Unless you’ve been hibernating these last few weeks, you no doubt repeatedly saw the image of a runaway Walmart truck and a minibus with extensive side impact damage. That would have been just local news for one cycle, were it not for the presence of a couple well known comedians in the minibus, one of whom lost his life and the other was quite badly injured. The State Troopers are on the case, and quickly determined that the driver hadn’t slept in at least 24 hours, and probably fell asleep at the wheel. Now conjure up again the image of that truck… Isn’t there about a four feet of cab behind the front seats, with no windows? Yup, that Walmart truck was equipped with a sleeper cab, and there’s a bed back there that the driver could have crashed out on and gotten some much needed sleep…

If Walmart would let him. Now if Walmart had their logistical act together, in a densely populated place like the northeast their delivery runs would be so short they wouldn’t even need sleeper cabs- Schedule the driver for a regular shift, said driver comes in and works a shift, goes home and gets some rest, and comes back wide awake to do another shift. Driver sleepy anyways? Pull over and take a nap, it does wonders. In my four decades in the trucking business, that’s pretty much the way it worked for me. ‘Cept for my first long haul trucking job back in the 70s, a 3000 mile round trip from Minneapolis to New Hampshire and back with two drivers in a very uncomfortable truck. The theory was that we two drivers would switch off between sleeping in the bunk and driving, but that International cabover rode so bad we often had to park for a couple hours so we could get decent sleep. After two months of that nonsense, I quit.

Because we had a healthy economy and strong unions then, I quickly found a union job at Hostess. And while most of the driving was at night, we didn’t have much problem with drivers falling asleep, because we had a union contract that meant you had a steady schedule so you  could sleep all day, knowing you would be working that night. Heck, even the “extra board” driver knew their next week’s schedule by thursday before. Still nodding of in the small hours in the morning? That same union contract gave you two 15 minute breaks in your 8 hour day, plus an unpaid half hour lunch that you could extend if you’re sleepy, and a third 15 minute break after 9 hours work, and you could take those breaks at any time and any combination you want. So on a night run starting at 9 pm you might save up your breaks until you’ve made your last deliveries at 2 am, then take an hour nap and use your last 15 minute break to grab breakfast on the run. Or if you’re wide awake, enjoy a leisurely hour long sit down breakfast. And some nights you needed those breaks… One night amidst the boredom of I-90 I pulled into the rest area for an hour’s nap. Got back on the road, still felt sleepy, so I pulled over at the next rest area and slept another hour.

UPS and the Postal Service pretty much followed the same safety system- regular scheduled runs, even for the temps, 8 to at most 12 hour shifts followed by time off at home, and an hour a shift of break time in case you’re still sleepy despite all of the above. And as a result, all of the above companies had enviable safety records and you didn’t see their trucks in the news much.

Unfortunately, trucking today seems to be following a different business model… They try to drive costs to the bone and profits up by minimizing labor costs. Instead of scheduling drivers and maybe having them waiting the odd few minutes for a load, they wait until a truck is loaded and ready and then call a driver. Said hapless driver may have been off for days and already awake all day when that call comes at midnight, just as they’re drowsy and heading for bed. Tell the dispatcher “no”, and he’ll likely get fired. So he drinks some strong coffee and comes to work, only to find that the he has to finish loading the trailer and fuel the tractor before hitting the road. And the dispatcher still expects him to drive 600 miles and make a dozen deliveries in 14 hours despite the delays,  so our hapless driver doesn’t even log himself “on duty” until 4 am. Finally hitting the open and empty road and beyond the din and activity of the loading dock, our driver pulls over for a quick nap before nodding off. And exactly 5 minutes after setting the parking brake, a loud buzzer goes of and his dispatcher’s voice screams from the satellite communications device- “Why are you stopped?”.

With that kind of jungle capitalism business model, it’s no wonder even my local small market TV stations have featured a “truck accident de jour” for the past week or so. Couple pig truck rollovers and a beer truck rollover, with no major injuries other than to the cargo, and there was probably no shortage of volunteers to clean up the beer truck carnage. Odds are, enough truck accidents and there’ll be significant human carnage, as happened last week with the Walmart truck and a few weeks back with a Fed Ex truck in California. And it’s no surprise that truck accident rates are rising, while car accident rates are dropping.

Meanwhile, Fed Ex has the nerve to ask Congress to legalize even bigger trucks… Memo to the trucking industry: Don’t even THINK of asking for permission to run even bigger and heavier trucks until you get your accident rate down!

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