Some Dangerous Drivers are Following Unsafe Orders.

Michael GrossmanJanuary 26, 2018 5 minutes

There are times when we should weigh the morality of a decision against its profitability. Occasionally in the name of progress people in charge make decisions that, while not necessarily illegal, are certainly questionable. This kind of "me first" thinking is often most obvious when looking at certain businesses' expectations of their workers.

Trucking companies are a prime example of an industry that sometimes puts business ahead of employee welfare. Logistics and shipping are critical to the economy, but occasionally some firms cut corners to keep up with the country's insatiable demand for "stuff." Driven to deliver the most goods in the least time, they fudge a little bit on rule compliance. As we often learn, there's a serious human cost to ignoring rules designed for the safety of both employees and the public at large.

A recent truck accident in Pennsylvania is an unfortunate example of this idea.

East Wheatfield Township, PA: January 5, 2017

Pennsylvania state police reported that the crash happened at roughly 8:40 a.m. in East Wheatfield Township.

A Freightliner tri-axle truck hauling coal, driven by 32-year-old Joshua Swope, was eastbound on Route 56 near Shellbark Road when his truck entered the highway's westbound lanes.

After crossing the double yellow lines separating the opposing lanes of traffic, the semi-truck hit a Chevy Cavalier driven by 21-year-old Ryan Decker.

Decker died in the crash; police say Swope wasn't injured. He was not formally charged, but the investigation continues.

This Never Should Have Happened.

Based on the facts above there's a few likely theories about how Swope's Freightliner ended up going against traffic. Some might guess he was distracted; others might suspect him of using drugs or alcohol. Still others will blame the icy conditions so clear in the picture to the right, which was taken at the scene.

Unless and until a more comprehensive investigation is conducted, though, that's all speculation. Leaving aside why he might have crashed for a moment, let's turn the clock back a little and instead ask: Why was he on the road at all if weather conditions were that bad?

I might be a little biased because Texans don't comprehend "real" winter, but to me the road conditions in that picture look treacherous. To confirm that impression, I consulted with an employee who moved here from up North. He said even moderate winter precipitation in that part of Pennsylvania makes the roads almost impassable in a normal car. It stands to reason that a semi-truck hauling a loaded trailer would have an even harder time.

My staff-member also told me that northern states with that much ice and snow usually order "non-essential vehicles" off the roadways during dangerous weather. Essential vehicles are ones like emergency service vehicles, public works/utility vehicles, and snow/ice removal contractors. That means personal and commercial vehicles are strongly discouraged from being on the road, to the point of facing fines if they insist on driving anyway.

Those fines aren't usually necessary because people stop driving well before conditions get bad enough to trap or harm them, purely from self-preservation. However, truckers driving for an employer aren't always fully in control of their driving schedule, meaning they take risks to hit deadlines. Many trucking firms prioritize their delivery schedule first and view safety as a secondary concern, especially relative to "minor" hindrances like weather conditions. Anything short of an apocalypse is brushed off because the delivery clock is ticking.

Catching a Trucking Firm That Downplays Worker Safety

Trucking firms that are comfortable putting their drivers at risk won't willingly supply investigators with proof of their malfeasance. Generally the only way to compel one of these companies to hand over records of its decision to keep a trucker on a dangerous route is with subpoena power, which trucking accident victims don't usually have.

Subpoenaed records will sometimes reveal a company's history of unsafe practices, putting truckers on the road even when hazardous conditions or personal health problems should keep them from driving at all. The public has a right to know when firms like those put their employees and other motorists and pedestrians in harm's way. Some may feel that lawyers only subpoena businesses' records in an effort to "shake them down," but forcing them to open their files to the public has shown time and again that allegedly legitimate businesses actually engage in all kinds of appalling behavior.

One such instance made legal waves in the late 2000s and was rediscovered during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who at the time worked in Colorado's 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals where the case was heard.

Former employee Alphonse Maddin sued logistics firm TransAm Trucking for wrongful termination. TransAm fired Maddin for abandoning his truck's trailer en route after its brakes froze in subzero temperatures. While it may appear the company did the right thing--abandoned cargo is a serious offense for a logistics operator--the case details show that Maddin only left after he waited for help on the shoulder of a highway for three hours in those freezing temperatures. Despite his repeated calls to a dispatcher for assistance, none came during that time. He gradually lost feeling in his torso and feet and developed breathing difficulties, sitting impatiently in a truck cab with a broken heater.

To save himself from hypothermia Maddin eventually unhitched his truck and drove to a nearby gas station to warm up and get fuel, and that decision cost him his job. The termination, while technically not illegal, was criticized by many as entirely heartless given the imminent threat to Maddin's health had he stayed put.

It's painfully clear from TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board that TransAm valued their cargo more than they did their employee. Their decision to fire him for possibly saving his own life shines a light on a prevalent attitude in the trucking industry.

That's far from the only instance where trucking companies value the bottom line over the well-being of their employees. We've seen many cases where subpoenaed files have shown the firms' long-time knowledge of ongoing health problems, both physical and mental, that could put their drivers and others on the road at serious risk. Records show everything from expired CDLs to failed physical exams to known histories of active drug or alcohol abuse. It's far from every company that feels comfortable burying these shocking behaviors in its paperwork, but it happens often enough to be highly concerning.

Here's the Takeaway.

We go hard after truckers because they're supposed to behave like the certified professionals they are. As we see in the recent Pennsylvania crash, their screw-ups can do a lot of harm. Many of their mistakes are the same ones people make in passenger vehicles, but given the increased size of the trucks the potential for catastrophe is significantly greater.

Despite our interest in holding truck drivers accountable for the error of their ways, we recognize that not everything they do is strictly up to them. Sometimes they stay out on the road beyond the limits of their federally-permitted driving hours because they have been told their continued employment depends on it. That's also why they might doggedly keep driving in the dangerously icy conditions of a Northeastern winter: not from a pathological need to keep the rubber on the road, but because they fear the consequences of exercising abundant caution. If there's a way to keep rolling, truckers with their jobs on the line may very well try to do so.

The driver safety policies used by these unethical firms seem like a warped version of the famous unofficial US Postal Service motto: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night...should keep you replaceable meatheads from making your delivery on time." Truckers keep moving to keep their jobs, but in so doing they run the risk of losing a lot more.