Roadcheck 2016 Kicks Off June 7

One of the most dangerous times of the year to be on the road traveling alongside 18-wheelers, buses and other big rigs is drawing near, although a majority of drivers will never realize the risks because they were never warned.

As we noted here last year, the annual International Roadcheck program is set to take place June 7-9 across the U.S. and all of North America as part of a joint effort organized by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). During Roadcheck, more than 10,000 CVSA-certified inspectors from the local, state and federal level participate in the 72-hour program that includes roadside inspections of more than 70,000 semis and other heavy trucks.

As happens every year, the trucking industry already is telling companies and drivers about the three-day window, which will allow many of them to limit their hours or stay off the road entirely in order to avoid inspections. Once Roadcheck is over, expect to see many more tractor-trailers on the highway, including those whose drivers may be looking to make up for lost time that was spent waiting on the mandatory inspections to conclude.

Of the nearly 70,000 individual Roadcheck inspections conducted last year, more than 1,600 drivers were ticketed for out-of-service (OSS) violations for working longer than allowed by law and for failing to maintain proper time records that show how long it had been since they last had rest or sleep. Both violations can lead to fatigued driving, which police say causes more than 100,000 highway accidents every year. The 2015 Roadcheck also found OSS violations in nearly 22 percent of tested trucks (roughly 9,700 vehicles) that required them to be removed from the road.

As predicted, the number of violations was lower last year than the year prior, which could mean a couple of different things. Hopefully it means that trucking companies and drivers are doing a better job of obeying the law and playing by the rules. However, with the advance notice providing the opportunity for “Roadcheck vacations” (as they are called in the industry), last year’s improved numbers may fail to account for unsafe trucks and drivers who purposely avoided inspection.

The smart way to approach Roadcheck as an average motorist is to be particularly careful on the highway in the days and weeks following the inspection period when many drivers return to the road. That means everyone should be on high alert beginning Friday, June 10, through the weekend and at least the following week. Although not every big rig you see will have safety problems and not all of the drivers will be unqualified or improperly licensed, knowing about Roadcheck and taking the proper precautions will protect you and your family.

As an example of what happens when safety inspections are not announced months ahead of time, we can look to a recent inspection blitz conducted in Maryland by state police, environmental regulators and local police departments. The one-day effort included inspections of more than 400 vehicles, primarily tractor-trailers and semis, and the results were flatly scary. In the end, more than 25 percent of the inspected vehicles were ordered off the highway for having tires that could not pass inspection or other violations. One big rig was found to be more than 12 tons overweight, and a total of 115 traffic citations were issued in addition to 251 warnings. Those are some terrible numbers.

 

Rules for Truck Driver Drug Testing Change for the Worse

While the U.S. economy continues to improve in 2016, putting more freight and more drivers on the highways, the federal arm overseeing trucking has reduced the number of random drug tests required of big rig drivers.

This hardly makes sense. Substance abuse continues to be a serious problem in the industry. Yet, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Jan. 1 lowered the rate of random testing for controlled substances from 50 percent to 25 percent of the average number of driver positions.

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The FMCSA has the authority to lower the rate of testing when results have shown those testing positive for drugs holds steady below 1 percent over two years. Federal data show that has been the case for 2011, 2012 and 2013. If the percentage of truckers testing positive rises above the 1 percent threshold again, then the motor carrier administration can again increase its spot checks.

While the recent trend line for positive tests is encouraging, the low percentage fails to account for those drug-abusing drivers who remain on the highway unchecked. There really should be zero tolerance for controlled substance use among drivers of these huge, dangerous vehicles crowding interstates across America. As for alcohol testing, the minimum annual random testing rate remains at 10 percent.

Steve addresses common questions from injury victims

If you have suffered a catastrophic injury following an accident that was no fault of your own or if a love one has been killed in a similar situation, then you likely have many questions but very few quick and easy answers.

Steve Laird has represented many people who have been severely injured in truck wrecks and other types of accidents, as well as families whose loved ones have been killed. For more than 30 years, he has helped answer questions for many clients and their families while representing their interests in legal jurisdictions throughout Texas and the entire country.

The most common questions from injury victims and those whose family members have been killed in an accident are about what will happen next. How am I going to get through this? How will my family’s bills get paid? Will my injuries cause me to lose my job? How much work will I have to miss? Those are just a few of the common questions that Steve answers when meeting with his clients.

One thing a lot of accident survivors, unfortunately, wait to decide is whether to talk with a lawyer. Many victims believe they will be labeled as “lawsuit happy” if they talk with a lawyer, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our laws are designed to protect people who have been injured or families of loved ones who have died in preventable accidents, whether it’s a tractor-trailer wreck, an unsafe worksite or place of business, or a poorly designed or defective product. There is no shame in getting an informed legal opinion. Instead, it’s smart and it’s the right thing to do in order to protect yourself and your family.

Another thing that many victims fail to consider is the possibility that their lawyer may be able to resolve their case without ever actually filing a lawsuit. When a trucking company, truck driver or product manufacturer are clearly at fault, their insurance companies often decide to offer a money settlement before any case is filed.

The only catch is that insurance companies typically offer very low settlement amounts if no attorney is involved because they think victims aren’t smart enough to know they are being sold on a bad deal. That is why it is so important to have an experienced lawyer representing your interests when insurance companies are involved. There are countless stories about people accepting settlements that they thought were reasonable, only to find out later that they can’t even cover their medical costs, much less pay their rent or support their families.

When you call on the Law Offices of Steven C. Laird, your questions become our questions. We are passionate about representing our clients and making sure they don’t have to continue to suffer after they have been injured by the negligence of others. Call our team today to get your questions answered and learn more about how we can help you.

What Happens After a Truck Accident?

The difference between what happens to a trucking accident victim and a trucking company after a highway wreck are as big as the disparity between an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer and a 3,000-pound car.

In the minutes, hours and days after being involved in a truck wreck, victims typically are focused on any physical injuries they may have suffered and their road to recovery. At the same time, the other side already is working toward building the alibis and excuses they hope will shield them from liability.

While you may be making the first call to your insurance company to check on your coverage, the trucking company already is assembling a specific team – sometimes a small army – of investigators, experts, lawyers and company officials whose sole mission is to make sure they pay nothing or as little as possible based on their role in the wreck.

Many people who have been injured, or family members whose loved ones have been killed, in wrecks involving semis, tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks often find out they have waited too long to seek the same kind of legal protections that trucking companies begin putting together before police even arrive at the accident scene.

Hiring a lawyer who has experience in trucking cases is crucial if you have been involved in a highway collision with one of these mammoth vehicles. Evidence must be preserved quickly and witness statements must be collected before memories fade or critical evidence is lost.

An experienced truck wreck lawyer will know how to find out whether the trucking company has the proper insurance as required by law, whether the company has a history of similar accidents, and other details that will help prove your case. These same lawyers will come prepared with their own investigators and experts who can tell your side of the story.

Many truck accident victims are uncomfortable with the idea of filing a lawsuit, but without the help of our legal system, most of them will never find the justice they deserve. Our courts are intended to protect regular citizens like you and me, and putting the system to work on your behalf is a right, not something anyone should be ashamed to do.

If you or one of your loved ones has been involved in a truck accident, please call the Law Offices of Steven C. Laird for a free consultation and more information on your legal rights.

Could Employee Stock Ownership Plans Fix Trucking’s Turnover Problem?

While trends have been improving, large trucking fleets continue to struggle to keep their qualified drivers from leaving. The U.S. annual driver turnover rate has been roughly 90 percent or higher since 2012, according to the Journal of Commerce, which tracks global trade topics.

That’s extremely costly for trucking companies, with estimates in the thousands of dollars to recruit and hire each driver, resulting in an overall toll in the billions of dollars to industry. But switching jobs also is costly to truck drivers. Many of those who pilot semis, tractor-trailers and other big rigs are unable to accumulate retirement savings, often live paycheck-to-paycheck and then take a huge step backward once they are unable to work and have only Social Security to rely upon.

We have discussed in previous blog posts the many elements that could help retain good drivers – better pay, safe driving financial incentives, improved work/life balance and quality of life.

ESOP

Well, here’s an additional idea: Major carriers could take a page from the playbooks of other industries, including grocery, construction, manufacturing and distribution, and create employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs).

A recent Forbes examines the ESOP set up at Paladin Capital Inc., a 1,000-truck operation based in Nashville, Tennessee, formerly called Quickway Distribution Services Inc. The company’s voluntary driver turnover rate is 20 percent (plus 15 percent initiated by the company in enforcing quality standards). Drivers have helped Paladin reach a near-perfect on-time performance record for retail chain clients and have cut fuel-wasting idle time for a savings of $500,000 to $1 million. The safety record also is admirable.

“We have a company where everybody has the same last name: shareholder,” Bill Prevost, Paladin CEO, was quoted as saying. In just 10 years, some Paladin drivers have amassed ESOP retirement accounts of nearly $200,000, the Forbes column explains.

Giving workers a piece of the business that employs them is surely a powerful incentive toward good work, cost savings and employment longevity. As the U.S. economy continues to improve, big trucking companies may find it even more challenging to retain good drivers. An employee stock ownership plan seems like one smart idea some companies should consider.

Coercion Rule Will Make Highways Safer

At the end of January, “regular” drivers and those who pilot 18-wheelers, semis and other big rigs will benefit from a new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rule that undoubtedly will make our roads safer.

The so-called “coercion rule” prohibits motor carriers, shippers, receivers and transportation intermediaries from threatening or otherwise coercing drivers to operate commercial vehicles in violation of several FMCSA regulations. Violators will face fines of up to $16,000 per incident or the FMCSA may order that their operations be closed.

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Many think $16,000 is a pretty flimsy fine considering the potential damage when trucks are not operated properly, but it does represent a start. What may grab more attention in the trucking industry is if the FMCSA uses its authority to actually shut down a violating company or companies.

Although the original version of the new rule would have held trucking companies and the others listed above to the “know or should have known” standard in terms of knowing whether drivers were violating federal safety rules, that language was removed in the final version.

Regardless, we now have a new rule that will punish companies that threaten to retaliate against drivers who refuse to flout safety laws. While the new rule was being developed, the FMCA heard from truck drivers who said they were threatened with termination and reduced pay, denied subsequent loads and other forms of punishment.

According to the FMCSA, threatened drivers were coerced to violate requirements for securing a commercial driver’s license; ignore hours-of-service rules designed to prevent fatigued or distracted driving; violate testing for alcohol or drugs; and transporting hazardous loads, among others.

Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was quoted as saying, “This rule enables us to take enforcement action against anyone in the transportation chain who knowingly and recklessly jeopardizes the safety of the driver and of the motoring public.”

Those are noble words that everyone will agree should be backed by a strong response from the FMCSA the next time a trucking company threatens a driver in hopes of convincing them to break the law.

New Highway Law Allows Too-Low Insurance, Hides Safety Scores

On Dec. 4, President Obama signed into law a $305 billion transportation bill, the first long-term highway spending in a decade. While many drivers will appreciate these coming improvements to highways and mass transit systems, the president himself noted, “This bill is not perfect.”

Indeed it is not.

There are at least two major flaws that protect trucking companies at the risk of ordinary motorists in the new law, called the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation).

Once again, the trucking industry has managed to fend off the commonsense requirement that carriers buy a respectable level of liability insurance. This is needed to cover the modern-day costs of medical bills and other financial losses of crash victims. As noted earlier, it has been 30 years since the last time the minimum insurance requirement was changed! That minimum is a mere $750,000 – which today is not nearly enough for the costs of serious injuries and deaths that can come from a collision with an 18-wheeler. While the major companies do carry impressive levels of insurance – some up to $50 million – small companies, those with four trucks or fewer, successfully lobbied away the proposed increase. The new law requires a full study of the commercial impacts and safety benefits of raising the minimum requirement – a delay that is profoundly unnecessary.

container truck on the bridge with motion blur , modern logistics background

container truck on the bridge with motion blur , modern logistics background

A second major weakness in the FAST Act is the fact that the public will no longer have access to key driver and maintenance safety scores for trucking and bus companies. Just minutes after the highway bill was signed, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) pulled down the safety scores as required in the new law. This scoring system represents the heart of the FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety Accountability (CSA) initiative – an effort to make our highways safer. The safety scores rated trucking companies on key criteria, including unsafe driving, hours on the job, driver fitness, drug and alcohol use, truck maintenance, mishandling of hazardous materials, and an analysis of crashes, including frequency and severity. What information could be more useful to those who have a highway encounter with a truck? Notably, this data is no longer available for victims of crashes and their lawyers, who will no longer be able to show juries how a careless carrier compares to the competition.

Now, the FMCSA must review the scoring program and find ways to make it “the most reliable” system possible. As noted previously, trucking critics had complained that the program wasn’t fair, and that some companies were penalized by “minor infractions.” But the same criteria were used for everyone, so that argument is hard to swallow. It is ironic that soon after the scores were removed, some truck drivers noted voiced their disappointment because they had “worked hard” for their good ratings and now have no evidence to show for that.

The FAST Act is not all doom and gloom, however. Two of the scariest proposals that had been discussed did not make it into the final bill signed into law:

  • Heavier, longer trucks – making them potentially even deadlier – will not be allowed on our highways.
  • Nor will there be a stampede toward hiring drivers under age 21. Instead, there will be a pilot program to test drivers between 18 and 21 taking trucks across state lines. The study will be done by the FMCSA and focused on drivers who are former members of the military or reserves.

New Safety Ratings for Trucking Companies

The new safety rating system established by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for tractor-trailers, semis and other big rigs is finally being made public with the goal of providing safer roadways with an update to the current system that has been in place for more than 30 years. The proposed new rating system still leaves a lot to be desired, and may actually result in some motor carriers and freight brokers being able to hide behind several parts of the new rules.

The biggest (and best) change is that the FMCSA now will be able to rely on highway inspections to shut down a noncompliant trucking company rather than conducting a full-blown audit of the entire company, which can take weeks, months or longer. Previously, such highway inspections were used only to identify those companies that deserved audits.

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We previously discussed the FMCSA’s plans to unveil the new rules last year, but delays pushed the release until this January. The revised rules, which are set to be published later this month, will be followed by a 60-day comment period.

Under the new “Safety Fitness Determination (SFD)”, the FMCSA says it will be able to investigate roughly 75,000 trucking companies per month compared to only 15,000 per year under the prior system. The new SFD, which was last updated in 1982, replaces the previous three-tier ranking system of “satisfactory-conditional-unsatisfactory” with the lone ranking of “unfit.” Those companies determined to be “unfit” will be required to improve their safety rating or be forced to shut down their operations.

One problem with this consolidation is that those motor carriers that would have otherwise been rated as “conditional” now will enjoy the benefit of not having any rating at all, which will prevent injured victims, their lawyers and the public at large from being able to find the red flags that clearly identify unsafe companies. Additionally, freight brokers may now be able to use unsafe motor carriers that previously were labeled as “conditional,” which potentially will make it more difficult to prove that they should have used carriers with better safety records. This may end up being a trade-off of the public’s safety for purposes of expediency.

In order to determine whether a trucking company is unfit, the new SFD will rely on a test that includes how well the company performs in its Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs), which include unsafe driving, hours-of-service compliance, driver fitness, controlled substances/alcohol, vehicle maintenance, hazardous materials compliance and crash indicator. The FMCSA also will look at investigation results or a combination of on-road safety data and information gathered during any investigations.

While shutting down trucking companies more quickly when they ignore safety, and the notion of exponentially increasing the number of safety inspections are ideas we all should embrace, like any new government rule, the devil is in the details.

Some believe the new “unfit” ranking will result in too few companies being identified as potential safety risks since the FMCSA says it believes only 300 carriers per year will meet the criteria. Currently, there are many more trucking companies that are covered by the current three-tier system. There are also rumblings that the new FMCSA rule may include areas that conflict with the recently signed FAST Act.

Once the public comment period is concluded and any conflicts with the FAST Act are sorted out, we should have a better idea of how much better – or worse – the new FMCSA rules will protect our highways. Please check in for updates as we continue to monitor this critically important issue.

Traffic Deaths Rising after Long Decline

In 2014, the number of people in the U.S. who died in traffic accidents fell to 32,675, just a 0.1 percent decrease from the previous year, but still continuing a general decade-long decline. That’s more than 10,000 fewer deaths than in 2005, a remarkable improvement.truck-accident-death-toll

This year may break that impressive trend, however. Federal officials say that a statistical projection for the first six months of 2015 shows a sharp upward trend in traffic fatalities, an increase of 8 percent compared to the same period in 2014.

The 2014 analysis and the 2015 projection recently were reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency noted some of the key factors involved in fatal accidents during 2014:

  • Distracted driving was reported in 10 percent of fatal crashes.
  • Speeding occurred in 28 percent of all fatal accidents.
  • Alcohol impairment accounted for 31 percent of all traffic deaths.

Notably, the NHTSA reports that 49 percent of passengers who died were not wearing seatbelts – a grim reminder that everyone in a vehicle must buckle up.

Getting behind the wheel is one of the most dangerous things many of us do each day. It’s essential that we are vigilant, sober, focused and wearing seatbelts. That way we stand at least a chance of avoiding collision with other drivers who may not be following the rules.

House Version of Transportation Bill Delivers Wins, Losses

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed its version of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 after days of fiery debate and multiple amendments. Some of the last-minute changes are aimed at making our roads safer, while others are certain to lead to more accidents involving 18-wheelers, semis and other big rigs if they gain White House approval.

The six-year, $325 billion package has been a hot-button issue for politicians and safety advocates alike since it was first introduced. Trucking industry leaders and safety advocates spent countless hours and dollars lobbying elected officials in hopes of preserving their favorite provisions while working to scuttle those they opposed.

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The House version of the bill that was sent to President Obama eliminated the proposed graduated commercial driver’s license (CDL) program that would allow drivers under the age of 21 to operate tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks. We labeled that effort as the worst idea ever in an earlier post.

The trucking industry’s push for bigger trucks also came up short in the House version. The legislation that was introduced would have increased the weight limit for big rigs to a mammoth 91,000 pounds with an extra, sixth axle. Unbelievably, supporters claimed that bigger semis would be safer than the 80,000 lb. five-axle trucks that already cause incredible damage to our highways and are involved in many death and injury accidents every year. For some additional perspective, the M4 Sherman tanks used by the U.S. in World War II weighed less than 70,000 lbs. each.

Even though those two ill-reasoned provisions and others were eliminated, several items that were passed in the House vote will do anything but protect drivers on the nation’s roadways if signed into law.

One of the more notable amendments that will have a negative impact on safety will prohibit states from imposing labor laws and regulations on trucking companies that are subject to the Department of Transportation’s rules governing the allowable hours of service (HOS) for drivers. Supporters say this amendment was needed to align state and federal policies, but the real result is that truckers and trucking companies no longer will be subject to minimum wage and rest break laws imposed at the state level.

While no one expected the massive bill would reach the White House with all the needed safety considerations intact, it is good to know that we are much less likely to see 91,000 lb. trucks traveling down the road with 18-year-old drivers behind the wheel.