A “watershed” truck safety moment

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We hope this is a watershed moment because we’re so often fighting the trucking industry. We’ve never done what we’re doing tonight.” –Jeff Burns, a Kansas City, MO attorney and member of Parents Against Tired Truckers (P.A.T.T.), Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), as well as the Truck Safety Coalition

It’s one of those events you never, ever expect to witness unless a certain fiery place freezes over. Yet apparently there’s now a sheet of ice now covering the land of fire and brimstone.

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Yesterday at the Sleep Apnea & Trucking Conference – hosted by the American Sleep Apnea Association and co-sponsored by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) – the Truck Safety Coalition presented its first-ever Distinguished Safety Leadership award to none other than Don Osterberg, vice president of safety, security & driver training for Green Bay, WI-based truckload carrier Schneider National.

Lest you think this is some sort of publicity stunt, ponder this for a moment: Osterberg received the award from Dawn King, whose father, William Badger, was killed two days before Christmas in 2004, when a Schneider driver fell asleep at the wheel of his big rig and collided with Badger’s car as he was driving to the airport to visit her.

In accepting the award, Osterberg related that he’d just joined Schneider that year and upon learning of this deadly crash – one of nine fatal truck-car wrecks involving Schneider tractor-trailers in 2004 – he flew down to Georgia to meet with Badger’s family, including Dawn King.

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“It’s my belief we have to reach out to those suffering this kind of emotional trauma; losing a loved one in a vehicle crash,” he said. “It also helps put a face to the statistics we so often hear about.”

Osterberg (at left, with Anne Ferro, head of the FMCSA) noted that Badger’s family treated him with “more professional respect than I ever expected” given the situation. The one request they had of him, Osterberg added, is that Schneider learn something from Badger’s death so that he did not die in vain.

“I promised then I would do everything in my power to make changes so such a thing would not happen again,” Osterberg said.

Over the last six years, noted Jeff Burns – a Kansas City, MO attorney and member of Parents Against Tired Truckers (P.A.T.T.), Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), as well as the Truck Safety Coalition – Osterberg has been good to his word.

Burns – who became involved in truck safety issues after representing a family friend who lost his wife and two daughters in a crash caused by a fatigued truck driver back in the early 1990s – noted that Schneider has pursued a wide variety of safety initiatives during Osterberg’s tenure, installing speed governors on the carrier’s engines, adopting Electric Onboard Recorders (EOBR), and screening all Schneider drivers for sleep apnea.

“The proof of all of this is in the pudding,” Burns said, noting that Schneider’s own data indicates it’s reduced preventable crashes by 30%, reduced fatigue as a factor in crashes by 27%, and lowered its fatal crash rate by 59%. He also pointed out that Schneider had zero fatal accidents in 2009, compared to nine in 2004.

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“To top it off, these safety initiatives saved the company money as well – providing hard, solid proof that safety doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice productivity,” Burns (at right) pointed out. “[Schneider] has lowered its workman’s comp costs, its insurance premiums, even its fuel costs as a result of these efforts.”

Yet Burns admitted that making a long-term commitment to safety like this is very hard in one respect; a fleet really never knows how many crashes it really prevents. “You never can really identify those whose lives were saved because efforts like these prevented a crash,” he explained.

Osterberg for his part strongly believes work on improving trucking safety is never really going to end. “We have to manage the risks as best we can,” he said. “We’re an imperfect company, but I believe we’re taking the right approach. The safety issues in this industry, while profound, can be solved. We just have to roll up our sleeves and set ourselves to work on them.”

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