Power of the Pen

A few days ago I sat down and read a series of stories about trucking written by Judy L. Thomas. The Kansas City Star reporter is a former trucker who traded in her log book for a reporter’s notebook after six years on the road.

The newspaper rented Thomas a truck and put her back on the road for 6,000 miles to research the story.

The diary part of the series made an attempt to capture and explain the daily life of the average trucker. While it was long on colorful quotes and definitions of common trucking terms, I was disappointed that it fell short in other areas. There was too much space dedicated to CB trash talk, prostitutes and drugs. Most readers probably got the sense that all drivers are mavericks without steady home lives.

To be fair, the diary did reflect a few positive aspects of trucking life; however, it lacked a proper balance between the good and the bad. I even got a couple of e-mails from drivers who were upset at the way truckers were stereotyped in the series.

But the main focus of the series, which was titled “Dead Tired,” was not on lifestyle; instead it revolved around the highly controversial topic of driver fatigue.

It pointed accusing fingers at trucking companies, shippers and receivers as the main culprits, at trucking industry associations for failing to recognize the seriousness of the issue, and at federal regulators for failing to crack down on the problem.

Several drivers were quoted about how they often drove well beyond legal hours of service, and some truckers bragged about how they cheated on their log books to survive. There were no quotes from drivers who ran legally.

The series was filled with stories and statistics concerning fatigue-related deaths. The articles also pointed out how opposing safety and industry groups interpret various studies concerning fatigue-related accidents involving large trucks. No one disputes that driver fatigue is an industry reality, but how deep the problem runs and what solutions are appropriate are hotly debated questions even among drivers themselves.

Early in January, I flipped on the local news to see that a truck driver pulling a tanker was killed in Birmingham, Ala., when he struck an interstate overpass. The accident received a lot of news coverage not because another trucker was killed, but because of the extensive damage done to one of the city’s main traffic arteries.

Published eyewitness reports blame an 18-year-old who cut in front of the trucker while attempting to exit the interstate. Eyewitnesses also said the truck’s driver, 32-year-old Tim Dison, took evasive actions that probably saved the lives of others on the roadway.

Driver fatigue didn’t play a role in the wreck. Still, the husband and father of two is among the first of hundreds of truck drivers who will die on America’s highways this year. Some fatal accidents will no doubt be the result of driver fatigue. Other factors will include driver error, equipment failure and even health problems.

While I appreciate the effort of the mainstream media to address industry problems, the overall perception of the trucking profession suffers because the public often can’t get past the stereotypical mass media portrait of truckers. They are too often cast as dangerous, lawless slobs who bear down on the general motoring public in menacing machines.

Sure, there are a certain number of drivers who do little to disprove that image. Of course the industry has major problems, and truckers will be the first to tell you changes are needed.

There’s an old saying that even bad press is good press. To an extent that may be true, but the mainstream media could do a great deal more to educate the public about truckers by remembering that trucking is a large and diverse profession. The same is true of its problems.

Truckers are not faceless monsters hidden behind the grilles of their trucks. They are not statistics. They are humans who do a difficult job under difficult circumstances in an effort to make ends meet and provide for their families. Many do heroic deeds, and sadly too many die trying to save the lives of others.

You can’t paint the whole picture in one stroke of the pen.

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