The headline reads "Texas Trucking Accident Attorney Says Roadcheck 2011 Reveals Truck Driver Fatigue Problem." It doesn't say we have a regulatory compliance problem; rather, this headline says in no uncertain terms we have a driver fatigue problem. We're back on the griddle again.

Lawyers twist statistics to attack

You could see this coming. The headline I refer to leads a press release distributed through a press release distribution service called PRWeb. It was on other services as well. The distribution service charges a fee to flog such releases, and they usually wind up in a few newspapers around the country and all over the Internet as well. Just Google the headline and see what I mean.

Variations of that headline and the accompanying "article" are sent out daily by law firms around the country that specialize in suing careless and negligent motor carriers and drivers.

The insidious thing about such releases is that they are self-serving propaganda masquerading as a newspaper story with newsy ring to it. Newspaper editors in the mainstream sphere get those releases from PRWeb, PR Newswire or some other service. Struggling to fill pages, editors find 1,000 free words they can drop into the day's news. They fill a page for nothing, the lawyers get their message across to an unsuspecting and sympathetic public, and truckers take their lumps. Good deal, huh?

Twisting numbers

The Roadcheck results make it easy for them. They are widely published, and available on any number of websites. All that awaits are the lawyers to twist and misrepresent the figures for their own purposes.

To wit; the first three paragraphs of the press release:

The good news: The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance recently reported that its Roadcheck 2011 had the lowest out-of-service rates since the commercial motor carrier safety program began in 1988.

The bad news: The overwhelming number of driver violations uncovered during the three-day event involved hours-of-service regulations, which are supposed to reduce fatigued truck driving.

"It amazes me when the trucking industry denies there is any widespread problem with drowsy driving," says Randell C. "Randy" Roberts, a board-certified East Texas personal injury attorney. "If you look at these results, it's clear that there is, indeed, a very serious problem with drivers spending too much time on the road. If we can't rely on commercial carriers to act on their own to fix it, then we need new rules that will force them to address it."

No hard numbers yet, no facts to back up the claim, just a damning indictment of the industry as one that simply doesn't care about safety.

Now, the 5th through 7th paragraphs:

Inspectors checked commercial driver's licenses, medical exam certificates and record-of-duty status as well as brakes, tires, lights, load security and other major safety components. The CVSA reports that 95.8 percent of the drivers passed their inspections, while 80.7 percent of the buses, trucks, 18-wheelers and tractor-trailers passed.

However, among the drivers who were pulled out of service, more than half (52.5 percent) had violated the FMCSA's hours-of-service rules, which are intended to keep fatigued truck drivers off the road. Only 14 percent of the drivers inspected were using electronic on-board recorders, or EOBRs, which are designed to ensure that truck drivers properly log the hours they spend behind the wheel.

"The longer a trucker is on the road, the higher the risk of accidents, injuries and deaths caused by tired driving," says Roberts, whose East Texas personal injury law firm, Roberts & Roberts, has been recognized by Time, Newsweek, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and other national media outlets for its work on behalf of its clients.

Connect the dots

Okay, we have a few numbers now. 95.8% of drivers inspected passed their inspections. Then, and paragraph later, "more than half had violated HOS ..." Then comes the diatribe about the dangers of tired driving.

Could somebody help me connect the dots here? How do we get from a handful of hours of service violations to dangerously tired killer truck drivers?

Let me put this into perspective. Of the 70,172 inspections, 4.2% of drivers (2,950) were placed OOS. Of those, 52.5% (1,550) were placed out of service for HOS violations. Of the 2,950 drivers placed OOS, 14.9% (439) were found to have false logs. While the reasons for falsifying logs are legion, one might honestly assume something nefarious. They could well have been bending the rules for their own gain.

What we don't know is how many of those drivers were actually dangerously tired.

We know nothing of the group placed out of service for HOS violations. Nor, I would argue, do the lawyers -- but why let the facts stand in the way of a self-serving news story full of incendiary remarks?

The industry knows that many of those HOS violations are what they call "form and function" violations, meaning the log sheet hadn't been filled out correctly -- bill of lading details missing, spelling mistakes, not current to the last change of duty status, etc. None of those indicate or even suggest the driver was tired at the time of the inspection.

But it serves a lot of people and organizations well to equate a clerical HOS violation with tired driving. The two must be synonymous, right? HOS rules, as the lawyer points out in a paragraph above, "FMCSA's hours-of-service rules, ... are intended to keep fatigued truck drivers off the road."

Incur a log violation and you're a fatigued driver. But never mind the lawyers. CVSA, FMCSA, NTSB, and others all play this theme to the max.

Achilles heel

Could someone please take the time to explain to me how a clerical error on a log page makes me a threat to society?

HOS is this industry's Achilles heel. Not because we don't follow the rules -- clearly almost 96% of the drivers inspected at this year's Roadcheck do -- but because there are groups and individuals whose livelihoods depend on making the public believe that we don't.

Our Hours of Service Regulations started out as labor regulations, not safety regulations. I wish they had stayed that way.

If you want to read the truck crash lawyer's little truck safety hatchet job, you can read it here.