American Highways are about to Become More Dangerous
By Alan Burkhart on (Apr 13, 07)

In spite of the fact of highway safety being the prominent issue that it is, our Boy Wonder in the White House feels that allowing thousands of potentially dangerous Mexican trucks to stream across our border will somehow benefit America.

Presently, Mexican trucks are limited to a “Border Zone” extending 20 miles into the United States. Under Bush’s proposed pilot program, one hundred Mexican trucking companies would be allowed to roll freely across our border, deliver in the U.S. and pick up a return load to Mexico.

To be fair, I pick up and deliver in the border town of Laredo, TX quite often. I’ve seen a broad spectrum of Mexican trucks ranging from outright junk to heavily-customized rigs that’d make any American trucker green with envy. Unfortunately, in my experience the junk far outnumbers the well-maintained rigs I’ve seen coming out of Mexico. I’m not basing this assertion on hard numbers. I am basing it on my own observations, along with those of my co-workers, and almost 30 years experience in the industry.

Once the flood of Mexican trucks begins in earnest and the accidents clog our highways and emergency rooms, much will be made over this and Bush’s larger agenda (the North American Union). You’ll be hearing about various “D.O.T. safety violations” found in each and every Mexican truck involved in an accident on American soil. It occurs to me however, that the vast majority of Americans don’t know frijoles about the rules and regulations that effect trucking companies in the USA. For this reason, I’m providing this little “in a nutshell” explanation so you’ll know what the talking heads are talking about; and they will be talking. Be patient - even a comparatively brief explanation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s regulations will be a bit long.

The rules that govern my industry are divided into several groups: Hours of Service, Equipment and Safety, Cargo Securement, weight and length, and Medical.

Hours of Service

The Hours of Service regulations govern how many hours I can drive on any given day and in any given week. There aren’t any real limits on how many hours I can work. The limits are placed upon how many hours I can drive, and when I can drive.

First, you need to understand the “log sheet” I’m required to fill out each day. The prominent section of the log sheet is a 24-hour grid, divided into quarter-hour increments. Twelve noon sits at the center of the grid, with midnight last night on the left and midnight tonight on the right. The grid contains four lines: Off-Duty, Sleeper Berth, Driving and On Duty Not Driving. You can visit the link below to see an image of a typical log sheet with sample entries.

Log entries are made by drawing horizontal lines in the grid that match within 15 minutes of the actual time. For example, if I drive from 7:00 AM to 10:30 AM, a horizontal line in the “Driving” line between 7:00 AM and 10:30 AM would represent this activity. All 24 hours of each calendar day, including days I don’t work must be accounted for.

“On Duty Not Driving” covers loading and unloading, working on the truck, waiting to load, or performing any other work other than driving. “Off Duty” covers my time at home, stopping for a bite of lunch, or sitting here in a North Texas truck stop pecking on my laptop.

“Sleeper Berth” pertains to when I’m comfortably ensconced in the truck’s sleeper (a.k.a. “bunk”), watching another cheap Japanese monster movie when I probably should be sleeping. Is it just me, or does Godzilla really need to invest in a Thigh Master?

I am required to keep my log sheet current up to the last change of duty status. In other words, let’s say that in the above scenario, I stop at 10:30 AM, purchase fuel, then take a break for lunch. I’d log fifteen minutes “On Duty Not Driving” for fueling the truck, then show thirty minutes to an hour for a lunch break; however long it takes. Federal law requires that this activity be logged before I leave the truck stop, with a line drawn down from the Off Duty line to the Driving line to show that I’ve resumed driving. A comments area below the grid provides space to describe what I was doing.

I am allowed to drive up to 11 hours in a 14-hour period after a minimum 10-hour break. The break must include at least 2 hours off duty and no less than 8 hours in the sleeper. This is patently ridiculous, by the way. I don’t know a single soul who consistently sleeps eight hours every night. Five or six hours is the max for me unless I’m totally wiped. No one ever accused Uncle Sam of being sensible or practical, and the federal rules that apply to me are no exception. The long break does at least give me some extra time to do my laundry.

In addition to the 11 hour driving rule (11 hours is plenty, in my opinion), once I start my day by logging On Duty, my day ends fourteen hours later. It’s a ticking clock. If I start my day at 7:00 AM, then by law I must be going off duty no later than 9:00 PM that evening. I also believe that a 14-hour day is long enough for anyone. It’s rare for me to work that many hours. Ten or twelve is generally my limit.

Regarding total hours worked, I am not allowed to drive if I have seventy or more hours combined On Duty and Driving in the previous seven days. Think of it as a floating 8-day window. At the start of each day, I tally my total on-duty hours from the previous seven days. If this total is less than seventy, then I subtract this total from seventy. The result is the number of hours available. Even if I have 20 or 30 hours “available,” I still cannot drive beyond the 14-hour limit. I can work past 14 hours, but I cannot drive beyond 14 hours.

If I reach or exceed 70 hours, I must take sufficient time off to allow enough hours to drop off the back end of the 8-day period until the total hours drop below seventy before I can drive. Confused yet?

I have the option of taking 34 consecutive hours off-duty, which resets my hours with a fresh 70 available hours. This number is based upon a minimum 10-hour break plus an additional period of 24 hours.

Fines for violations of the Hours of Service regulations can run into the thousands of dollars and in flagrant cases lead to license suspension.

Cargo Securement

Chains, binders, straps, load locks and all other forms of cargo securement equipment are required to be in acceptable condition. Chains may not have any stretched links, and “cold shot” hammered links are expressly forbidden. Straps may not have any large tears, nor may they be overly worn. Rules determining the number of tie-downs on an open trailer (flat bed, step deck, etc) are based upon the length and weight of the load. Not one tidbit of freight on an open trailer may be unsecured.

With enclosed trailers like vans (which I pull), it is required that freight be loaded and secured in such a manner that it cannot move within the trailer. Sounds reasonable to me.

Weight and Length

There are numerous length and weight regulations - too many to list them all here. I’ll concentrate on the rules pertaining to the most common truck / trailer configuration, which is a 3-axle tractor and 2-axle trailer. An 18-wheeler, in other words.

Federal law requires that all states allow at least 34,000 pounds per tandem axle set (two axles, one immediately behind the other with dual wheels or equivalent), at least 20,000 pounds on a single axle with dual wheels and 12,000 pounds on the truck‘s steering axle. The federal minimum a state can allow for 5-axle gross weight is 80,000 pounds. Some states allow more, but no state may sets it’s maximum allowed weight to an amount below federal minimums. These rules apply to the “Designated Network” of roads constituting the Interstate System, which includes all interstate highways, most US routes and many state highways. States are free to set lower (or higher) limits for off-network roads.

There is a complicated bridge law system which requires that truck and trailer axles be a certain distance apart dependent upon the amount of gross weight. This is mind-numbingly complex and beyond the scope of this article.

There are also length restrictions that vary between the states. Generally speaking, I am allowed no more than forty-one feet from the trailer’s kingpin (the big steel pin that connects the trailer to the truck) and the center of the trailer’s rear axle. Most states set this limit at 41 feet. Some states allow more.

Driver’s Health and Drug Tests

Drivers must periodically undergo a physical exam and drug test. Random drug tests are also required to be conducted by each company, and roadside checkpoints also conduct random drug tests. Fail a physical or a drug test, and you’re headed home to find another line of work. That’s okay by me. Somehow, it just seems inappropriate for a crack addict to have a commercial driver’s license.

Equipment Safety

Every aspect of a truck and trailer is regulated to some degree. Tread depth and sidewall condition for the tires (all 18 of them), properly operating lights (all 30 of them), brakes, fire extinguisher, steering and suspension, oil leaks, air leaks (the brakes are air-operated) and even the gauges are all required to be in good working order. DOT checkpoints (the weigh stations you see along major highways) routinely inspect dozens of trucks each day at each location. Roaming inspection officers randomly pull over truckers who are not committing an obvious violation for roadside inspections. Keeping a fleet of trucks in proper (and legal) operating order requires a ton of expensive preventative maintenance, but it’s worthwhile. There is no room for shabby equipment on American or Canadian highways.

Unfortunately, there seems to be plenty of room for junk on Mexican highways. Bald tires, leaky air systems and abundant oil leaks are distressingly common in Mexican fleets. Cargo securement equipment also tends to be substandard, although to a lesser degree. There is a tremendous amount of wealth in Mexico, but that wealth is concentrated within a relatively small group of elites. For all practical purposes there is no middle class in Mexico. Mexican truckers by and large simply don’t have the funds to perform proper upkeep on their equipment. For their sake, I find this regrettable, but I’d find it even more regrettable if their problems become our problems.

Commercial vehicle enforcement agencies are already stretched too thin for comfort, and in spite of the overall good condition of the American and Canadian fleets there are still truckers who either cut corners intentionally or cannot afford proper maintenance. I’ll see at least one or two every week, sitting at a DOT (Dept of Transportation) check point, shut down and waiting for repairs. For every one that gets caught, there is another one who doesn’t.

Given the already maxed-out state of affairs with commercial vehicle safety agencies around the country, do we really want to open the gates to a nation known for the poor condition of its fleet? Our safety officers cannot possibly keep up with the increased amount of trucks on the road. The end result will be more accidents, more fatalities, and legal complications involving holding a Mexican company liable for unsafe conduct. Simply put - Bush’s pilot program is a nightmare in the making.

Other Considerations

We must also consider the ramifications of allowing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of low-wage Mexican drivers into the USA. These companies will cut freight rates to the bone, and while it’s easy to say, “Hey, maybe my groceries will get cheaper,” we must also think about the potential for many Americans to be put out of work. Mexican truckers work for a fraction of what American and Canadian truckers need to earn a living. Mexican freight rates are lower as well. An increase in unemployment (including me?) always has a negative effect on our economy.

Additionally, there is already a huge problem with Mexican truckers transporting drugs and illegal aliens across the border. Opening the border to Bush’s ill-advised scheme will exacerbate the problem. More drugs on our streets, more Americans out of work, more crimes committed by illegal aliens who simply vanish back into Mexico to avoid paying for their crimes.

American highways and American jobs are safer if Mexican trucks remain within the confines of the Border Zone. George W. Bush knows this. How unfortunate it is that the corporate giants who pull his strings are more concerned about their own bottom line than the safety of everyday Americans.

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By Alan Burkhart on Apr 13, 07
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