Deadly Driving

What's so hard about coming up with a rational set of training standards for new commercial truck drivers?

Apparently the task is so difficult that the Dept. of Transportation has failed to respond to two specific demands from Congress to up the requirements for obtaining a truck driving license for more than 20 years. It has taken so long that the Teamsters and a few safety interest groups have now turned to the courts for a remedy.

The need for new standards is so clear that labor and management both appear to agree that DOT should act. Yet virtually nothing has happened in this regard since Congress first demanded new standards in 1991, other than one abortive attempt in 2004 that was deemed insufficient by a federal court and a 2012 revision that never made it into law.

That higher standards are necessary seems obvious in light of the nearly 4,000 deaths a year in truck-related crashes around the country. The latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 3,921 people died in truck-involved collisions in 2012, an increase of 3.7% from the year before; injuries were up by 18%.

And if that's not reason enough for federal bureaucrats to get moving on higher standards for truck drivers, the fact that truck driving has the highest number of fatal work injuries of all professions in this country certainly ought to be.

In 2013, according to the Dept. of Labor, 748 workers in the truck driver/delivery market died in work-related accidents, far and away the biggest death toll of any other industry. In fact, driver deaths represented close to 17 percent of all work-related deaths that year. (The next-highest categories were farm-related and construction laborers, with 220 and 215 deaths respectively.)

Now if you're a trucking industry optimist, you could argue that the death-rate for loggers and fishers are much higher -- 91.3 for logging and 75 for fishers, compared with drivers' 22 -- but there a lot fewer of them, so accidents in 2013 claimed "only" 59 loggers and 75 fishermen and fisherwomen.

While all the major parties to this issue appear to support the drive to increase training standards for new drivers, some part of the problem is surely money; that is, how much the new regulations will increase the cost of training new drivers to fill the many ongoing vacancies that exist in fleets around the country.

Fleets, at least as represented by American Trucking Assns., say “tougher entry-level driver training standards are needed,” but that the new rule must have “real safety benefits commensurate with costs likely to be imposed,” in the words of the group’s chief advocacy officer.

Of course the rub always comes in evaluating that cost-benefit ratio: how much is improved safety “worth”? Just how much is a reasonable amount to spend in saving lives? This is a legitimate question, but it’s more an ethical question than an accounting dilemma.

Congress has spoken, on several occasions, yet DOT continues to fiddle.

As The New York Times opined, soon after the Teamsters suit was filed this fall, “The plaintiffs make a compelling case that the department is out of compliance with the congressional mandate and the country’s pressing safety needs. It should not require a court order to persuade [DOT Sec. Anthony] Foxx to do what should have been done more than 20 years ago.”

The time is way overdue for DOT to act.

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