This story was reported and produced by FairWarning.
Big rig crashes kill nearly 4,000 Americans each year and injure more than 85,000. Since 2009, fatalities involving large trucks have increased 17 percent. Injuries have gone up 28 percent.
Given these numbers, you might expect Congress to be agitating for tighter controls on big rigs. In fact, many members are pushing for the opposite – looser restrictions on the trucking industry and its drivers.
The proposals represent a wish list of the trucking industry, including allowing significantly longer and heavier trucks, and younger drivers. The industry spends heavily on lobbying and campaign contributions, giving largely to Republicans, who control both the House and Senate.
Kentucky congressmen are among some of the biggest recipients of trucking industry campaign contributions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received $250,242 over the last six years, the third biggest haul in Congress, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, whose district includes southern and eastern Kentucky, took in $129,600.
Supporters insist the proposals actually will improve public safety by cutting the number of trucks on the road while also helping the trucking industry address a shortage of drivers. But critics reject the safety claims as ridiculous, saying the proposals would enrich the trucking industry, not protect the public.
Truck safety advocates – many of whom have lost loved ones in big rig crashes – are dismayed over what they describe as the industry’s efforts to use Congress to achieve dangerous policy changes.
“There’s no logical reason why this would make our streets safer,” said Laurie Higginbotham of Memphis, Tenn. She said her 33-year-old son, Michael, was killed when his Jeep Cherokee plowed into a tractor-trailer making an illegal U-turn on a dark stretch of road in November 2014.
One of Higginbotham’s senators, Republican Lamar Alexander, has taken more than $112,000 from trucking interests since the beginning of 2009. Twice this year, he’s voted for bills that include provisions loosening rules on big rigs.
Higginbotham said she tried asking the Tennessee senator’s staff how he thought these changes would help the public, but didn’t get very far. “They didn’t have an answer, other than ‘Well, maybe we’ll have less trucks’” on the road, she said. Alexander didn’t respond to requests for comment.
One of the proposals he voted for – a measure considered particularly dangerous by safety advocates — would allow trucks nationwide to haul two 33-foot trailers, up from a current limit of 28 feet. That’s the equivalent of an eight-story building turned on its side and rumbling down the highway.
Other changes sought by the industry would:
- Raise the top weight of big rigs, including cargo, from 80,000 to 91,000 pounds.
- Give states the ability to lower the minimum age of 21 for interstate truck drivers, putting drivers as young as 18 behind the wheel.
- Effectively eliminate a requirement that truckers who work long weeks spend two consecutive nights resting before heading back on the road.
- Halt efforts to revise 30-year-old minimum requirements for insurance for big rigs.
- Remove safety ratings of trucking firms from the Internet, where they are now available for public inspection.
It’s unclear if all, or any, of the proposals will be approved, but several have passed out of the House or Senate as parts of larger appropriations or authorization bills.
What is clear is that the measures have gained traction after concentrated campaign giving by the trucking industry. Since the beginning of 2009, trucking interests — including Federal Express, UPS and the American Trucking Associations — have spent more than $19.6 million on campaign contributions to members of Congress, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
More than 70 percent of that money went to Republicans.
UPS, with its worldwide airport hub in Louisville, is one of the largest employers in Kentucky. It contributed more than $6.7 million to Congress over the last six years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Trucking interests also spent more than $181 million on lobbying over that period, with FedEx alone accounting for $98 million. UPS spent slightly more than $41.6 million.
Said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety: “We have special trucking interests pushing legislation that will result in overweight, oversized trucks being driven by overworked, underage truck drivers that are inadequately insured. All this with the backdrop of truck crash deaths and injuries climbing significantly and steadily.”
The trucking industry is divided over some of the proposals. For example, Federal Express and UPS want twin 33-foot trailers to be approved, but small, independent operators oppose the measure because it would require them to purchase new equipment. The rail industry, a competitor of the trucking industry, also opposes some of the proposals.
“We believe that if the [proposals] come to pass that they will improve, not degrade, safety,” said Sean McNally, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, which formally supports many, but not all, of the proposals before Congress. “Our member carriers are strong on safety,” he said.
Longer trucks, less rest?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the branch of the Transportation Department that regulates truck safety, declined to comment on the proposals before Congress. The trucking industry claims the proposals have been vetted, pointing largely to studies funded by the industry itself.
Critics, however, say the proposals have not been subjected to review by impartial experts. They say steamrolling looser restrictions through Congress, with heavy lobbying and contributions, is not the way to regulate public safety. More than one safety advocate compares the struggle to “David versus Goliath.”
“It would be almost easy to give up,” said Kim Telep of Harrisburg, Penn. She said she became a safety advocate after her husband, Brad, was struck and killed by a big rig on the New Jersey turnpike in 2012. Telep says she’s tried lobbying Congress for tougher truck safety laws, but got a chilly response. “Sometimes they sit there with this blank stare on their face. And I’m like, ‘Have you no empathy?’ ” she said.
Telep’s state, Pennsylvania, is home to Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over road safety. Shuster has taken more than $335,000 from trucking interests since the beginning of 2009.
In June, he voted for a massive transportation, housing and urban development appropriations bill that includes several of the trucking industry’s proposals. That transportation appropriations bill contains the proposals to allow longer trucks, eliminate the two-night rest period and scuttle a study that could lead to higher big rig insurance rates. Through an aide, Shuster declined to comment.
Thirty-nine states prohibit trucks from hauling double 33-foot trailers. The legislation would preempt those state bans on double 33s, permitting trucks of that length to travel across the country.
“It would eliminate the number of truck trips by about 6.6 million and eliminate miles traveled by 1.3 billion,” said McNally of the American Trucking Associations. “And trips not taken, miles not traveled, means crashes not had,” he added. He put the number of truck crashes likely to be eliminated at 900 a year. McNally’s figures came from research by the Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking, an organization of nine major trucking firms, including FedEx and UPS, pushing authorization of double 33s nationwide.
Critics say authorizing bigger or heavier trucks has never resulted in fewer trucks on the road and there’s no reason to believe that will happen now, especially with the popularity of direct shipping through services like Amazon.
The same House transportation appropriations bill also would effectively kill a requirement that truckers take two consecutive nights to rest after long work weeks. Federal law requires that a trucker who works 60 hours in seven days, or 70 hours in eight days, rest for a minimum of 34 consecutive hours before going back to work.
Congress in 2014 already temporarily suspended a provision in the rest requirement that assured drivers of getting time off two nights in a row. The appropriations bill would require a study validating the need for the two nights of rest rule before it could be restored. Critics say the requirements for the study are tougher than before and could be impossible to achieve.
Truck safety advocates say the net effect of removing the two-night rest period is to lengthen a trucker’s maximum weekly work from 70 hours to 82, interfering with drivers’ ability to get a quality sleep. Industry supporters say it’s virtually impossible for drivers to work 82 hours under these rules.
The measure approved by Congress that suspended the two-night rest period was introduced in 2014 by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The senator, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, also voted for a version of the appropriations bill that would impose toughened requirements before the suspension can be lifted.
Collins, who has accepted more than $70,000 from the trucking industry since the beginning of 2009, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“We’re very dismayed by her. She’s been on trucking’s side for a while,” said Daphne Izer of Lisbon, Maine. In 1993, Izer said her son, who was a senior in high school, and three of his friends were killed when a trucker who had fallen asleep at the wheel smashed into the car they were in.
Another appropriations provision could lead to a cutoff in funding for federal efforts to increase minimum insurance requirements for big rigs.
Since 1985, large trucks have been required to carry a minimum of $750,000 in liability insurance. Safety advocates say it is no longer high enough. However, Scott Grenerth, director of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the costs associated with most truck crashes are actually less than $750,000 while most insurance companies already require trucks to carry liability insurance of $1 million. As a result, the association argues, there is no need to raise the minimum.
Tucked into a separate transportation authorization bill, already approved by the Senate, is the pilot program to lower the minimum age of interstate truckers. Current federal rules prohibit truckers under the age of 21 from driving big rigs across state lines. However, 49 states allow truck drivers as young as 18 to operate big rigs within their state borders, even though research shows that young truck drivers have more fatal crashes than more experienced drivers.
Republican U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska has proposed a six-year pilot program that would allow states that border each other to form voluntary compacts permitting truckers as young as 18 to drive from one state to the other. Fischer, who has taken more than $96,000 from trucking interests since the beginning of 2011, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The trucking industry says this proposal is critical because it is facing a shortage of drivers, and many young people who might want to become professional drivers can’t wait until age 21 to start their careers. Safety advocates, however, say the proposal is courting danger.
“My son at 18, I don’t think he would have been mature enough to drive a truck,” said Dorothy Wert of Montrose, Penn. “It’s not as easy as people think driving those big trucks,” Wert said.
Wert says her husband, David, was a truck driver for 35 years. Early one morning in May 2011, she explained, her husband was driving down a dark highway. Up ahead, an inexperienced truck driver had broken down, leaving his truck in the middle of the road, with no warning signals or flares. Dorothy Wert said her husband, driving 65 miles per hour, didn’t see the other truck until the last moment. He swerved, but hit his gas tank on the other truck, igniting his rig on fire.
When he was pulled from the wreckage, David Wert had lost his feet and his skin was severely burned from the neck down. He later died.
‘I feel betrayed’
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri voted for the two major bills containing trucking provisions to authorize longer trucks, eliminate the two-night rest period, stop the insurance study and permit younger drivers.
Since the beginning of 2009, he has accepted more than $229,000 in campaign contributions from the trucking industry. But he also took an interest in the story of Lisa Shrum, a Fayette, Mo., resident who says she lost her mother and stepfather in a crash involving a FedEx truck in 2006.
Shrum says she visited the Capitol twice this summer and on both occasions had brief conversations with Blunt about the accident and her opposition to the proposals pushed by trucking firms. During the second conversation, she says, the senator asked her to stop by his office to discuss the matter further. Shortly thereafter, on that very same day, she says Blunt voted for one of the bills containing trucking provisions.
“I feel betrayed,” Shrum says she told a Blunt aide when she went to his office later. “It makes me wonder, if I had $500,000 to throw at him what would he do?”
Blunt did not respond to requests for comment.
Congress has yet to act on other trucking bills. In March, Republican Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania introduced a bill to remove truck safety ratings from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website. In September, Republican Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin introduced a bill to increase the maximum allowable weight of trucks from 80,000 to 91,000 pounds, provided the heavier trucks have a sixth axle and that states also authorize their use.
Since the beginning of 2009, Barletta and Ribble have accepted campaign donations from the trucking industry totaling more than $52,000 and $122,000, respectively.
Barletta said in a statement that he introduced his bill because “the safety scores are flawed.” His position was backed up at least partly by the Government Accountability Office. The scores are calculated using data collected from roadside inspections and crash investigations, but the GAO discovered that most carriers’ vehicles are inspected infrequently, yielding too little information to produce reliable scores. The scores are available at https://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/sms/.
Truck safety advocates, however, say if the scores need to be fixed, they should be fixed while they’re still online. They say they’re afraid if the scores are taken down, it will be impossible to put new ones up later.
Ribble, meanwhile, said in a statement that he introduced his bill to raise allowable weights for loaded trucks to 91,000 pounds because trucks have been forced “to leave dairy farms and paper mills in my district only partially full” to avoid exceeding current weight limits. He said his bill “would allow us to have fewer total trucks vying for space on crowded roads.”
John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, which includes 200 shippers and other associations promoting Ribble’s bill, said the legislation will improve safety because the heavier trucks will have an extra axle and additional brakes.
In mid-October, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a $325 billion highway bill that includes proposals to take the safety scores off the Internet and permit truck drivers as young as 19½ years old to drive between states.
‘A sad state of affairs’
Officials from several states have urged Congress to reject these proposals.
In June, the Mississippi Transportation Commission passed a resolution opposing the push to preempt the state’s ban on double 33s, to extend truckers’ work weeks to 82 hours and to block higher insurance minimums for big rigs. Even so, four Republican Congressmen from Mississippi – Reps. Trent Kelly, Gregg Harper and Steven Palazzo, and Sen. Thad Cochran – voted for bills including those provisions. (Cochran originally voted against the amendment to authorize double 33s, but later voted in favor of the bill itself when it included that provision.)
Cochran received more than $76,000 from the trucking industry since the beginning of 2009 while Palazzo got $10,000 and Harper, $8,000. Kelly, elected in June, has not received any money from the industry, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. Harper, through a spokesman, declined to comment, while Palazzo and Kelly didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Cochran aide said the appropriations bill included other elements “of interest to Mississippi and the nation” besides double 33s.
Also in June, two state senators in Pennsylvania wrote to all 20 members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to oppose an increase in federal limits on truck size and weight. Nine Pennsylvania representatives voted for an appropriations bill that authorized double 33s and nine voted against, while the state’s two senators have not yet had a chance to vote on the proposal.
In Illinois, state senators approved a resolution rejecting an increase in truck size and weight. But their Republican U.S. senator, Mark Kirk, cast a committee vote for an appropriations bill including a provision for double 33s. Kirk has taken more than $38,000 from the trucking industry since the beginning of 2009. Kirk didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Safety advocates say they’re afraid their message will be ignored. Said Jane Mathis of St. Augustine, Fla., the newly elected vice president of the Truck Safety Coalition: “It’s not looking good for safety people. I think most of this stuff is going to pass.”
Mathis said her 23-year-old son and his new wife were killed in a truck crash on their way home from their honeymoon in 2004. Mathis said the newlyweds were stopped in traffic on the freeway in Florida when a trucker fell asleep at the wheel and rear-ended their car, which became pinned under the truck and exploded.
Mathis, a determined advocate for stronger safety standards, said that in the days after the crash, her home was filled with flowers from both her son’s wedding and funeral. She cries when she remembers visiting her son’s newly purchased home after the crash and finding her daughter-in-law’s wedding dress still laid out on the bed.
“We just have our stories and our facts, but we don’t have any money,” she says. “It’s a sad state of affairs.”
This story was reported by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues.