When big players run out of bounds

Aug. 1, 2002
DENNIS RODMAN frequently made the highlight reels during his career in the National Basketball Association. He also made his share of reels. Arguably

DENNIS RODMAN frequently made the highlight reels during his career in the National Basketball Association. He also made his share of “lowlight” reels.

Arguably the lowest of Rodman's antics (at least in the basketball arena) occurred when “The Worm” kicked a courtside photographer during a basketball game.

In an effort to run down a loose basketball, Rodman ran out of bounds and into the cameraman. The photographer, seated on the floor beneath the basket, had done nothing to provoke the wrath of “The Worm.” Rodman kicked the photographer simply because the Worm was mad and the cameraman was there.

Bystanders can get injured when the action moves out of bounds. A power hitter in baseball hits a screaming foul ball into the stands. A fullback scatters the crowd on the sidelines. A basketball player chases a loose ball (and lets off a little steam).

Sounds a lot like what is happening to the truck and trailer industries. Some big guys have run out of bounds, and we are dealing with the consequences.

For example, a couple of big companies — Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone — gained national exposure (and regulatory action) over allegations of defective products and subsequent cover-ups. Part of the fallout from this controversy is the TREAD Act, and truck and trailer manufacturers are beginning to feel the impact.

In July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published its final rule on the TREAD Act. What began with tread separations in light truck tires has resulted in legislation involving an array of manufacturers — including those building trailers.

At sporting events, some places are safe from foul balls or out-of-bounds plays. But that's not the case with trailer manufacturers and the TREAD Act. The most rigorous requirements of the law will affect any manufacturer producing 500 or more trailers per year, but portions of the TREAD Act could affect every trailer manufacturer in the industry. For a report on the requirements and effects of the TREAD Act, see Rick Weber's story on Page 22.

Has there been a rash of truck crashes to make this legislation necessary for commercial trucks and trailers? Not according to NHTSA's most recent report on motor vehicle fatalities and injuries. In an announcement issued August 7, the same agency that wrote truck and trailer manufacturers into the TREAD Act also reported a decrease in the number of fatalities involving large trucks. The 4% decline in truck-related fatalities in 2001 occurred at the same time that the total number of people killed in highway crashes increased.

Other items from NHTSA's “Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality and Injury Estimates for 2001” included:

  • Alcohol caused more that three times the number of motor vehicle fatalities than trucks did last year.

  • Unlike truck and trailer fatalities, motorcycle deaths increased for the fourth straight year. Last year's total (3,181) is not that much less than the number who lost their lives in truck-related accidents (5,082).

  • Pedestrian fatalities increased. NHTSA estimates that 4,882 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle accidents.

The biggest impact that the TREAD Act poses is not the cost of record keeping, but rather the potential for major judgments in product liability cases. And the amount of data that NHTSA will collect under the TREAD Act requirements will clearly simplify the job of a plaintiff's attorney.

In spite of an improving safety record, trucks and trailers are still easy targets in the courtroom. Even though the combination of motorcycle and pedestrian deaths last year exceeded truck-related fatalities by almost 60%, it's the trucks that remain the killers in the minds of the media and the motoring public.

Covering up defective tires is not the only instance of big players running out of bounds. Far more flagrant has been the series of accounting scandals that have rocked our financial markets. According to a story in the August 12 edition of The Wall Street Journal, recent scandals involving Enron, WorldCom, and other high-profile corporations will make it even more difficult to find an impartial jury when these accident cases come to trial.

In July, Ford Motor Company was defending itself in a suit involving a fatal accident in which the vehicle rolled over (similar to the cases that triggered the TREAD Act). In the process of screening the panel, Ford attorneys discovered that more than half of the 50 potential jurors agreed with the statement, “Corporate executives will lie to increase their profits.” Ford settled the case out of court under a secrecy agreement.

“Right now is a very dangerous time,” Ford's lawyer told The Wall Street Journal. “You start out with some substantial number of people in the jury pool who are going to give less credence to testimony of corporate executives just because they're corporate executives.”

Sometimes you get kicked just for being there. That's one more reason to continue to design and produce the safest products possible.

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.