Why is the trucking industry so resistant to new safety regulations and technologies?

In my many years covering trucking, I’ve been surprised by the industry’s steadfastly antagonistic approach to government attempts to impose new regulations and requirements to improve safety. By and large, fleets seem to look upon safety regulations as a burden to be resisted when possible and to be grudgingly endured only when active political resistance fails.

While I accept that most fleets strive to reduce accidents and injuries—which executives understand will keep damage claims and customer complaints down -- carrier officials seem to lead with their chins. In fact, short-term savings gained by delaying safety improvements are quite costly to the industry in terms of the public’s perception of trucking and are often harmful to the financial performance of fleets.

Whether fleet executives will admit it or not, the public is troubled by having to share the road with what they see as huge tractor-trailers that dwarf even their own oversized SUVs. And most motorists have been witness to bizarre antics by some trucker or other and gory truck wrecks make excellent stories on nightly newscasts.

Rather than getting out in front of road safety – in the manner of the airline industry, which has done a far superior job convincing the public of its strong interest in making its mode a safer place – trucking’s default position is to oppose new regulations, usually decrying the economic harm that will befall carriers if they are required to add a new device to their trucks or alter work practices to reduce driver fatigue.

The irony is that in addition to harming the industry’s reputation with the public, trucking’s resistance to new safety technologies has hit motor carriers in their own pocketbooks.

While European truck manufacturers have been supplying advanced safety systems for decades, only recently have North American carriers been deploying them in any numbers.

In fact, safety can be good for business. One fleet executive who has consistently embraced new technologies has made no secret of the rewards he has reaped as a result, telling me that the money he has saved on damage claims and insurance premiums has more than paid the costs incurred in purchasing and operating his private airplane.

Another truism is that federal mandates for safety systems increase the capital costs of fleets, especially in the short run, by raising the price of trucks, which is an immediate expense, while the benefits often don’t hit the bottom line for years, in the form of reduced insurance premiums or damage charges. Big, well-financed carriers are able to more easily absorb the up-front costs than the small, marginal fleets that often undercut larger carriers by discounting rates.

But even when a safety change doesn’t involve significant costs, many fleets refuse to embrace them, such as when American Trucking Associations a few years back urged carriers to voluntarily accept a 68 mph speed maximum. While some larger fleets accepted the proposal, (and some had already adopted their own limits in the name of safety or improved fuel economy), a chorus of complaints was heard from many other truckers and drivers.

If trucking continues to resist safety changes, I believe the government will eventually impose far more worrisome requirements than the industry would face if it voluntarily worked with regulators and interest groups that are demanding improvements.

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