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Tom Methvin
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Problems in Texas affect citizens in other states

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It appears that the state of Texas has been doing a very poor job of regulating the trucking industry. As a result, trucks from Texas can create safety hazards when these trucks travel into other states. It should be noted that the trucking industry in the U.S. has grown at a rapid pace. That has also been the case in the Lone Star State. It appears that the trucking industry’s growth has overwhelmed law enforcement agencies in Texas. The problem is especially acute there, where U.S.-based trucks pick up loads at the Mexican border and then travel across the country to make deliveries. As we have reported, U.S.-Mexico trade has more than doubled since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994. About 68% of truck traffic from Mexico enters this country at the Texas border, according to federal data. That puts a tremendous responsibility on Texas officials.

The trucking industry has seen lots of changes in recent years. When the federal government deregulated shipping rates in the early 1980s, it became possible for virtually anyone with a truck to go into business. As a result, trucking has become highly competitive. The vast majority of trucking companies operate along the margins of profitability, and about 40,000 go out of business every year, according to Jerry Donaldson, senior research director for the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Many trucking companies – because of stiff competition – put profits over safety. The companies push their drivers very hard to meet tough delivery deadlines. Trucking companies claim that a shortage of drivers, not safety shortcuts, is the biggest problem facing their industry. Long-haul trucking companies need 20,000 additional drivers, and that could exceed 100,000 drivers over the next eight years, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the American Trucking Associations.

A good number of trucking companies pay drivers by the hour rather than by the load or mile, a practice safety experts say encourages drivers to speed and drive while fatigued. A recent study at the University of Michigan found that increasing drivers’ pay scales led to fewer accidents. Regardless of pay, trucking companies should hire safe drivers and make sure those hired follow the rules. Federal regulations require prospective drivers to disclose in writing such information as the previous three years’ employers, motor vehicle accidents and traffic tickets, and the reason for leaving a job. The company is supposed to verify that information and check a driver’s motor vehicle and safety performance records for the previous three years. Although the law doesn’t require companies to do criminal background checks, it does ban truckers convicted of certain crimes from driving for a period of time.

The Dallas Morning News concluded a seven-month investigation dealing with trucking companies in Texas. Their investigation found that:

• The companies hire illegal immigrants who struggle to read road signs and communicate in English with police and emergency personnel;

• They hire felons, drunks and drug addicts;

• They make only cursory checks of work history and driving records, then put the new hires behind the wheel of rigs with the destructive potential of guided missiles;

• When accidents occur, trucking companies defend their drivers and often blame the other vehicles – and in many cases the dead occupants – regardless of the evidence.

• They typically fight any release of information about their drivers and vehicles, and wage protracted legal battles to avoid blame.

• Beyond that, the companies suffer few consequences, in part because the soaring number of trucks on Texas highways are overwhelming regulators and law enforcement officers.

More than 5,200 people died in accidents involving large trucks in the U.S. last year. The most comprehensive national study, released in March by the U.S. Department of Transportation, found that truck drivers were at fault in at least 44% of all accidents between cars and big trucks. The American Trucking Association, which represents the industry’s largest companies, claims that trucks cause only about 25% of fatal accidents involving cars. When trucking companies are to blame, records show, it’s because truckers drive too fast, don’t pay attention, work too many hours or take to the road in poorly maintained equipment – sometimes with the knowledge and encouragement of their employers. This is why we have seen an increase in highway crashes involving large trucks.

In Texas, the number of interstate carriers based in that state increased by about 43% in the past five years. The number of registered large trucks in the U.S. increased 24% from 1994 to 2004. U.S. trucking companies reported a record financial year in 2005: They generated $623 billion in revenue while hauling nearly 70% of the nation’s freight. The public expects all trucks on the road to be safety operated by well-trained drivers who obey safety rules, regulations and statutes. When a state like Texas is lax on its responsibilities relating to regulation of the trucking industry, and those trucks travel across state lines, the citizens of those states are put a risk. It’s an especially serious problem in Texas because of the state’s proximity to Mexico.

Source: Dallas Morning News