See ya, Joan

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My work as president of Public Citizen is ending, but my work for a just society will never end.” –Joan Claybrook

So one of the trucking industry’s biggest and most relentless critics says she is officially hanging up the gloves – at least for now. For I would not be surprised to see Joan Claybrook – now the outgoing president of Ralph Nader’s public-interest group Public Citizen and the founder of the notorious so-called safety group Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) – pop up in the Obama administration in some capacity.

I’m definitely not a fan of Claybrook – head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during President Carter’s administration from 1977 to 1981 – but not for the reasons you may think. Frankly, I’ve got no problem with any group shining a light on the trucking or auto industries – two hallmarks of Claybrook’s career – especially when it comes to safety. As we all know, she teamed up with Ralph Nader back in 1966 to pass some of the nation’s first auto safety laws and pushed non-stop for air bags – and those efforts translated into lots of lives saved.

No, my problem is when people and groups wrap themselves in the self-righteous mantle of “safety” and “ethics” while engaging in tactics that further neither cause.

One of the biggest dealt with the primary funding source for CRASH for nearly a decade – railroad equipment manufacturers. There’s nothing wrong with the relentless pursuit of truck safety improvements – but there’s something very wrong when you are getting the lion’s share of your funding from trucking’s competitors, especially when you are seeking major public policy changes in terms of hours of service (HOS) rules and the like. That sort of “conflict of interest” is EXACTLY what Public Citizen purported to stand AGAINST, yet here they were engaged in behavior they lambasted Congress and all sorts of other groups about.

I also didn’t agree with Claybrook’s tooth-and-nail fight against HOS reform – 11 hours of driver time, 14 hour work day, 10 hours off duty time – nor the over-the-top rhetoric her group employed in battling them.

“Under the Bush rules, trucking companies would be empowered to force their drivers to drive not eight hours, not nine hours, not ten hours but eleven hours at a demanding job,” she said in Congressional testimony in December 2007. “Drivers could also be required to work a total of 14 hours a day—three additional hours loading, unloading and preparing to drive, for seven days in a row.”

Ah, but her solution? Go back to the OLD RULES, limiting drivers to 10 hours behind the wheel but exposing them to FIVE hours of additonal work time with only EIGHT hours off-duty … as opposed to the TEN hours off duty in the new rules.

It didn’t jibe – though the new rules come with their own pitfalls, they offered some big improvements, such as increasing off-duty time by two hours. Yet Public Citizen spent years trying to torch them via lawsuits based on “technicalities” and go back to rules they fought to get rid of in the first place.

“Our concern was that, under the old rules, drivers could keep extending their 15 hour work day by using sleeper berth rest periods,” noted John Hill, chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) explained in cementing the new rules in place. “We were concerned that might reoccur if we retained a sleeper berth provision. So we stayed with the firm 14 hour work day – you can’t extend it. You must stop.”

Yet Claybrook never bought that – obvious though it is – and kept pushing for the old rules. It just didn’t make sense. The kicker is that she claimed these new rules would lead to widespread fatigue and truck crashes. “Financial gain in the trucking industry will not prevent countless highway injuries, whereas adequate safety measures can,” she stated time and again in Congressional testimony. Yet the numbers didn’t bear her argument out.

For example, the truck-car crash fatality rate declined 12%, from 2.57 per 100 million miles in 2000 down to 2.25 million miles in 2006. Truck-car crash fatalities are also way down, from 5,240 deaths in 2005 down to 4,808 last year. Fatigue as a factor in truck-car collisions remains stable, Hill noted. In 2000, fatigue was a factor in 2.2%, dropping to a low of 1.5% in 2001 and 2006. Last year it was 1.9% – well within the highs and lows established since 2000.

The big issue, of course, is how many crashes occur in that 11th hour of driving. Public Citizen stridently claimed we’d see a big increase since the new rules upped allowable driving time from 10 hours a day to 11. Guess what? There’ve been just two in the last three years of available data – none in 2004, one in 2005, and none in 2006. That’s pretty compelling evidence, if you ask me.

“The biggest advantage of these rules is that they follow the optimal 24-hour circadian rhythm wake/sleep cycle,” Hill said. Under the old rules, truckers were on duty for 15 hours, could drive for 10, and were off duty for eight hours. That added up to 23 hours, skewing their time clock as their week progressed. The new rules not only put them on a 24 hour clock, it shortened their work day by an hour and boosted off-duty time by two hours.

None of that mattered to Claybrook it seemed. And again, while these rules aren’t perfect, they provided a good starting point for further reform – yet lawsuits by Public Citizen prevented that next step from taking place. If she re-enters government, will Claybrook attempt to scuttle the rules from the inside? We’ll have to wait and see.

I will tell you this, though – to her credit, she fought for a far greater scrutiny of car drivers, using the same electronic data recorders (EDRs) she pushed for the trucking industry.

“The government allows manufacturers to choose whether or not they equip their vehicles with EDRs. Instead, they ought to be required in every passenger car, pickup truck and SUV,” she told Time magazine in 2006. “Without fleet-wide penetration, there are gaping holes in the data that engineers need to improve safety, both for motor vehicles and highways. In our view, privacy is a non-issue. The device in cars doesn't begin recording until seconds before a crash. There's no ongoing recording.”

She also stressed EDR data can also protect people against false accusations, miscalculations, poor investigations and inaccurate witnesses – the same benefits truckers get if they have similar technology on board.

One thing is for certain – we haven’t heard the last from Claybrook, not by a long shot. “As the winds of change sweep the nation and Washington, D.C., with promises for new policies to help the public, it is a good time for me to move on to other adventures,” she said in her “farewell” letter.

It’ll be interesting to see if trucking remains encompassed in her “adventures” down the road.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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