The trucking industry is sorely in need of some good press. In my column last month, I discussed a truck safety-bashing New York Times article. On Dec. 10, the Chicago Tribune published another scathing truck safety expose.
Public Citizen and other safety organizations have an agenda to push, and they are experts at getting the general media behind their cause. With driver hours of service rules in the courts and the controversial mandatory onboard recorder proposal in their sights, we can expect to see more articles and television reports painting the truck driver as a menace to society.
What can the industry do to counter it?
Truckers could certainly be more proactive and available to the media. It's been my experience that the trucking industry, as a whole, is not very good at getting its message out in the mainstream press. It's understandable that fleet executives are gun shy, since much of that press coverage is often so biased against us.
Trucking is an easy target for bad publicity. Everyone who has ever shared the road with big rigs has experienced at least fear, and/or had a run-in with a bad driver. Being cut off or tailgated by an 18-wheeler is an entirely different experience than encountering a bad driver in a Volkswagen.
So a journalist unfamiliar with trucking is easy for the truck bashers to brainwash.
And it can be a complicated job dispelling the skewed statistics about truck accidents. All the media needs to see is one bad truck crash to be convinced; who cares how many billions of safe miles truckers drive and how less likely to crash they are than the typical motorist? Or that most fatal truck crashes are indeed caused by car drivers, not truckers.
It's also easy for reporters to find the hook to hang their story on. It's usually an atypical but horrendous accident or an allegedly abused, downtrodden driver who claims his trucking company management forced him to break the law.
You can always find a disgruntled driver just itching for his 15 minutes in the spotlight. This was the case in the Chicago Tribune article. They describe the life of owner-operator Roger Kobernick: "Long hours, chaotic schedules and exhausting work conditions make for a potentially lethal formula - for truck drivers and everyone else on the road."
The Tribune also detailed a bad truck crash allegedly caused by a trucker operating beyond his legal hours.
What the reporter didn't get is that both were independent owner-operators. If they work beyond the legal hours limits, it's of their own free will. Or that most trucking companies have a constant struggle to keep drivers within the law.
No one denies that the life of a longhaul truck driver is tough; we all know it is. But we need to get the general media to understand how dedicated the industry is to safety - and how successful those efforts are.
The best defense is a good offense, and perhaps the industry's best public image program is the American Trucking Associations' America's Road Team.
They're million-mile, accident-free professional drivers who deliver an effective safety message to the motoring public and the media.
Sixteen captains, with a collective 366 years of experience and nearly 30.5 million safe-driving miles among them, are picked based on their knowledge of trucking safety issues. The competition includes a test of communication skills and interview abilities to help them when dealing with the press as industry spokespeople.
They also testify on trucking and safety issues before Congressional hearings and at the state government level.
The 2007-2008 team was announced in mid-January. For a complete list of Road Team Captains, go to www.truckinginfo.com
E-mail Deb Whistler at [email protected]