'Killer Truck' Image Needs to Die

IT WAS THE DAY AFTER Congress released the findings of the Cox Report. Rumors had been rampant that the Chinese had stolen America's most sophisticated nuclear secrets and missile guidance technology. American cities, the report was expected to say, are now within reach of Chinese missiles armed with state-of-the-art multiple nuclear warheads. So during the drive into the office that morning, we fully expected the lead story on radio news to be about this new threat to our national safety. At precisely 7 am, the ABC News theme played, and the announcer began speaking in a very concerned tone. He urged the audience to imagine looking into the rearview mirror as they drove and seeing nothing but a– It occurred to us that this was a weird way to visualize the start of a nuclear holocaust. –big truck riding your back bumper. Sure enough, ABC News chose that particular morning to run another hackneyed "Killer Trucks" story. Only after another round of "truck bashing" did the newscast move on to the second story of the day-the findings of the Cox Report. The implication: trucks are a greater threat to the American public than nuclear missiles. Most of us who read Trailer/Body Builders do not share that view. Yes, our perspective is different from the general motoring public, because our companies are responsible for building the commercial vehicles that are driven on America's streets and highways. But we as individuals don't drive a Mack truck to work and back. Our spouses don't run carpools in a Western Star, and we know of no one in this industry who is planning to buy the new International Harvester severe service series chassis to take the kids to soccer practice. The point is that even the men and women in this industry must share the road with the trucks and trailers they manufacture. They and their loved ones ride in the same light-duty cars and trucks as everyone else. No one has a vested interest in building "killer trucks." In today's society, those who manufacture and sell trucks and trailers have more incentive than anyone to engineer and produce the safest products possible. They share the same road (and physical risks) as the American public in general, plus the fiscal risk that comes when a jury in a product liability suit considers a truck or trailer to be unsafe. Manufacturers face jury verdicts that can financially cripple or mortally wound a company if jurors conclude that the trailer or truck was poorly designed or manufactured. Cutting corners on safety-building killer trucks-just isn't worth it. Perhaps that is why the safety record of the nation's trucking industry is good and getting better. Consider some of these statistics that Glen Darbyshire reported in his presentation at this year's Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association Convention in San Antonio. o In the 10 years between 1987 and 1997, the fatality rate for truck accidents plunged 31%. o During this same period, the overall mileage driven by the trucking industry increased 41%. o The rate of fatal crashes continues to fall to an all-time low. By 1997, the rate was less than 2.5 fatalities for every 100 million miles driven. How can we explain such a marked reduction in deaths caused by truck accidents? Maybe it's the trucks. Perhaps it's the motoring public. But have you noticed a 31% improvement in the driving skills of those with whom you share the road? We are convinced that the trucks of today, particularly with the improvements in antilock braking, advances in electronics, and better conspicuity, are safer than ever. Yet that's not the image projected by the major news outlets. All of us pay the price for unsafe highways. Most of us know of someone who has lost his life in a motor vehicle accident, and we would all benefit physically, emotionally, and financially from accident-free highways. But the people who produce trucks and trailers have an additional cost burden all their own that they must bear whenever somebody perpetuates the "killer truck" cliche. In his presentation reported on Page 69 of this issue, Darbyshire cites figures compiled by Jury Verdicts Research, a national enterprise that tracks jury verdicts across the United States. According to the research, a plaintiff in a lawsuit involving a tractor-trailer is 44% more likely to have a verdict rendered in his favor than in a case involving two passenger cars. Monetary damages awarded by a jury are likely to be 17% higher for the same injuries and medical expenses. The killer truck stories have been easy ways for the media to grab the attention of their audience. But they are cliches that need to die. Perhaps some of our news media can persuade the Chinese to loan them some of that guidance technology, because coverage of truck news tends to stray way off the mark.

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