Judy Thomas, a former trucker who is now a journalist, recently combined her two talents in an expose of one of the trucking industry’s biggest problems.
In December, Thomas, a projects reporter for The Kansas City Star, wrote “Dead Tired,” a series of articles centering on driver fatigue.
“I thought a project on the industry would be a good way to [combine my talents],” she said. “And the timing seemed perfect with the hours-of-service and NAFTA issues being debated.”
The Star rented a truck for Thomas, who drove 6,000 miles through 15 states. The first leg followed a route to the East Coast, and the second leg went west to Colorado and south to Laredo, Texas. On the second trip, Thomas hauled goods for the Heart to Heart International charity.
Thomas researched driver fatigue before her trips and while on the road. Her findings were sometimes disturbing, and point a finger at government regulators.
“The most important piece of information I discovered, I believe, is that fatigue is a significant cause of fatal truck crashes and that the government’s system that is designed to save lives is ineffective,” she said. “Federal inspections of trucking companies are so few that only three-fourths of the nation’s carriers have ever been visited, and the roadside inspection sites are frequently closed.”
Thomas said she has always loved to write and had attended college for a while before going on the road as a trucker. While driving, she kept a journal, and in the mid-1980s she entered and won Truckers News‘ Mark Twain essay contest. Thomas eventually left trucking to finish her degree at Kansas State University.
Craig Nienaber, the Star‘s projects editor, said Thomas’ past trucking experience added credibility to her piece.
“Many calls and e-mails thought the series was an important one,” he said. “Some disagreed with points that were made in the series, but many of those raised good points that are part of the debate, so we want to hear that reaction too.”
The information Thomas gained on the road is valuable to drivers, and she hopes there’ll be changes in the trucking industry.
“Our intent was to raise awareness about safety problems in the industry that hopefully could lead to positive changes,” she said. “It’s tragic that thousands of people die in truck-related crashes each year, and equally tragic that hundreds of the victims are truckers.”
Thomas plans to follow the issue of driver fatigue and hours-of service closely, and write future pieces on the subjects.
“Bringing attention to problems in trucking is important to me, not only because it’s a public safety issue, but because it affects lots of good people who I know and used to work with. It’s disturbing to see how hard these people work to make a living and how little they get paid in return.”
Those interested in reading the series can visit www.kcstar.com/projects/deadtired.