LANGLEY, B. C. –The British Columbia Trucking Association (BCTA) appears to be having a Howard Beale moment.
Beale was the fictional TV anchor from the movie Network, whose on-air breakdown and cry of “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” became famous after the movie debuted in 1976.
Now, it’s Paul Landry, president and CEO of the BCTA, who’s upset after an article in some CanWest newspapers hinted that the industry in his province is unsafe. The article’s tone came despite, Landry says, the study on which the article was reporting actually showing the opposite was true. And he isn’t taking it.
The June 11 article by Lori Culbert of the Vancouver Sun bore the headline Report on truck safety singles out B. C. truckers and was accompanied by a graphic photograph showing the aftermath of a multi-vehicle collision involving a loaded dump truck. The photo’s cutline told a damning tale: “Canada’s Worst Truck Drivers. B. C. Truckers the nation’s worst in multiple vehicle fatal collisions involving alcohol, illicit drugs, speed.”
Culbert was reporting on the June, 2009, Best Practices for Truck Safety report developed by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) with the support of WorkSafeBC, the B. C. Trucking Association, and the Trucking Safety Council of B. C. The overly graphic image, which also ran in the Victoria Times-Colonist, almost made it appear as if B. C.’s roads were death traps thanks to the speeding, alcohol or drug-impaired truck drivers there.
Landry doesn’t question the facts and statistics used in the story, but he does wonder about how they were used -and about the spin of the picture and caption.
“I don’t know what their intention was,” he says, “because the article itself was factual. My concern is that this rather disturbing headline is also inaccurate because, as the report actually shows, B. C. drivers are as good as or better than others in Canada. Truck drivers are responsible pros who do a much better job of operating their vehicles than other drivers.”
And while Landry admits there’s always room for improvement, “Even with the growth in the industry, our record is improving,” he says, pointing out that fewer injury claims are being made and “casualty collisions on a rate basis are declining. Heavy commercial trucks are involved in less than 4% of crashes in B. C., and the truck crash rate has been steadily declining for years.”
Landry cites RCMP crash data showing that trucking-related fatalities in the province went down by more than 40% over the last seven years and that truck drivers are less likely than other drivers to be impaired by drugs or alcohol.
“Random tests of truck drivers suggest the presence of drugs in less than 1% of drivers tested,” he says, “and coroners’ toxicology reports indicate that fatally injured truck drivers are 12 times less likely to be alcohol impaired than fatally-injured passenger vehicle drivers.”
Landry says the TIRF report actually shows that the area in which there’s the most room for improvement is “other drivers.” And to combat the impression that it’s the pros the public should fear, he’s taking to the media himself to get out that message.
His first salvo was aimed at the Vancouver Sun directly, via a letter to editor (which it printed) in which he complained about the one-sided and shrill headline and photo. “I am amazed the Sun would overlook the importance of an industry’s efforts to protect its workers…to focus on one statistic out of hundreds in the report, to create public fear,” the letter said, concluding with “to take one statistic out of context to slam an entire industry is opportunistic, simplistic and irresponsible.”
He also prepared an OpEd editorial of his own that the BCTA circulated to various media outlets. “We wanted a chance to emphasize the positive,” he says.
Which is exactly what he did. In his OpEd, Landry explained the broader challenge that everyone -regardless of the vehicle they’re driving -must learn how to share the road properly. “Since heavy trucks share their workplace with the travelling public, trucking companies and their drivers must ensure that they operate safely and responsibly,” he wrote. “But the trucking industry cannot do this without public understanding, support and cooperation. Reducing traffic injuries and fatalities requires all road users to learn to share the road safely.”
Truck drivers, Landry says, have demonstrated time and time again to be very safe and responsible and far more likely to be the victim in multi-vehicle crashes than other users of the road. “Even if truck drivers were no longer responsible for any multi-vehicle collisions, (collisions) would still happen because of the other drivers.”
Landry quotes the TIRF report as saying that the truck driver was responsible in only 19% of the fatal crashes between a truck and another vehicle, while the fault in 57% of the same crashes was “attributable to the non-truck driver.”
Landry also mentions an older University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study that looked at tens of thousands of crashes involving trucks and other vehicles.
“Head-on crashes took place in the truck’s lane eight times more often than in the passenger vehicle’s lane,” he quotes, “while passenger vehicles were six times more likely to sideswipe a truck than the reverse and passenger vehicles were five times more likely to rear-end a truck.”
Part of the perception problem tarring the totality of truckers as troublesome, Landry says, is the fact that safe companies have to compete with “companies that scrimp on maintenance, hire unqualified drivers and overload their trucks in order to offer cut-rate freight rates.” He’s calling on the industry to work with B. C.’s new Trucking Safety Council, the provincial government, law enforcement, ICBC (the Insurance Corporation of B. C.) and other stakeholders to “improve truck driver training and licensing standards, take unsafe trucks and trucking companies off the road, adopt speed limiters, reduce fatigue and recognize and reward safety excellence in the industry.”
While that could work to help improve the situation on the industry side of the equation, the BCTA boss would also like to see a major initiative to raise public awareness of the importance of sharing the road with trucks.
The emphasis, he says, should be on these points:
• On the highway, civilian drivers should leave 20-25 car lengths behind a truck so the truck driver’s view isn’t obscured and the driver following has time to react to what’s on the road;
• Civilians should remember that if they can’t see the driver’s face then the driver can’t see them;
• When passing a truck, drivers shouldn’t linger in the passing lane, and they should also make sure they can see the truck’s headlights in their rear view mirror before pulling back into the driving lane.
The last point is the one he hears about the most. “I think if truck drivers have one common complaint, it’s about drivers passing them and coming back into their lane immediately, then hitting the brakes,” Landry says.
While this particular outreach to the public would necessarily be a longer term strategy, Landry’s recent media outreach is meant to help counter immediately the impression left by the newspaper story that B. C. truckers are death on 18 wheels. Time will tell whether or not it will have the desired effect but for Landry, it’s all part of the job. “Our obligation is to deal with the public and correct problems,” he says, “Not get into a pissing match with the Vancouver Sun.”