While putting together this issue kicking off a series on improving the trucking industry's public image, we got news of the horrific truck accident that turned a Southern California freeway tunnel into a fiery inferno.

The crash involved 30 commercial vehicles - at least 15 of them big rigs - and one car. Three were killed, 10 injured and some drivers were still missing at press time. The governor called a state of emergency as one of the nation's busiest north-south highways was shut down.

There's an old adage in the media: If it bleeds, it leads (translation: disaster stories get top priority). That was certainly demonstrated here. Images of the deadly blaze were broadcast and printed by news media nationwide, further embedding fear of big rigs in the minds of the general public.

And while it will be some time before the exact cause of the accident is determined, it's certain that groups focused on pushing punitive truck safety legislation will use this unfortunate incident to further their anti-truck agendas.

Ironically, the Santa Clarita tunnel wreck occurred as the industry was gearing up to actively improve its image with the public. It gave us all the more reason to escalate the PR effort.

The Truckload Carriers Association has revitalized its Image Policy Committee and is working diligently to set programs in place to deal with negative impressions of trucking (see story, page 66).

To support this PR push, this magazine - beginning in this issue - will publish a series of features, columns and editorials focusing on ways truckers can improve their image with the public, media and politicians.

Trying to thwart negative press about trucking can seem as futile as herding cats. It's true the general media is inclined to print negative stories about trucking, while ignoring the many positives. How trucks are improving safety, or how vital they are to the economy and the public good, just isn't as sexy.

Many newsworthy issues involving trucking are extremely complicated. Journalists - like anyone else - can be lazy. They will quickly swallow the story lines spoon-fed to them by the anti-truck "safety" groups.

It's no coincidence that in the aftermath of a major truck crash, local news outlets often use stories pointing out that truck drivers often cheat on their work rules, are fatigued, and that such things are likely contribute to highway accidents.

Highway safety advocacy groups are masters at feeding the media. Trucking, unfortunately, isn't very good at getting its side of the highway safety story across.

There are many reasons for this. Among them:

• Most general media reporters have no regular contact with anyone representing the trucking industry. When presented with a sexy story about the dangers of big rigs, they have no idea who to call to get a balanced piece.

• When reporters do call trucking companies for comment, many truckers refuse to cooperate with them for fear of getting pummeled in the press.

• Often, there is no consensus of opinion among trucking organizations on major issues. Reporters get a consistent story from anti-truck factions. When they do check with industry sources, they may get conflicting messages that only make the reporters' job harder.

There are no simple solutions. But it is increasingly important that the industry make every effort to put its best foot forward with the press.

As Jim O'Neal, chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association, notes in our story, "Public image shapes public opinion, which shapes public policy."

There may never have been a time when trucking needed to be more actively involved in shaping public policy.

How you respond - or don't respond - to the media behind those bleeding headlines will play a huge part in determining how trucking fares in political battles long into the future.

E-mail Deb Whistler at [email protected], or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.