Worst Trucker in the World: Thanks, FMCSA?

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First let me say: No one who is impaired by alcohol or illegal drugs (or even prescription meds or over-the-counter cough syrup) has any business operating a vehicle—truck, car, bike or boat. (And don’t get me started on texting and driving, or adjusting the rearview mirror to apply makeup, or holding the steering wheel with your knees while trying to eat a chili dog without making a mess.)

I say this to make it clear that I am in no way making excuses for the California-licensed truck driver the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently declared to be an imminent hazard to public safety and ordered not to operate any commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce. 

Indeed, his record includes a long series of positive drug tests and, just last month while driving a commercial vehicle even though FMCSA had disqualified him in June 2015, he ran his truck off the road. Then he failed to report for his employer-mandated post-crash drug and alcohol test.

My first thought was this case clearly qualifies for the ongoing Worst Trucker in the World (WTITW) sweepstakes.

For those unfamiliar, WTITW is a rip off of an old Keith Olbermann shtick. But rather than lampooning politicians or celebrities, I pass along misbehavior that’s so egregious, brazen and or just plain dumb that it makes headlines in the broader media. And those sorts of reports, while often completely mischaracterizing the trucking industry and the many, many truly professional drivers, do nonetheless make everyone look bad. In short, the Worst Trucker is a person who serves to educate and inspire by counter-example.

But in googling around, I found no coverage of this event or the FMCSA announcement outside of a few trucking media mentions. So that’s good—we can keep the incident in the family. But even so, there’s the obvious lesson: Don’t do drugs and drive truck.

However, there a several more subtle points I’d like to make. First, the occasional FMCSA announcement pertaining to individual drivers has always bothered me for several reasons: Why this guy? Are there others? But if there are indeed only a handful of drivers each year declared to be a hazard to safety, shouldn’t there more? Otherwise, isn’t picking on this truck driver kind of mean, coming from a federal agency? But that could just be me. (As an old newspaper editor, I know the police reports are widely read—but I always found their popularity creepy, especially those local weekly magazines that publish the latest jail mugshots.)

Or maybe FMCSA is just posting a select sample from a problem area in trucking that the safety watchdog is vigilantly addressing—self-promotion that’s somewhat understandable. For instance, in the latest batch of announcements, we learn FMCSA caught a drug testing service that was making up its results. Noteworthy.

But the problem in using the California driver as an example is trucking’s drug and alcohol violation rate has been at less than 1% for three straight years. In fact, the agency just lowered the random testing requirement rate from 50% to 25%. So if FMCSA is suggesting there’s a significant drug problem that needs looking after, the agency is off the mark. And carriers deserve credit for an excellent record of self-policing.

Most carriers, anyway. And I note that in this instance, even though the driver is named, the company that hired him—despite his history of drug use and FMCSA sanctions—is not. Maybe an investigation is underway, or a fine is in the works.

But suppose the company didn’t know the driver’s drug history through no fault of its own. Suppose the driver managed to get another job because the holes in state-to-state drug history records are big enough to drive a semi through. MAP-21, the old highway bill, required the creation of a central database for positive test results for CDL holders by Oct. 1, 2014. The current projected publication date is this June.

Simply, if FMCSA wants to help the industry do something about those very few truck drivers with drug problems, the agency should focus on publishing a good clearinghouse rule rather than press releases.

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