the thickness of the current one, and the truck was covered with all kinds of stickers and plates.  Now, my truck is down to just one plate, with an IFTA sticker on each side.  Not perfect, but better.

What we really need, is a central repository of the required information, and a means for the authorities to verify that information as needed.

We’re actually part of the way there.  Let me digress a moment and talk about Automatic Vehicle Identifiers, or AVI for short.  You’ve probably seen them, and may even have one — basically, we’re talking about an electronic toll tag on steroids.  I have one in my truck – it works as a toll tag, and also identifies my truck to the DOT.

You’ve probably seen the signs on interstate highways around weigh stations that say something like “AVI trucks follow in-cab signals”.  A little further on, you’ll see an antenna or two mounted on poles, and maybe some plates set in the roadway.  What happens is, first, the weigh station interrogates the truck’s transponder, which identifies it.  Next, the truck is weighed (by those plates in the roadway), and the information is transmitted to the weigh station.  The weighmaster can then decide to pull the truck in, or not.  It can be automatically set to pull in trucks over a set axle or gross weight.  Trucks are also pulled in randomly.  Random pull-ins are a percentage, based on a particular company’s safety result, but is at least five percent.  If the weighmaster chooses not to pull in the truck, a green light flashes on the transponder (and it also beeps) , which tells the driver to proceed without stopping.  A red light will illuminate (with a different pattern of beeps) instructing the driver to pull in to the weigh station.  Not getting any indication is treated the same as getting a red light.  After getting a red light, it’s the same thing as a non-transponder equipped truck going through a weigh station.

AVI has a number of benefits for both drivers and the DOT.  Drivers benefit from time saved, and reduced fuel consumption.  When I first got my transponder, I was on a dedicated run, and had to make 6 scale crossings a week.  AVI gave me an increase of about a tenth of an mpg.  This may not sound like a lot, but it works out to around 200 gallons a year of diesel fuel saved — and that’s based on an average of about one scale a day bypassed.  In some areas of the country, there are far more scales, so 200 gallons a year per truck is probably very much on the low side of savings.

For the DOT, it lets them concentrate their enforcement efforts on trucks and companies that are more likely to have problems, and not waste time on compliant companies.  For example, when you go through Colorado, you’ll get pulled in at the first scale you come to.  They’ll do a check of your registration etc. and enter it into their computer system.  After that, it’ll likely be a year or so before you have that checked again, since they already have the information linked to the truck’s transponder.  Saves time and effort for everybody.

Action #7 – Require AVI transponders for all commercial vehicles operated in the US.

A system such as used by Colorado could be done nationwide, and all of the information stored centrally, with insurance companies being required to report policy validity, state operating authority, hazmat authority etc. all maintained, which could largely automate paperwork checks, and allow more manpower to be used for inspecting equipment.  Transponder readers could also be added on highways around the country that could be used to audit fuel tax returns, help track stolen trucks, and those violating the regulations regarding cabotage.

One of the concerns of the trade unions involved is the loss of jobs and erosion of wages due to cabotage.  As applied to trucking, the term means a load is moved within a country by a truck registered outside of that country.  This is a legitimate concern, and a concern of mine as well.  There are a lot of shippers who simply don’t care who moves their freight – as long as it’s cheap.

Action #8 – Implement stiff penalties for shippers, brokers, receivers, and carriers violating the cabotage rules.

These regulations need some serious teeth – as in space alien monster sized teeth.  The penalties need to be substantial enough that nobody will even think of doing it.

I wrote earlier about setting minimum freight rates to help with maintenance.  These are also necessary for companies to pay drivers a reasonable wage.  Most people outside of the trucking industry don’t realize that wage and hour laws don’t apply to anyone subject to DOT hours of service regulations.  No minimum wage.  No overtime.  So, if you can convince somebody to drive a truck for a nickel an hour, and work a 70 hour week with no overtime, it’s perfectly legal to do so.

Action #9 – Set a reasonable minimum wage for all drivers operating in the US.

The whole idea about setting minimum freight rates and wages, is to create a level playing field.  By doing so, I think it would silence most of the critics about complying with the NAFTA provisions on cross-border trucking.

The final area that I want to address is that of smuggling.  Whether it’s guns, drugs, illegal aliens or whatever, it’s a serious problem now, and opening up our border has the potential to make it far worse than it already is.  In this area, the main stumbling block seems to be the sheer volume of freight moving across the border.  It’s far more than it’s currently possible to inspect.

Action #10 – Inspect 100% of all trucks crossing the border.

This action seems to conflict with the statement I made in the previous paragraph — or does it?  As the system is currently constituted, yes, it’s impossible.  However, we could change the way we do things, and cost effectively inspect 100 percent.  How? By distributed labor.  If you haven’t heard of it already, go take a look at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk here:

Basically, what you can do is divide up a task (such as looking at x-ray images of trucks) among thousands or tens of thousands of workers.  So, we require every truck that crossed the border to get x-rayed. First we add a whole bunch of truck x-ray machines.  Then, we set a reasonable amount for each one looked at, throw in a substantial bonus for finding a smuggler, and tack the price on to the customs fee that’s already collected for crossing the border.  While such a system won’t catch everything, it could augment the existing border inspections, and help CBP target their conventional inspection efforts more effectively.  This also has the added benefit for people who are otherwise unable to obtain conventional employment a new avenue to earn a wage.  All they would need is some vetting,  training, a computer, and an internet connection.

The above ten points, while not totally comprehensive, should at least point the way to solving the problem that seems to have eluded the politicians on both sides of the border.

Comments and questions are welcome.