On the Road

It's no mystery why young people don't want to be truck drivers

November 5, 2012

A driver could face felony charges in Washington State for not cleaning zebra mussels off a boat he was hauling. Felony charges? How many other "civilians" can land in that kind of hot water for failing to be 100% diligent 100% of the time?



Felony crimes are nasty crimes: murder, armed robbery, grand larceny, drug trafficking ... and apparently failing to clean mussels from boats. The State of Washington is, rightly, working hard to prevent a zebra mussel infestation. One of the chief ways of inviting an infestation is to allow contaminated boats into uncontaminated waters. The waters won't stay that way for long.

Published reports say the driver was stopped at an inspection facility on Interstate 90, where officers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered about 100 of the mussels clinging to the large boat the driver was hauling. It was the second time the driver had been caught within five years with an infested vessel -- hence the possible felony charge under state law. No charges have been laid as of this writing, and the investigation continues.

Miss a few mussels during an inspection and wind up in jail for a year. What sort of message does that send to people considering a driving career?

If you scan news headlines about truck crashes and other unpleasantries, you'll be surprised how many such incidents result in vehicular homicide and manslaughter charges. I'm not suggesting drivers involved in fatal crashes deserve a pass just because they are truck drivers (also, I'm not passing any judgment on fault or failure here), but stakes like those scare people. If I knew, when making a career choice, that a single professional error could ruin my entire life, I'd certainly give it a second thought.

I can't think of many other unskilled jobs that come with that degree of responsibility. Take construction or manufacturing. Even if shoddy workmanship is found to be the cause of a problem, the worker is seldom held directly responsible. The company (the employer) is certainly on the hook, but the worst that might happen to the worker is termination. Few welders have ever gone to jail for producing imperfect welds.

Even when the consequences are less dire, drivers have a great deal more on the line than most other workers. A decent ticket these days will cost a driver half a week's pay. I know if, as an editor, I was fined for every tyop and spelling mistake that made it into print, I'd be in the poorhouse in no time. I do proofread my work, and usually several other sets of eyeballs see it before it winds up here. Sometimes stuff gets by even the most diligent copy editors.

But if a driver makes a lane change without a turn signal or slips up over 55 mph at the wrong time, it will create some financial hardship the driver and his or her family.

Easy Pickens

Then there are the small-town cops with time on their hands. Itinerant truckers are easy targets, and they think nothing of extorting a few hundred bucks from hapless drivers.

I've dealt with a few of those characters in my career, and afterwards I felt dirty and used and quite helpless to do much about it. The deck is stacked squarely against the driver in such cases.

I've even been on the end of a wrongful death suit. That rattles your cage, let me tell you. Even though I had done nothing wrong, some lawyer convinced a grieving mother that he could squeeze a few hundred thousand dollars from me and my company for the loss of her son, and I become the target. Fortunately, the plaintiff's lawyer agreed to a settlement moments before the case went to trial, but I went through five years of hell and self-doubt while the case played out.

On another occasion, I had loaded some chemical in a tanker near Chicago and was issued incorrect placards for the load. I diligently checked my HAZMAT guidebook and then had to debate the issue with the shipper, who had documentation showing he was correct. So, the HAZMAT guidebook was wrong? Tell that to the inspector at the eastbound scale on I-94 near Gary, Ind. I got a $350 ticket and summons to appear.

Eventually it was all sorted out, but I lost several days of work while pleading my case in court. The shipper was correct, and the guidebook and the inspector were wrong. The inspector and the shipper's lawyers were paid for their day in court. I even had to pay for my own gas and hotels to fight the out-of-town charge.

That's not what I'd call one of the upsides of driving a truck.

Driving is a very demanding job. And I think that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Were I in my mid-twenties and knew what I know now, I would not take up driving as a career. The money's just not there, and more importantly, neither is the support from the industry as a whole.

Instant Experts?

Nobody emerging from driving school is sufficiently trained to know all the ins and outs of vehicle inspections and cargo securement regs, hours of service rules, etc, like the inspectors do. The rookies are cannon fodder. I get calls every so often from even veteran drivers asking the most basic regulatory questions.

How many drivers know how to conduct a proper brake inspection? Very few if CVSA is to be believed. Yet how many fleets take the time to properly train drivers on this all-important part of the trip inspection procedure?

More to the point, how many fleets will still ask a driver to "sneak the truck back to the shop so it can be repaired" rather than putting the defective truck on a hook where it belongs?

September's fatal crash near Potter, Neb., is a good example. The driver of the first truck in the fatal chain reaction incident apparently had a brake malfunction and was trying to get his truck off the road before the wheels locked up. He was struck from behind by another truck, and has recently been named in a wrongful death suit filed by the families of the deceased.

His company was named too, for failing to maintain the equipment. I don't know what happened to his brakes or why they locked up, but it's entirely possible that the driver had no idea there was anything wrong with the truck until the wheels stopped turning.

And our boat hauler with the 100 devilish little hitchhikers? Maybe the driver missed them during an inspection. Maybe he never even looked. Maybe the boat's owner should have ensured the hull was properly cleaned before the boat was ever loaded on the truck. Maybe the carrier should have demanded some certification that the boat was free of zebra mussels before loading it.

Maybe it's just easier to throw the driver under the bus.

I think felony charges for such a transgression are a bit extreme, and I'm sure anyone reading that story who had ever contemplated becoming a truck driver was heaving a sigh of relief at having modified their career plans. We can tell by the votes of confidence in the industry how many people are willing to put their personal lives on the line for a job in trucking, and I can tell you, more than a few veterans are getting a little fed up with it all too.

Here's a link to the online story about the boat hauler in the Spokesman-Review that prompted this little rant.