Sunday, February 8, 1998
TRUCKING’S POOR SAFETY RECORD
ROAD TO DISASTER JOURNAL INVESTIGATION SHOWS SYSTEM OF WEAK, POORLY POLICED LAWS
By Duane Marsteller
North Carolina’s trucking industry has one of the nation’s worst safety records, fostered by a combination of weak truck-safety laws, spotty enforcement, intense competition and a trucker-friendly political climate.
A 10-month investigation of trucking safety by the Winston-Salem Journal found that:
*North Carolina has more trucking companies with “unsatisfactory” safety ratings from federal inspectors than any other state, even those that have more trucking companies. Nearly all of the companies receiving the bad rating have continued to operate, some for as long as 15 years and some without ever correcting the violations.
*Only 49 percent of all trucking companies in the state have been inspected and have any rating at all, and more than half of those received “unsatisfactory” or “conditional” ratings — meaning they have violations that have or could have caused wrecks involving their trucks.
*Many dangerous trucks escape the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles’ scrutiny because the agency lacks the staff to adequately enforce trucking laws. Over the years, the DMV has been given more duties, so the number of trucks that it inspects has steadily decreased.
*An estimated 1.2 million of the 1.6 million trucks registered in North Carolina are barely regulated at all because of a gap between federal and state trucking regulations.
*North Carolina allows trucking companies and drivers to inspect their own trucks and trailers, and the state doesn’t routinely check to see whether the inspections were done properly or even done at all.
*Intense competition in the industry, sparked by deregulation, has led to some trucking companies cutting corners in maintenance and forcing drivers to stay on the road for longer stretches than the law allows. Some stay behind the wheel past the point of exhaustion — driving, in the CB radio lingo of stressed truckers everywhere, with the “hammer down.”
Although North Carolina consistently ranks among the 10 states with the highest number of deaths in truck-related wrecks — trucks were involved in 3,302 of the state’s 11,528 highway fatalities from 1988-1996 — some of these findings surprised trucking-industry officials, trucking regulators and even the industry’s critics.
“We already knew the industry’s record here wasn’t great, but we never realized it was that bad,” said Jennifer M. Tierney of Kernersville, the state coordinator for Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), a highway-safety advocacy group that has pushed for stricter trucking regulations.
Trucking regulators said that the Journal uncovered some serious safety problems they weren’t aware of but said that the industry as a whole operates safely in North Carolina.
“Just like any other part of life, we have good and bad in the trucking industry here,” said Charles T. Phillips, the director of the federal Office of Motor Carriers’ field office in Raleigh. “We have some companies with very good safety officers and records. On the other hand, you have companies who just don’t care.”
Elbert L. Peters, the president of the N.C. Trucking Association, said that the safety problems in North Carolina are caused by a small segment of the trucking industry.
“I’m reasonably certain that that doesn’t reflect the overall safety of the industry here,” Peters said. “We’re very concerned about safety.
Whether or not the problems are caused by a small segment of the industry, it only takes a few unsafe trucks to create carnage on North Carolina’s roads.
On the evening of Jan. 20, 1997, five members of a North Wilkesboro church were on their way to a church revival in Sparta.
As the van entered a curve on N.C. 18 south of McGrady, a logging truck approached in the opposite lane, going about 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. The truck crossed over the center line as it went through the sharp curve, and it couldn’t slow down because half of its brakes were worn out and six of the trailer’s eight tires were bald or nearly bald, investigators said.
The van’s driver, Billy Mack Carr, 45, tried to swerve to the right. The van’s right tires reached the grassy shoulder, but Carr couldn’t swerve far enough fast enough — the truck’s trailer swung out and slammed into the van’s left side, knocking the van off the road and down a 15-foot embankment. The truck rolled onto its left side, spilling its load of logs on top of the van and crushing it. All five people in the van — Carr; his son, Billy Matthew Carr, 20; Carr’s nephew, Ronald Lee Carr Jr., 20; Ronald Carr’s wife, Charlotte Renee Carr, 21; and Gary Wayne Phillips, 45 — died instantly.
Besides the bad brakes and worn tires, the truck also had missing lug nuts and broken tail lights, turn signals and springs. The trailer should have been inspected every year, but it had not been inspected in five years. It had only half the required number of tie-down straps to hold the load of logs.
The truck’s owner and driver, Bennie Gwyn Cornett of Atkins, Va., has been charged with five counts of involuntary manslaughter. He is awaiting trial.
It wasn’t the first time that Cornett and that truck had been in a wreck in Wilkes County. Six months earlier, the truck — driven by someone else — overturned in another sharp curve on N.C. 18. The driver was not charged.
Three weeks after that wreck, Cornett was driving a different truck when he ran off N.C. 268 and struck the culverts of two private driveways. He told investigators that a car ran him off the road. He was not charged.
Although Cornett ran a company doing interstate trucking, federal regulators didn’t even know the company existed until the wreck with the van. Cornett had not gotten a U.S. Department of Transportation number for his company as required by law. As a result, federal regulators never examined his or his company’s practices and safety record.
Since the wreck, Cornett has left the trucking business, officials in the federal Office of Motor Carriers’ field office in Richmond said.
Many have violations
Both Phillips and Peters said they were surprised to learn of the high number of trucking companies that have unsatisfactory safety ratings. According to a computer database kept by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor Carriers, there are 795 trucking outfits in North Carolina — one out of every 16 in the state — with an unsatisfactory rating.
“That many?” said Phillips, who oversees the seven inspectors who issue the ratings. “I just really don’t have a clue as to why. I don’t think this means they’re more unsafe in North Carolina than any place else, but I have no explanation why it’s that high.”
Peters said that the high number of companies with serious safety violations may be because regulators here are more aggressive than in other states. However, several truckers contradicted that assessment in interviews, saying that North Carolina is known as an “easy” state.
Federal inspectors issue the ratings after examining a trucking company’s records. Major violations, such as not properly maintaining trucks or forcing drivers to drive more hours than allowed, usually result in an unsatisfactory rating.
But getting that rating doesn’t mean that those companies are off North Carolina’s roads. Of the 795 companies rated unsatisfactory, 533 have continued to operate for more than five years — and seven have operated for more than 10 years, the database showed.
Many trucking companies just accept the rating and never correct the violations that inspectors find, Phillips said. Most of those are private haulers, usually a manufacturer’s private fleet or a company that has an exclusive contract to carry another company’s loads.
“A safety rating has no effect on them whatsoever,” he said. “Some couldn’t care less.”
For-hire carriers, which are hired by shippers to carry cargo, care more about the rating because shippers consider it when deciding which trucking company to hire, Phillips said.
The trucking industry has long criticized the safety rating process as flawed, arguing that “paperwork” violations — such as not having all of the maintenance records for a particular truck — result in conditional or unsatisfactory ratings for otherwise safe companies. The industry successfully used that argument in court to force the federal agency to suspend issuing safety ratings for nine months last year.
Big rigs, big business
Trucking is big business in North Carolina, which is the nation’s largest trucking hub.
The industry is the state’s fourth-largest employer, with nearly 250,000 employees and a $6.2 billion annual payroll. Nearly every item sold in the state’s retail stores — from toothbrushes to refrigerators — is trucked in, and such industries as furniture and tobacco depend on trucks to haul raw materials in and finished products out.
The industry is so big here because the state is in the middle of the East Coast corridor, between Florida and Maine. A quarter of the country’s truck traffic runs along that corridor. Charlotte is a major distribution center for the eastern half of the United States, and the state has two deep-water ports.
“We’re just right in the middle of all the action,” Phillips said.
Trucking companies like North Carolina because of its location, but truck drivers like it for another reason: They are less likely to be pulled over by law-enforcement officers here than in other states.
Many truck drivers say that North Carolina has a reputation as average to below-average in how aggressively it enforces truck-safety laws. Virginia, on the other hand, is commonly called “the communist state” by truckers because it’s considered among the toughest enforcers of trucking laws.
“It’s fairly decent to run through North Carolina,” said Tim Conkle, a driver from Georgia who said he has never been pulled over in nine years of driving through North Carolina. “It’s an easy state.”
That reputation scares such truck-safety advocates as Mayor Ellie V. Collins of Bethabara. Her son, Patrick Virtue, died in the early morning darkness of June 10, 1989, when his car drove underneath a darkened truck that was blocking a road in Cheraw, S.C. The front of the car went under the truck’s trailer, and the windshield hit it. Virtue and John Reynolds, a friend, died of head injuries. They were both 19 years old.
“I know we need trucks on the road,” Collins said. “I know they drive our economy, but we need to have safe trucks on the road.”
Regulators say they’re trying to do that by targeting the drivers and companies with the worst records, but there’s not much else they can do. “There’s no quick fix, unless you want to shut down the highways,” Phillips said. “It would take all of us working together to make things better, but I don’t see how you can make an entire industry totally safe. It’s impossible.”
LOGGING TRUCKS SEEN AS AN ESPECIALLY HARD-TO-CONTROL BREED
By Duane Marsteller
Bennie Gwyn Cornett was nearing the end of his run.
It was just before 7 p.m. on Jan. 20, 1997. Darkness had settled as Cornett passed through the McGrady community in northern Wilkes County. He had just 25 miles to go before his destination: the ABT Co. plant in Roaring River.
Earlier that day, Cornett, who is from Atkins, Va., had picked up a full load of logs from a timber-cutting site in Saltville, Va.
He had navigated his tractor-trailer through the winding roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including a steep, dangerous stretch of N.C. 18 on the Alleghany-Wilkes county line, a N.C. Highway Patrol report said.
About two miles south of McGrady on N.C. 18, Cornett saw a yellow warning sign on the right-hand shoulder telling of a sharp curve more than 300 feet ahead. The sign warned that 40 mph was the recommended speed to safely navigate the S-shaped curve.
Cornett applied the brakes as he approached the curve. The truck’s air-powered brakes hissed, but the truck’s speed dropped by just 5 mph — from 60 mph to 55 mph — because all 10 brakes had been improperly adjusted, robbing the truck of half its braking power. Cornett made it through the first part of the curve, a slight arc to the left, and prepared to enter a much sharper arc to the right.
An embankment blocked the view of the road beyond the curve, so Cornett couldn’t see if there was any traffic coming in the opposite lane, but he took the curve wide and crossed the center line. The loaded trailer swung out even farther to the left because six of its eight tires had little or no tread and couldn’t grip the road.
As Cornett rounded the curve, he suddenly saw a church van coming in the opposite direction. By then, the load of logs was shifting because of the truck’s speed, and the truck started to overturn. The trailer slammed into the van’s left side, knocking the van off the road and down a 15-foot embankment.
Cornett had tied down his load of logs with two cloth straps — by law, he should have used at least four — and they were not strong enough to hold the load. They snapped as the truck fell over, spilling more than 50 logs on top of the van and killing its five passengers.
After the wreck, investigators found the bad brakes and tires on Cornett’s truck, along with other equipment violations: missing lug nuts on two wheels, two broken brake lights, a turn signal that didn’t work, and three broken springs that were supposed to help balance the trailer’s load.
Those types of violations are common on logging trucks, trucking regulators say. The most common violations are exceeding weight limits, having faulty brakes and steering, having bald or nearly bald tires and having broken brake lights, headlights and turn signals.
“I tend to find more violations on trucks that are hauling wood products, like logs and wood chips, than with other types of trucks,” said Marty L. Liles, a vehicle-enforcement officer for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.
Logging trucks tend to have more equipment failure because they’re used in rough conditions, but they’re also required to have enough maintenance to replace broken or worn equipment and meet safety requirements, regulators said.
The trucks are driven over many narrow, dirt logging trails to pick up loads. A rough logging trail can jar a truck’s brakes out of adjustment. A branch sticking up from the road can smash a headlight or a brake light. Mud can cake the brakes, reducing the friction and making it harder to stop. When the logs are loaded, they are dropped on the trailer, which can damage the suspension.
“You have more wear and tear and damage done to logging trucks compared to general-freight trucks,” said Deborah M. Chappell, a motor-carrier officer for the DMV.
Drivers of logging trucks also often don’t know how much their trucks weigh when they leave a logging site, said J. Larry Jones, a DMV officer. The weight of logs can vary, depending on the type of trees they are and how recently they were cut, he said. Freshly cut trees have more water in them, so they weigh more. Despite the heavy use that logging trucks get, their owners still are required to keep their trucks in good shape. Many don’t, usually because they are small operators and either don’t follow trucking regulations or can’t afford to keep their trucks well-maintained, Chappell said.
According to a computer database maintained by the federal Office of Motor Carriers, there are 1,220 interstate-trucking companies in North Carolina that primarily haul poles, logs, lumber and wood products. More than 1,100 of them have no more than five trucks. Regulators said that there are likely many more logging-truck companies than those counted in the database. Some don’t cross state lines, so they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of federal inspectors. Some cross state lines but haven’t registered their companies with federal regulators as the law requires them to.
Cornett’s company, Cornett Trucking & Logging, was one of the latter group. Federal regulators didn’t know that the company existed until the wreck Jan. 20 because Cornett had not registered to get a U.S. Department of Transportation identification number.
“Frankly, we don’t audit them,” said Charles T. Phillips, the director of the Office of Motor Carriers’ field office in Raleigh. “That’s an area that needs to be addressed.”
Of the 1,220 wood-products haulers that federal regulators know about, 580 have been reviewed and given safety ratings. Of those, more than one out of six — 100, or 17.2 percent of those reviewed — received an “unsatisfactory” safety rating.
When trucks are compared by the type of cargo that they carry, logging trucks have the third-highest percentage of unsatisfactory ratings. The group with the highest is garbage haulers, with 27.3 percent, although that may be misleading because only 11 companies have been reviewed. Of the 11, three had an unsatisfactory rating.
The group with the second-highest percentage was motor-vehicle carriers, the trucks that carry a load of cars, with 26.8 percent. Of the 295 companies reviewed, 79 received an unsatisfactory rating.
TRUCKS ARE BIGGER, HEAVIER AND DO MORE DAMAGE THAN CARS
By Duane Marsteller
A car that gets in the way of a truck rolling down the highway is like a tin can in the path of a falling hammer.
A large truck can weigh 80,000 pounds, 40 times heavier than a typical car. Being hit by a truck going 60 mph results in damage similar to being hit by a car going 300 mph, said J. Kevin Lacy, a highway-safety engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Not surprisingly, nearly 90 percent of people killed in truck-related wrecks nationwide were not in the truck. In fatal wrecks in North Carolina from 1988 through 1996, car drivers were solely to blame most of the time — 64 percent, according to a study that Lacy completed last year.
“People seem to have this myth that trucks can stop on a dime,” said Bill Stout, the deputy director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “Well, they can’t. Something that heavy takes longer to stop. That’s the law of physics and the law of the road.”
But Lacy’s study found that trucks are involved in a disproportionate number of wrecks and highway fatalities in North Carolina.
At least one of every 25 vehicles registered in North Carolina is a medium or large truck — those weighing more than 10,000 pounds — but trucks were involved in one of every five wrecks — 362,000 of 1.84 million — and more than one of every four highway fatalities — 3,302 of 11,528 — from 1988 through 1996.
In the wrecks where the truck drivers were at least partly at fault, the most common violations cited were speeding, following too closely, and making improper turns and improper lane changes.
“Even if they aren’t at fault a majority of the time, they’re still over-represented” in wrecks, Lacy said. “We know that they are; now it’s just a question of by how much.”
North Carolina, the 11th-most-populous state, consistently ranks among the 10 states with the highest number of people killed in wrecks involving trucks. In 1996, the state ranked seventh, with 183 people killed in truck-related wrecks.
And although Lacy’s study found that truckers were at fault or partly at fault in only 36 percent of the fatal wrecks, that is higher than the national average.
Truck drivers are at least partly at fault in an average of 27 percent of fatal wrecks nationwide, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said.
Lacy presented his study to the N.C. Board of Transportation in October. He is now studying why the rate of truck-related wrecks in North Carolina is higher than the national average and what can be done to reduce it. He hopes to complete that study by the end of 1998.
Monday, February 9, 1998
SLIPPING BY: SMALL TRUCKS DRIVE THROUGH A BIG REGULATIONS GAP
By Duane Marsteller
Whenever Karen P. Duncan drives near a tractor-trailer, she gets scared.
Her fingers, despite arthritic pain, tighten on the steering wheel. Her palms sweat. Her heart races. Her mind flashes back to the night of Oct. 18, 1995, when her car slammed into an 18-wheeler that was blocking U.S. 21 in Turnersburg.
“I’m scared to death of trucks now,” said Duncan, 46, who broke her pelvis, breastbone, four ribs, both hands and a leg in the wreck. “I don’t like to be near them at all.”
But when she’s driving alongside a smaller truck, such as an office-supply delivery truck, she’s not frightened. Her heart doesn’t pound. Her mind doesn’t recall painful memories.
“I’ve never really thought much about those types of trucks,” said Duncan, who lives in the Olin community of northern Iredell County. “They’ve never really bothered me.”
Perhaps they should.
A smaller truck is much more likely to be involved in a fatal wreck on North Carolina’s roads than an 18-wheeler.
From 1988 to 1996, smaller trucks were involved in four of every five truck-related wrecks in the state and two of every three truck-related wrecks that resulted in a death, according to a study done last year by J. Kevin Lacy, a state highway-safety engineer. Two-axle trucks, such as the box trucks and step vans commonly used to make local deliveries, were the majority of the small trucks involved in wrecks.
“The focus shouldn’t just be on the 18-wheelers,” Lacy said. “It should be on all larger vehicles, especially the smaller trucks. They’re the ones doing the most damage.”
Yet those trucks are the least regulated, and federal officials are considering easing or dropping some of the regulations that do apply.
If a truck weighs more than 10,000 pounds and is engaged in interstate commerce or hauls hazardous materials, it must abide by federal regulations on trucks. Those regulations limit the number of hours drivers can spend behind the wheel each day, require them to submit to random roadside safety inspections and set requirements for vigilant maintenance by truck owners.
But the same truck, if it doesn’t cross state lines or carry hazardous materials, is subject only to state regulations. In North Carolina, the state regulations apply only to trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds.
The only regulations that apply to the trucks in the gap are the same basic insurance and annual-inspection requirements that North Carolina applies to cars.
That means that many trucks weighing less than 26,000 pounds don’t have to submit to thorough roadside safety inspections. Drivers of such trucks need just a regular driver’s license rather than a commercial driver’s license, which requires special training for handling larger vehicles. And they can legally drive as many hours in a day as they want to — even beyond the point of exhaustion.
The exact number of trucks in the gap can’t be determined, but officials estimate it’s more than 75 percent of the 1.55 million commercial trucks registered in North Carolina — nearly 1.2 million trucks.
“We just don’t regulate those trucks,” said Deborah M. Chappell, a motor carrier inspector for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. “We can’t. The law doesn’t allow us to.”
North Carolina used to regulate the smaller trucks. But in 1991, the state increased the minimum weight of trucks covered by the state’s trucking regulations from 10,001 pounds to 26,001 pounds. The state did that after the federal government began requiring that drivers of trucks that weigh more than 26,000 pounds have a commercial driver license.
Although federal regulations cover nearly 400,000 smaller trucks in the state — those weighing at least 10,000 pounds and are involved in interstate commerce or haul hazardous materials — those regulations soon may be relaxed or eliminated.
Under a mandate approved by Congress in 1995, the federal Office of Motor Carriers is setting up a three-year pilot program that will exempt some owners and drivers of smaller trucks from some record-keeping regulations.
A coalition of businesses that use the smaller trucks — utilities, florists, snack-food manufacturers and parcel-delivery companies, among them — pushed for the pilot program. They argued that smaller trucks shouldn’t be subject to regulations designed for tractor-trailers.
“It’s very costly to comply with all these regulations, and we think a lot of them are unnecessary,” said James A. McCarthy, a senior vice-president of the Snack Food Association. The association’s support of the legislative provision for the mandate led to the provision becoming known as the “chip and dip” amendment.
Drivers in the pilot program won’t have to disclose their driving violations or take a road test before they can be hired by a trucking company, nor will they have to keep a logbook showing how many hours they drive each day. Truck owners in the program won’t have to keep inspection records or accident registers.
Those participating in the program will have to comply with all other interstate trucking regulations, such as meeting insurance requirements, randomly testing drivers for alcohol and illegal drugs, and obeying limits on the hours drivers can spend on the road.
But the way the program is set up, some drivers and companies that already have checkered safety records will be allowed to take part.
Companies that have a safety rating other than “unsatisfactory” and that have fewer than 1.6 reported wrecks for every 1 million miles driven can participate. So a company that has a “conditional” safety rating — meaning inspectors had found violations that caused or could cause wrecks — could participate.
Drivers who haven’t been convicted of a serious traffic offense, such as driving under the influence or death by vehicle, in the past three years also can participate. So a driver who was convicted of DUI or death by vehicle more than three years ago could take part.
The mandate’s proponents have criticized the eligibility requirements as too restrictive. Because of that, just five companies have applied to be in the pilot program, McCarthy said.
Once the pilot program is done, the Office of Motor Carriers will review the results and decide whether the minimum weight for trucks to be covered by federal regulations should be increased to 26,001 pounds, an official said.
“There’s been quite a debate over the years about whether we should just go to 26,001 pounds because today’s trucks are so much heavier,” said Charles T. Phillips, the director of the federal agency’s field office in Raleigh. “I’m sure one of the things they will be looking at is the accident history of these-sized vehicles.”
OUT OF CONTROL
OFFICERS CAN’T BEGIN TO CATCH UP WITH THE NUMBER OF TRUCKS THEY’RE EXPECTED TO INSPECT AND WEIGH
By Duane Marsteller
J. Larry Jones plays cat-and-mouse with truck drivers for a living.
Jones, an officer for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, is the cat. He patrols highways and back roads in Northwest North Carolina, looking for overloaded and unsafe trucks.
“It’s like a game,” he said of his daily battle of wits with truck drivers, a part of the job he has had for 12 years. “Sometimes I’ll catch you, and I’ll win. Sometimes I won’t catch you, and you win.”
Truckers win more often than not.
The reason is simple: There are too few officers to police such a high number of trucks.
The agency now has 63 commercial-vehicle enforcement officers. They must police the roughly 400,000 heavy trucks registered in North Carolina, plus the tens of thousands of other trucks that pass through the state every day.
DMV officials said they try to enforce trucking laws as best they can, but they acknowledged that many dangerous trucks escape their scrutiny every day.
“There’s no way we can catch them all,” said Capt. David L. Robinson of the DMV’s district office in Newton. “It’s simply impossible.”More officers, less enforcement
The DMV began enforcing federal trucking regulations in 1986, when the federal government transferred that power to the states. That first year, the agency had 36 officers to weigh trucks and to inspect trucks and truck drivers.
The agency now has more officers, but it is inspecting and weighing fewer trucks than it did 10 years ago, records show.
DMV officers inspected 23,462 trucks in the 1996-97 fiscal year, half as many as in 1995-96 and the lowest number since 1986-87. The 7.5 million trucks that officers weighed in 1996-97 was an improvement over the previous year but was below the 7.9 million trucks weighed in 1986-87.
Fewer trucks were being weighed, because the agency’s 10 permanent weigh stations were open fewer hours each week, according to a performance audit done for the agency in 1996.
For example, the station on Interstate 77 near Mount Airy was open an average of 120 hours a week before 1993. Now it’s open an average of 90 hours a week and rarely operates on weekends.
“We just don’t have the people to run them seven days a week,” said Lt. R.N. Mitchell, who oversees the station and the 34 officers assigned to his district, which covers Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Randolph, Rowan, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties.
“With what we do, we need 10 more officers.”
After the audit, state legislators reworded laws in 1996 to make the DMV’s primary duties “the enforcement of the vehicle weight restrictions.”
The agency responded, weighing 2.3 million more trucks in the 1996-97 fiscal year than it did in the previous year. Yet the number of trucks that were cited for being overweight dropped from the previous year.
“That poses the question to me — isn’t there anything else more important they can do than weighing trucks?” said Elbert L. Peters, the president of the N.C. Trucking Association.
DMV officials defended the increased weighing efforts, saying that catching overweight trucks saves wear and tear on the state’s roads and gets unsafe trucks off the road. They said that fewer trucks are being found overweight because drivers who know or suspect their trucks are too heavy avoid the weigh stations by leaving the interstates and driving back roads.
“Truckers know 100 different ways around us,” Jones said. “They don’t come through here if they know they’re overloaded.”
As few officers as DMV has regulating trucks on the road, there are even fewer officers to regulate trucking companies.
The agency has just five motor-carrier inspectors to review the safety practices and operations of more than 13,000 trucking companies based in North Carolina. And while that’s their primary duty, it’s not the only one.
Deborah M. Chappell, one of those inspectors, is responsible for reviewing more than 1,000 trucking outfits in a 16-county region — along with attending or teaching professional classes, inspecting trucks, investigating customer complaints against household movers, and making sure that truck-driving schools are meeting minimum state standards.
“In the past 10 years, our job responsibilities have increased so much, and that’s because of more truck traffic and state cutbacks,” she said.
Chappell expressed frustration about her increased workload, saying that the number of companies she is able to find time to review has dropped steadily. “I’m being stretched all over the place.”
DMV officials and officers said they are inspecting and weighing fewer trucks because they’re overburdened.
Five years ago, the General Assembly gave the DMV the additional duty of patroling rest areas. That has taken time away from enforcing trucking laws, officials said.
“It may take just a few minutes (to patrol a rest area), but that’s time when we’re not on the road doing inspections,” said Marty L. Liles, a DMV enforcement officer.
Frequent turnover caused by low pay and lack of respect also has hampered enforcement efforts, DMV officers said.
DMV officers undergo training comparable to that of N.C. Highway Patrol troopers and have more enforcement powers — such as the authority to search truck trailers for illegal drugs. Yet troopers are paid more.
The starting pay for a DMV officer is $23,361 a year. The starting pay for troopers is $24,129 a year.
Some DMV officers leave the agency to join the trucking industry. Since November, the agency has lost three motor-carrier inspectors — who examine trucking companies’ safety practices — to higher-paying jobs in the industry.
“We lose a lot of good people to trucking companies,” said Chappell, one of the five remaining inspectors. “When you can make double your salary and get good benefits, you go to the trucking companies. I’ve been tempted, but I’ve been holding on, hoping we’ll get more pay.”
The number of commercial-vehicle enforcement officers in the DMV has been dropping steadily since 1995, when there were 68.
Officers said they’re also hamstrung by inadequate and outdated equipment.
For example, the agency is using a 10-year-old radio system that doesn’t include a portable radio that each officer can carry when he’s out of his patrol car. Troopers and most local police and sheriff’s departments have the so-called “jump and run” radios, which are attached to their belts and have microphones that mount on the officers’ shoulders.
Not having one of the radios could be dangerous, said officer Chris R. King, who works out of the DMV’s Winston-Salem office.
“If I’m in a fight and two people pin me down and I can’t get to my radio, I may be a dead man,” he said.
King said he has been assaulted by drivers twice in his 10 years with the DMV, both times by a car driver he had pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving. No DMV officers have been seriously hurt or killed in a fight with a driver.
Penalties are weak
Officers said another hindrance to enforcement efforts is weak penalties for those who are caught violating trucking regulations. Fines are either non-existent or so low that unsafe truckers aren’t deterred from breaking the law, they said.
The state doesn’t have a written schedule of fines for many violations that would result in a truck being ordered off the road, such as a driver being behind the wheel for more hours than allowed or having a truck with defective brakes, so the violators can’t be fined.
Officers said that North Carolina needs to adopt the fine schedule that has been recommended by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a coalition of trucking regulators in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The fine schedule recommends maximum fines for various violations of trucking regulations.
For example, the recommended maximum fine for falsifying a logbook, which is supposed to show how many hours a truck driver has driven in the previous seven days, is $300. In North Carolina, a driver who falsifies a logbook can’t be fined at all because state laws and regulations don’t call for it.
More than half of the states have adopted the alliance’s fine schedule, but North Carolina legislators so far have rejected DMV’s request to adopt it.
Even where state law spells out fines, often they’re too light to be a deterrent, officers said. For example, the fine for not having a current inspection sticker on a truck is just $50 plus court costs.
“I’ve been to companies that have told me, `How much (in fines) is it this time?’ ” Chappell said. “It’s like they accept it as a cost of doing business.”
The state also has loopholes and exemptions to fines for exceeding truck weight limits, and those can reduce the fines by as much as 90 percent. With some exceptions, trucks are supposed to weigh no more than 80,000 pounds while driving on roads in North Carolina. But legislators passed a law in 1995 allowing some trucks to weigh as much as 90,000 pounds before they are considered overweight if they are not using interstate highways. If they exceed 90,000 pounds, they can be assessed a fine that varies from 2 cents to 10 cents a pound.
But state law allows fines to be cut by as much as half in some cases. Under the so-called “first-market rule,” if the truck is carrying raw products, such as logs, and is going to a processing facility, such as a sawmill, an overweight fine would be cut in half.
So a logging truck weighing 95,000 pounds that is driving on an interstate normally might face a fine of $1,160. The same truck, if it isn’t on an interstate and gets all the exemptions, could be fined as little as $80 even though it is 7 1/2 tons overweight. And judges often reduce the fine again or throw it out when the case reaches court, officers said.
“It’s really discouraging at times when you have a company with serious violations but it doesn’t have to pay (a fine),” Chappell said.
Few companies inspected
The DMV isn’t the only agency that says it lacks the staff to adequately enforce trucking regulations in North Carolina.
The Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor Carriers has as its primary mission reviewing interstate trucking companies’ safety practices. It also gives states money to enforce truck regulations and inspect trucks: In North Carolina, it pays the salaries of 63 DMV enforcement officers.
But the federal agency’s field office in Raleigh has seven inspectors to oversee at least 13,000 interstate trucking and bus companies based in North Carolina.
“You just simply can’t monitor 13,000 entities with seven or eight field investigators,” said Charles T. Phillips, the agency’s state director. “Even when you add the 50 state law-enforcement officers, it’s a very challenging number to deal with.”
As a result, fewer than half the companies have been reviewed and given safety ratings since 1983, according to the agency’s computer database. Of the roughly 6,000 companies that have been reviewed, more than half received “unsatisfactory” or “conditional” ratings, meaning they had violations that could lead to or have led to wrecks.
Nationally, 38 percent of trucking outfits that have been reviewed received either “conditional” or “unsatisfactory” ratings.
So few reviews have been done because it is a time-consuming, cumbersome process, Phillips said. Depending on the size of the company, a review can take up to two weeks, he said.
North Carolina, however, is ahead of most states in doing the ratings. While close to half the companies here have been reviewed, nationally less than a third of all trucking companies have been reviewed since the rating system began in the early 1980s.
Ask regulators, truck-safety advocates and trucking industry officials what is needed to improve enforcement of truck laws in North Carolina, and they all give the same answer: more officers.
The state needs to beef up DMV’s manpower by at least 50 percent and consider hiring a private security company to patrol rest areas, said Peters of the N.C. Trucking Association.
“I know they need more men because half the time when I drive by two of the biggest weigh stations in the state (on Interstate 85 near Hillsborough), they’re closed,” he said.
But hiring more officers requires more money, something regulators said is dwindling rather than growing.
The Office of Motor Carriers plans to cut 31 jobs nationwide because of federal budget cuts, Phillips said. Some of those jobs may be in North Carolina, he said.
“We’ll be lucky if we hold on to what we have now,” he said. He had asked for permission to hire an eighth inspector, but he doubts that he’ll get it.
In the meantime, officials said, they’re trying to focus enforcement efforts on those truck drivers and trucking companies who pose the greatest safety risk.
DMV is training four more motor-carrier inspectors and cross-training other officers to do roadside inspections, officials said.
The agency also is doing more “wolfpack saturations,” which is when groups of officers patrol intensively on particular segments of highways most often used by trucks, such as Interstate 77 in Charlotte and Interstates 40 and 85 in Greensboro, Robinson said.
Federal inspectors began using a new grading system last year to determine which companies they should focus on for safety reviews, Phillips said. The system, called SafeStat, compiles information on each trucking outfit’s recent wrecks, results of recent inspections of its vehicles and drivers, and its previous violations. The system assigns a grade of A through G; companies with an “A” are the first ones reviewed.
In the system’s first six-month cycle, 17 outfits received “A” grades and more than 50 had a “B” grade. Inspectors reviewed all of the “A” companies and about half of the “B” companies, Phillips said.
“We’re trying to concentrate our resources,” he said. “With limited budgets and a limited number of inspectors, we make do with what we have.”
OFFICER PROWLS THE MAJOR HIGHWAYS IN SEARCH OF TRUCKS GOING TOO FAST, DRIVERS WHO ARE IGNORING THE RULES
By Duane Marsteller
The CB radio in Chris R. King’s patrol car crackled to life almost as soon as he pulled over a speeding tractor-trailer one recent morning.
“Damn, it looks like the storm troopers are out today,” one truck driver said about King, a commercial-vehicle enforcement officer for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.
King didn’t hear the remark. He was out of his car and on the side of U.S. 52 just north of Winston-Salem, inspecting the truck and discovering that two of its 10 brakes were not working properly.
When told later of how the truckers described him, King flashed a wry smile. The derogatory names are just part of the job he has had for 10 years.
“I’ve been called much worse,” King said. “Some of the things they’ve called me you can’t put in a family newspaper.”
It’s King’s job to enforce trucking laws in Forsyth and Surry counties. He spends most of his time patrolling U.S. 52, as he did on this cold, clear January morning.
After filling out paperwork at the DMV office on Patterson Avenue, he parked his car on the shoulder of an entrance ramp to U.S. 52. He tested his radar gun with a tuning fork — if the gun doesn’t read its vibrations at 35 mph, the gun needs to be recalibrated — then aimed it toward traffic heading north on the busy four-lane highway.
Every time a truck passed by, King quickly clocked its speed. After a few minutes, an 18-wheeler went by at 67 mph — 12 mph over the speed limit.
King turned on his lights and siren, then quickly pulled out onto the highway. His speedometer’s digital readout rapidly climbed to 75 mph before he caught up to the truck and made it pull over.
He slowly walked up to the cab and asked the driver for his logbook and shipping papers. Less than three feet away from King, traffic whizzed by at about 60 mph.
“People used to move over into the other lane,” King said later. “They don’t anymore. Sometimes they get too close, and that makes me nervous.”
While talking with the driver, King learned that it was the third time in a week that the driver had been been stopped for speeding.
King walked to the front of the truck. Using hand gestures, he had the driver turn on the truck’s lights, turn signals and windshield wipers and blow the horn. All worked.
King next walked alongside the driver’s side of the truck, inspecting the tread on the tires. He ducked and looked closely inside each of the rims, checking the brakes for signs of rust and grease.
He did the same on the passenger side and then checked the air-brake connections between the cab and trailer. All passed muster.
King then got back in his patrol car to check the driver’s records. Immediately, he saw that the logbook — in which the driver is supposed to write down when and where he has driven in the past week — had nothing in it for the previous four days. He also saw that the truck’s inspection sticker had expired in October.
King walked back to the cab and told the driver to follow him to the next exit. King escorted the truck to a parking area at a gasoline station and then handed the driver tickets for speeding, having an expired inspection sticker, and not keeping his logbook current.
For those violations, King ordered the driver and truck to stay off the road for eight hours. The driver glumly shook his head in acknowledgment.
As he pulled away from the gasoline station, King lifted his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. Although he’s just 34, he has a few graying hairs around the temples.
“I have no doubt it’s stress from my job,” he said. “My stomach, to this day, still gets in a knot whenever I make a stop. The only time that I have a good feeling is when I’ve stopped a dangerous truck and gotten it off the road.”
Tuesday, February 10, 1998
DRIVERS SAY THAT REGULATIONS TAKE A BACK SEAT WHEN THEY’RE PRESSURED TO GET IT THERE FAST
By Duane Marsteller
It took Kevin Ayers 15 hours to drive the 900 miles between Joplin, Mo., and Mount Airy.
He broke federal law to make it that quickly.
Ayers, a truck driver for Morristown Drivers Service Inc. in Morristown, Tenn., left Joplin at 10 p.m. one Thursday last month. His employer told him to be in Mount Airy by 2 p.m. the next day, 16 hours later.
The trip would have taken 23 hours if Ayers had followed federal trucking regulations. Those regulations allow a driver to stay on the road for 10 hours and then he must take an eight-hour rest break. After the break, Ayers could have driven the final five hours.
Ayers said he had no choice but to break the law.
“They told me I had to be here by a certain time, and I did it,” he said as he sat in the cab of his truck at a Rural Hall gasoline station one day last month. He had parked the truck there after an officer for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles stopped him and ordered him to stay off the road for eight hours because his log book had not been filled out for four days.
In the trucking industry, it’s called “running hot” when truck drivers spend more hours behind the wheel than federal trucking regulations allow, driving sometimes past the point of exhaustion.
Drivers, trucking regulators and even some industry officials said that violating federal hours-of-service rules and falsifying logbooks, in which drivers record how long they’ve driven in the past week, are common practices.
They blame intense competition for the widespread law-breaking and for compromising safety. The competition resulted from the deregulation of the industry in 1980.
“It has put a lot more pressure on these companies to remain profitable and stay in business, and that pressure sometimes has resulted in cutting corners on maintenance or pushing their drivers harder,” said Charles T. Phillips, director of the federal Office of Motor Carriers’ field office in Raleigh.
“There’s some companies out there spending 97 or 98 cents to make a dollar.”
Changing the rules
Under federal regulations in place since the late 1930s, a truck driver isn’t supposed to drive more than 10 hours at a stretch, must take eight-hour breaks, and can’t drive more than 60 hours in a week or 70 hours in eight days.
Those rules were largely obeyed for more than 40 years because the trucking industry was tightly regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission, industry officials said. The commission, which was dismantled in 1995, decided who could get into the trucking business and controlled how much they could charge.
For the most part, the industry was divided into regional monopolies that controlled routes and delivery schedules, said Elbert L. Peters, the president of the N.C. Trucking Association. Truckers also were largely unionized and often won regular hours and routes in their collective-bargaining agreements, he said.
That began to change in 1980, when Congress deregulated the industry. The deregulation bill, formally known as the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, made it easier for new companies to enter the trucking business and gave companies more flexibility in setting rates. In the four years after deregulation, the number of interstate trucking companies jumped from 18,000 to more than 30,000. The start-ups generally were small and not unionized. They had lower operating costs and undercut the established trucking companies.
“Suddenly, everything kind of went up for grabs,” Phillips said. “The trucking industry’s now become extremely competitive — in some instances cutthroat.”
Shippers had more trucking companies to choose from, giving them leverage to dictate delivery schedules, Peters said. Trucking companies that didn’t meet a shipper’s demands for when and where shipments were to be delivered could quickly lose the business.
And in recent years, “just-in-time” delivery, in which companies keep inventories low and order new shipments at the last minute, has become the norm.
Driven beyond exhaustion
The increased pressure has made the industry less safe because, to meet shippers’ deadlines, some trucking outfits force their drivers to speed and spend more hours behind the wheel, drivers and regulators said.
“The trucking companies push the drivers,” said J. Larry Jones, a DMV enforcement officer. “If the wheels ain’t turning, they ain’t making money.”
Peters, of the N.C. Trucking Association, said some trucking companies do that, but the industry as a whole is getting better at complying with the driving rules.
“Carriers are taking a huge risk when they allow that to happen, but it’s not as bad now as it was for a long time,” he said.
Drivers disagree with Peters’ assessment. In interviews with 50 drivers at various truck stops in North Carolina, 42 said that breaking the 10-hour rule is a common practice in the industry. Half of those 42 drivers said they have broken the rule themselves.
“I’ve driven 36, 40 hours at a stretch before,” Danny Havner, a truck driver from Arkansas, said as he played video poker at a truck stop one day in December.
“Almost every company I’ve worked for has pushed me,” he said. “They do that all the time because of the money. There’s just too much competition out there. Every time you turn around, there’s a new trucking company going after your job.”
Driving for such long stretches can lead to drowsiness and fatigue — and wrecks. A study done by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1995 estimated that driver fatigue caused up to 40 percent of truck-related wrecks.
Trucking industry officials say that the hours-of-service rules are too rigid. The rules also are partly to blame for the fatigue problem because they set an 18-hour day, not a 24-hour day, and don’t take drivers’ internal clocks into account, the industry argues.
The Federal Highway Administration is considering whether to revise the hours-of-service regulations. The industry is pushing for more flexibility so that drivers could stay on the road for more hours at a stretch but also would have more time to sleep.Why they cheat
Many truck drivers try to hide their hours-of-service violations by putting false entries in their log books, which truckers universally ridicule as “comic books,” “joke books” and “cheat sheets.”
Some keep two log books, one a false record showing that they’ve driven legally, the other showing what they’ve actually driven, officers said.
“Of course, the one they show to us is perfect,” said Marty L. Liles, a DMV vehicle enforcement officer.
Liles said that some trucks weave when he pulls them over because the drivers have one hand on the steering wheel and another hurriedly filling in the blanks in a log book.
Officers said that the most common reason they order truck drivers off the road is for having falsified or outdated logs. It’s also a common violation that federal inspectors find when they review trucking companies, Phillips said.
How truck drivers are paid also encourages breaking the rules, officials said. Drivers generally are paid by the mile — the industry average is 30 cents a mile, or $18 an hour for a driver averaging 60 mph. Drivers said they often drive faster and for longer stretches to get bigger paychecks.
Wayne Gray, a truck driver from Churubusco, Ind., said he once drove from Salt Lake City to Detroit — more than 1,600 miles — and got just three hours’ sleep during the trip because he needed a bigger paycheck.
“I was younger and stupider then,” he said.
Officials said that electronic monitoring of truckers’ driving time would help reduce hours-of-service violations. Monitoring devices can be installed in a truck to keep track of when the truck is moving, stopped, how fast it is going and how much fuel it uses, among other things.
But most truck drivers don’t like the idea of being monitored, and the industry has been slow to use the technology because of its cost — an average of $4,000 for each unit.
“They aren’t cheap,” said Bill Stout, the deputy director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “It’s a lot cheaper to keep a manual log instead of installing these electronic recording devices.”
Competitive pressure also makes some trucking outfits, especially smaller ones, skimp on maintenance, regulators said. It can cost more than $20,000 a year to keep a tractor-trailer in good shape, more than many independent owner-operators can afford.
“The biggest problem is with the independents,” said Joe Parker, the director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “Competitive pressure sometimes means they push the envelope quite a bit.”
Deborah M. Chappell, a motor-carrier inspector for the DMV, recalled one driver from Caldwell County — she couldn’t remember his name — who didn’t have a permanent license tag or insurance on his truck. The truck was battered from wrecks he had been in, and the man didn’t keep a log book. He drove on back roads and only at night in an effort to avoid law-enforcement officers.
The man operated this way for nearly two years without regulators even knowing he existed until one of his relatives tipped them off, Chappell said.
“He said he couldn’t afford to do things legally,” she said.
Blame goes around
Ask people connected to the trucking industry who is responsible for the rampant rule-breaking, and a cycle of finger-pointing results.
Truck drivers blame dispatchers for setting tight delivery deadlines.
Dispatchers blame trucking companies for agreeing to shippers’ demands.
Trucking company officials blame shippers for threatening to take their business elsewhere if the company won’t agree to the tight deadlines.
Shippers blame the companies who order from them for demanding quick deliveries.
The shippers’ customers, such as manufacturers and retail stores, say they’re responding to their own customers, who want their products as soon as possible.
Regulators and truck-safety advocates say that everyone involved shares in the blame.
“I hold the shippers just as responsible as the dispatchers and trucking companies,” said Jennifer M. Tierney of Kernersville, the state coordinator for Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, a truck-safety advocacy group.
A shipping industry official said that most shippers do not try to force trucking companies to break the law.
“I’m sure there are some guilty shippers, and I would put the blame on them,” said Edward Rastatter, the director of policy for the National Industrial Transportation League, which represents nearly 1,000 shippers. “We don’t want to have people speeding and violating the hours-of-service requirements.”
Regulators said that truck drivers are caught in the middle and faced with a tough choice: Break the rules or risk losing their jobs.
“A lot of those drivers, I feel sorry for them,” said Liles, whose father is a truck driver. “It’s not their fault. They’re just trying to make a living and feed their families.”
FOR A FAMILY MAN, LIFE ON THE ROAD CALLS FOR SOME SACRIFICES
By Duane Marsteller
Wayne Gray sat in the cab of his parked 18-wheeler one recent Friday night after having driven from Dale, Ind., to Burlington to deliver a load of forklifts.
He was sitting at a truck stop off Interstate 40 between Burlington and Greensboro, finishing his paperwork and preparing to spend another lonely night in his truck’s closet-sized sleeper berth.
He wasn’t supposed to be here. He had planned to be on his way back to Churubusco, Ind., for a weekend at home with his his wife and 16-year-old daughter, but the company he works for changed his plans when it agreed to haul the forklifts.
He didn’t know where he was going the next day, only that it would probably be 500 miles away from this truck stop. He still held out hope that the next assignment would lead north, toward where his family waited for him.
“I’ve been on the road for two weeks now,” Gray said. “I’d like to go home.” He may not get home for another two weeks, perhaps longer. Once, he was on the road for 32 days in a row.
Truck drivers once were called kings of the road, but Gray said he feels more like a pawn.
His employer dictates his travel schedule. One day, he might be in Denver. Another day it could be Chicago. Charlotte is always a possibility.
But he still likes his job.
In the nine years that he has been a truck driver, Gray has been through 44 states and two Canadian provinces. He has seen the rocky shores of California, the vast wheat fields of the Midwest and the concrete and skyscrapers of the Northeast.
“I like not having the boss looking over my shoulder,” he said. “I like the travel involved with driving a truck.”
Then he thought of what he hasn’t seen because of his job. Birthday parties. Anniversary celebrations. Several Christmas mornings.
Life on the road isn’t the way Hollywood makes it look in such movies as Convoy, where truck drivers are portrayed as free spirits living by their own rules, Gray said.
“In fact, I tell folks not to do this,” he said. “It’s tough on the driver, it’s tough on the family. It’s a terrible feeling on Christmas Day to have to be driving a truck and be thousands of miles away from home and going in the opposite direction.”
As he spoke, he sniffled. Traveling from one weather extreme to another — from Florida to Minnesota in the winter — has given him a permanent case of the sniffles, he said.
Gray’s truck, a year-old Volvo, has some touches of home: A 5-by-7 photo of him, his wife and their daughter hangs on a wall of the sleeper berth. The berth has a twin-sized mattress — “It’s comfortable, but nowhere near as good as my bed at home,” he said — and a small color television with a 5-inch screen.
If Gray wants to take a shower when he’s on the road, his choices are limited: He can go without one, as he did for five days once, or use the showers at truck stops. There’s almost always a line to use truck-stop showers, even if they charge upward of $5 for 10 minutes of hot water, he said.
“If it comes to take a shower and smell good or stink and sleep, I pick stink and sleep,” Gray said.
He quit truck driving for six months about six years ago but it wasn’t because of the loneliness.
Gray was in Oregon one winter morning when he came upon a wreck. Two other trucks had jackknifed on an icy bridge, sandwiching a station wagon between them, he said.
Gray spent the next three hours holding the hand of a 10-year-old boy in the crushed car. The boy survived with just broken bones, but his mother was dead in the driver’s seat.
Before that wreck, Gray said, he took chances with his rig: speeding, driving more hours than allowed by federal law. After the six months away from truck driving, he came back but vowed to be a safer driver, he said.
“If you make a mistake in one of these, somebody’s going to die,” he said. “Flat-out, somebody’s going to die.”
Gray said he plans to be a long-distance trucker for another two years, when his daughter graduates from high school.
He doesn’t want to become a “lifer,” someone who drives a truck for a living until he retires. Some of those have chosen life on the road over their families, he said.
“To me, this is a job,” Gray said.
“I do this to support a life. This is not a life.”
INDUSTRY HAS A GOOD TRACK RECORD IN GETTING WHAT IT WANTS
By Duane Marsteller
Shortly after he became a freshman state representative in 1974, David H. Diamont went to a fancy dinner at a downtown Raleigh restaurant. Joining him were dozens of other North Carolina legislators and other movers and shakers in state government.
The steaks were an inch thick and juicy, recalled Diamont, who represented 40th District in the House for 20 years. The garden salads “were piled high, almost overflowing,” he said.
“I thought, `My goodness, why are they doing all this?’ ” Diamont said. “I took out a napkin and tried to figure out how much it was costing. Being a country boy from Surry County, I had never seen anything like it.”
The feast was paid for by North Carolina’s trucking industry. At the time, it was lobbying legislators to approve two bills favorable to the industry.
Neither bill passed, but it was a rare setback for the industry in the General Assembly. The trucking industry is among the most influential players in Raleigh, and that influence has helped the industry get trucking regulations weakened.
In recent years, state legislators have:
*Opened more small roads to large-truck traffic.
*Eased weight limits for trucks on smaller roads.
*Reduced fines for trucks that exceed weight limits.
“When I first arrived in Raleigh in the mid-70s, the trucking industry was very visible and influential,” Diamont said. “Its influence probably waned a little bit since then, but it’s still a vital, vital industry. The trucking industry is organized and it knows how to use the political machine.”
The N.C. Trucking Association has only one part-time, paid lobbyist in Raleigh, said Elbert L. Peters, the association’s president. Despite that, about three-fourths of the bills that the association has supported in the last five years have passed, he said.
That success rate comes from meeting with regulators before going to legislators with proposals, Peters said.
“What we try to do is work with the agencies involved to get some agreement,” he said. “If we all can agree on something, it makes it that much easier for . . . (legislators) to accept.”
Trucking also can catch many legislators’ attention because of its economic clout. The industry is the fourth-largest employer in the state, with nearly 250,000 employees and a $6.2 billion annual payroll.
The industry’s sales job may be made easier because several legislators — including some members of the House and Senate’s transportation committees, which control trucking legislation — have ties to the trucking industry or industries that rely on trucks.
Among members of the House transportation committee, Rep. Charles F. Buchanan, R-Mitchell, is a retired truck driver; Rep. Daniel F. McComas, R-New Hanover, is the president of a trucking company; and Rep. Billy James Creech, R-Johnston, of the House committee owns a lumber company. On the Senate transportation committee, Sen. Aaron Plyler, D-Union, owns a grading and paving company.
The trucking industry has been most successful in getting weight limits and fines relaxed.
Before 1995, the most a truck could weigh in North Carolina without getting a special permit was 80,000 pounds. But that year legislators passed a law allowing certain types of trucks — mostly those carrying raw materials or agricultural products — to weigh as much as 88,000 pounds before they were considered overweight.
Last year, legislators increased the maximum weight limit again, to 90,000 pounds. The new limit applies to trucks on secondary roads but not those on interstates, which are designed to carry heavier traffic. Weight limits on interstate highways are dictated by federal regulations.
N.C. legislators also enacted exemptions in 1995 that, in some cases, can reduce the fine for exceeding truck weight limits by more than 90 percent.
Under the so-called “first-market rule” that legislators passed in 1995, if a truck is overweight, not on an interstate and is en route to its first destination (from a logging site to a mill, for example), the fine is cut in half.
A 95,000-pound logging truck on an interstate would face a $1,160 fine. The same truck, if it’s not on an interstate and meets the requirements of the first-market rule, would be fined as little as $80.
In 1990, legislators opened noninterstate highways, such as U.S. 421, to trucks pulling two trailers. Legislators opened more secondary roads, some of which are only 18 feet wide, to trucks in 1991. Previously, trucks were only allowed on major highways, such as interstates and U.S. 421.
Diamont said that the trucking industry’s lobbying sometimes accomplished things that appeals simply in the name of the public good could not. He said he tried for years to get an aging bridge over the Mitchell River in Elkin replaced. After a trucking company that was using the bridge began lobbying for it, the bridge was replaced.
Power extends to D.C.
The industry also has been successful in Washington and in the courts in contesting regulations and proposed regulations.
In the courts, the industry forced federal regulators to suspend issuing safety ratings to trucking outfits for nine months last year. Industry lawsuits also have prompted regulators to consider revising hours-of-service rules, revising the criteria used in inspecting trucks, and delaying a rule allowing enforcement officers to compare drivers’ log books with electronic records.
In Congress, the industry averted a ban last year on “triples,” trucks pulling three trailers that can be a total of 110 feet long. Triples are allowed in 20 states, primarily in the West. They are not allowed in North Carolina.
Industry lobbying also helped delay by 30 years tougher standards for metal guards on the back of trailers intended to keep cars from running underneath the trailers, truck-safety advocates said. The tougher standards were first proposed after actress Jayne Mansfield was decapitated when her car slammed under the back of a truck in 1967. They finally took effect last month. Safety advocates also say they had to push for 15 years to win a federal requirement for reflective tape on the sides of trailers. The tape became mandatory in 1996.
“They fight everything,” said Jennifer M. Tierney of Kernersville, the state coordinator for Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways. “When you talk to them, they say they’re safety conscious, yet they fight everything that would improve safety.”
Trucking officials disagree.
“We’re going to work as hard as we can to keep improving safety on America’s highways,” said James H. Lewis, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations. “We want solutions. We don’t want solutions that will cost the industry a lot of money but don’t really solve anything.”
Wednesday, February 11, 1998
CRITICS SAY THAT NOT REQUIRING INDEPENDENT TRUCK SAFETY INSPECTIONS IS AN INVITATION TO ABUSE
By Duane Marsteller
Once a year, every vehicle registered in North Carolina must pass an equipment inspection to remain on the road legally.
Owners of cars, motorcycles and pickup trucks have to take their vehicles to a certified inspection station for someone else to do the inspection. But the owners of tractor-trailers and other trucks don’t — they can do the inspections themselves.
Trucking regulators don’t routinely check to see whether those truck inspections are being done properly or even done at all.
In fact, there’s no way for them to check. Unlike car inspections, no paperwork from truck inspections must be turned in to tell regulators when the inspections were done.
Allowing truck owners to inspect their own trucks is a recipe for abuse, a truck-safety advocate said.
“How would you feel if you were on Interstate 40 and every car driver around you did his own inspection?” said Jennifer M. Tierney of Kernersville, the state coordinator of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways. “It’s ludicrous.”
Trucking regulators acknowledge that it is a flaw in the system and that some trucking outfits take advantage of the loophole. Regulators call such outfits “lick `em and stick `ems” because they simply put an inspection sticker on each truck, regardless of whether anyone has inspected it.
“There are some problems with that,” said Deborah M. Chappell, a motor-carrier inspector for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. “There have been times when they’ve filled out the form and put the sticker on the truck and they had never even looked at the truck.”
Federal regulations require that trucks be inspected annually. States can require that an outside party — someone not connected to the trucking companies — perform the inspections, and more than 20 states have such a requirement, including Virginia and Pennsylvania.
But in North Carolina, all that a truck owner has to do is check off 50 items on a one-page form, then keep the form. Unlike car inspections, copies of the forms used in truck inspections don’t have to be sent to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.
Because they don’t get the forms, state trucking regulators have no idea whether a truck has been inspected unless they either pull over the truck on the road or do a review of the company.
“As with anything else, yes, the potential for abuse is there,” said Charles T. Phillips, the director of the federal Office of Motor Carriers’ field office in Raleigh. “Any regulatory system that you set up, there are going to be people who will try to beat and cheat the system.”
But even in states that don’t allow self-inspections, the system isn’t foolproof, he said.
Phillips cited the case of Bennie Gwyn Cornett, a logging-truck driver from Atkins, Va., who was involved in a wreck in Wilkes County that killed five people in January 1997. His truck was registered in Virginia, which requires that each truck be inspected at a state-certified station. Although the brakes were improperly adjusted at the time of the wreck, the truck’s tractor had a current inspection sticker.
The truck’s trailer, however, did not: Its Virginia inspection sticker had expired in 1992. At the time of the wreck, the trailer had six bald or nearly bald tires, faulty brakes, broken brake lights and broken springs, investigators said.
“Most of the problem is the small operators” like Cornett, said Chappell. Larger companies, which usually have their own garages and mechanics, tend to do inspections correctly, she said.
But even large trucking outfits can get lax.
One day last month, DMV officer Chris R. King pulled over a tractor-trailer on U.S. 52. The truck’s inspection sticker had expired in October. The truck was registered in Tennessee, a state that allows self-inspections, and was owned by a company that has more than 100 trucks and its own garage.
Another flaw in the system is that it is not difficult to become a certified truck inspector, regulators said. Federal regulations allow someone with just a year’s experience as a truck mechanic to become a certified inspector.
And federal regulations don’t require that proof of an inspection be prominently displayed. The only requirement is that it be displayed somewhere on the cab of the truck or that the driver carry it with him. DMV officers said they’ve seen trucks with inspection stickers in such hard-to-see places as doorjambs or fenders.
Nor do the truck stickers have large, easy-to-read numbers indicating when the truck’s next inspection is due.
By contrast, cars are required to have an inspection sticker on the windshield’s lower left corner, and the stickers have large numbers showing the month and year the next inspection is due so law-enforcement officers can easily see them.
Phillips cautioned that requiring independent inspections and large, prominently displayed inspection stickers wouldn’t necessarily keep bad trucks off the road.
“I’ve seen a lot of cars going down the road, belching smoke, listing to one side, on flat tires . . . and they have a current inspection sticker,” he said.
ALL PARTIES CONCUR: THE CURRENT SYSTEM NEEDS COSTLY TOP-TO-BOTTOM REPAIRS
By Duane Marsteller
It will take a little cooperation — and a lot of money — to improve the trucking industry’s poor safety record in North Carolina, truck-safety advocates, regulators and industry officials say.
They offer similar solutions to the industry’s safety problems, but those proposals could cost millions of dollars.
All sides agree that the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles needs more officers.
The agency has 53 motor-carrier enforcement officers to weigh and inspect trucks. DMV officials estimate that they stop less than 5 percent of the state’s truck traffic for inspections.
Elbert L. Peters, a former DMV commissioner who is president of the N.C. Trucking Association, said that the number of DMV officers should be increased by 50 percent.
It costs an average of more than $50,000 a year to train, pay and equip an officer, so adding 26 would cost $1.3 million a year.
The money would have to come from the federal government, which pays the officers’ salaries through the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program. The program gave the states $90 million in the last fiscal year.
However, the program is in danger of being cut as Congress debates a six-year transportation bill. One proposal would cut the program’s budget to $83 million a year, and another would reduce it to $85 million a year. A third proposal would increase it to an average of $118 million a year.
Tougher penalties for violating trucking regulations also are needed, said Jennifer M. Tierney of Kernersville, a board member of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways.
“There’s too many loopholes and cracks,” she said. “The fines aren’t enough. Usually, it’s more productive to take a chance and pay the fine — that is, if you’re caught. That’s not much of a deterrent.”
The state doesn’t fine many violations that would result in a truck being ordered off the road. DMV officers said that the state should adopt the fine schedule recommended by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a coalition of trucking regulators in North America.
Adopting the schedule likely would cost the state little because many of the drivers who would be fined already go through the state court system on related traffic tickets, said Richard S. Kane, the director of research for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
Tierney also said that the state should require truck owners to get an impartial party to do the annual inspections required of trucks. Currently, North Carolina allows truck owners to do the inspections themselves, and no one with the state follows up.
Setting up a system of truck-inspection stations would require training and certifying inspectors, certifying inspection stations and setting up rules governing the inspection process and stations.
The industry also needs to change some of its practices, Tierney said. Drivers are paid by the number of miles they drive, which encourages them to speed and stay behind the wheel for longer stretches than they should, she said.
Instead, they should either be paid an hourly wage or by the load, she said. Drivers also should be paid in accordance with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which would require that they be paid for the time they are not driving, such as when they are loading and unloading their trucks.
“They (drivers) live in rolling sweatshops, and many of them want us to help improve the industry,” she said. “The industry’s whole attitude is productivity, productivity, productivity, even if it’s at the expense of safety.”
TIERNEY ALSO SAID that North Carolina should:
*Create a team of accident reconstructionists to investigate every fatal truck-related wreck in the state.
Maine set up such a team in September, said Lt. Bruce Bow of the Maine State Police. He estimated that the state has spent $50,000 on the program so far, mostly for equipment and overtime pay.
*Give N.C. Highway Patrol troopers better training on how to investigate truck-related wrecks.
It costs between $400 and $600 to give a trooper advanced training in investigating wrecks involving commercial vehicles, said Maj. R.W. Isley, the patrol’s director of training. It would cost $440,000 to $660,000 to have all 1,100 troopers take the two-week course.
*Appoint someone in the N.C. attorney general’s office to help local district attorneys prosecute violations of trucking regulations.
If that means just giving advice to prosecutors, it could be easily done and the cost would be minimal, said Jane P. Gray, a deputy attorney general.
But the cost could be high if it involves traveling across the state to help prosecute such cases because the office doesn’t have enough staff to do that, she said.
CHARLES T. PHILLIPS, the director of the federal Office of Motor Carriers’ field office in Raleigh, agreed that more officers and tougher penalties are needed.
He also said that shippers who demand that trucking companies break the rules governing how long drivers can stay behind the wheel should be punished. Currently, there is no provision in the law or in regulations to hold shippers accountable for such demands.
“If a driver is breaking the hours-of-service regulations, it’s him and his company that get hit,” Phillips said. “Meanwhile, the shipper’s on the sidelines. They should be regulated just like the trucking companies.”
He agreed with Tierney that penalties for violating trucking regulations could be strengthened, but he said that judges and prosecutors need to be educated about the seriousness of violating those regulations.
DMV officials said they are trying that through a judicial outreach program that sends DMV officers to talk with prosecutors and judges about trucking regulations.
Regulators also need to focus their efforts on the most unsafe trucking outfits and drivers, Phillips said. His agency is trying to do that by using a grading system to determine which trucking companies to review first, he said.
Trucking-industry officials and truck drivers said that car drivers need to educated about what kinds of things they do that are hazardous around trucks.
A state study of truck-related wrecks from 1988-96 found that car drivers were solely at fault in almost two-thirds of the wrecks. Car drivers often underestimate how long it takes trucks to stop: An 80,000-pound tractor-trailer going 60 mph needs the length of three football fields to stop safely.
“We need to get the four-wheelers (car drivers) involved and knowledgable about the trucking industry,” said Tim Conkle, a truck driver from Georgia. “That way, they don’t go out there and play games that could get them or me killed.”
Car drivers in North Carolina aren’t taught much about trucks’ blind spots or warned against “drafting,” or tailgating, trucks. The state’s 95-page driver handbook, available for people studying to take the driver’s-license test, devotes just a half page — three paragraphs — to rules for sharing the road with trucks. Those three paragraphs warn about trucks’ blind spots and urge car drivers to make sure that truck drivers can see them.
In 1996, it cost $71,000 to print 250,000 copies of the state’s driver’s handbook. Redesigning the handbook and printing copies that include more information about driving near trucks probably would cost more than $100,000.
Trucking-industry officials also said that rest areas need more spaces for trucks so tired truckers can stop.
A national study done by the American Trucking Associations in 1996 said that at least 28,400 more spaces are needed. The lack of parking places forces some truck drivers to keep going until they find another rest area, or it forces them to park along interstate exit ramps to sleep.
Peters said that DMV officers would make better use of their time to focus on checking each truck driver they stop rather than focusing on the truck itself when they stop trucks for an inspection. A study of truck-related wrecks in North Carolina in 1988-96 by a highway-safety engineer showed that most were caused by driver error rather than by unsafe or faulty equipment on trucks.
Officers should especially focus on stopping truck drivers who are speeding, Peters said.
“When you put speed and weight together, it could be a catastrophic situation,” he said.
TRUCKING OFFICIALS and regulators also said they’re already doing things to improve the industry’s safety record.
The N.C. Forestry Association, which has 2,400 members in the wood-products industry, started offering defensive-driving courses last year for logging-truck drivers and free inspections of their trucks, an official said.
More than 450 drivers have taken the four-hour defensive-driving course, which is taught through the state’s community colleges, said Doug Duncan, the association’s logging and transportation director. Most of those have been in the eastern part of the state, but the course will be offered at community colleges in the Piedmont and Western North Carolina this year, he said.
The Governor’s Highway Safety Program has the “No-Zone” project, in which a specially marked truck goes to shopping centers, fairs and other public events across the state to teach car drivers about trucks’ blind spots, said Joe Parker, the director of the highway safety program.
All sides agreed that cooperation is needed to improve the poor safety record that the Winston-Salem Journal documented in its investigation.
“We can’t do it alone,” Phillips said. “The industry can’t do it alone. It’s going to take all of us.”