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Why Some Truckers Push Too Hard – Renato Velasquez’ Story

— May 2, 2016

In part three of this five-part series on the trucking industry’s attempts to roll back safety regulations, we’ll look at it from the viewpoint of one of the other victims. This time, the victim is a truck driver and we’ll find out why some truckers push too hard – Renato Velasquez’ story.

In part three of this five-part series on the trucking industry’s attempts to roll back safety regulations, we’ll look at it from the viewpoint of one of the other victims. This time, the victim is a truck driver and we’ll find out why some truckers push too hard – Renato Velasquez’ story.

One of my uncles was a trucker. Not the long-haul drivers on which this series has focused; he drove a gravel truck. Nevertheless, some of the same issues affecting long-haulers affected him and others like him. The proliferation of smaller companies when the industry was deregulated by President Carter and Congress in 1980, for instance, made it easy for new, smaller firms to appear almost overnight.

That’s great! I’m all for entrepreneurial spirit! However, a lot (not all!) of these smaller companies cut some corners in order to be able to compete with the “big dogs.” I remember hearing stories from my uncle involving requests from his boss to ignore certain restrictions and rules just to “get the job done.” Most times, my uncle told the boss, “No,” though other times, due to the economy, he was left with little choice but to comply or lose his job.

Some may say, “So what! Safety first!” I’m one of them, but I also understand the other side of the coin. I saw my uncle (now deceased) struggle to make ends meet. Just because the demand for “more, better, faster” rose dramatically, that did not mean wages rose, too. In fact, since deregulation and the disappearance of many unions, average pay for truckers took a 15% nose dive. That’s a significant wage cut.

Add to that the sometimes arbitrary and capricious rules set by the less-than-reputable firms and you have a recipe for disaster. Whether the drivers are independent (owning their own rigs) or driving company trucks, they must “toe the line” when the boss makes a decision. That, or in more than one instance in my uncle’s case, find a new job.

We’ll leave stories of my uncle behind for now, as this is Renato Velasquez’ story. And his story differs from my uncle’s in that Velasquez was a long-hauler with a different set of issues than those faced by my uncle.

Long-haul drivers often face ridiculously unpredictable hours, traffic, travelling along for long periods of time, poor diet (which has been shown to negatively impact drivers’ health – in some cases, even contributing to sleep apnea) and, of course, the customer-centered contract clauses that require strict pick-up and drop-off times, regardless of weather, etc.

As one commenter on part two pointed out: there is a “lack of truck parking that affects most of the country.” As far back as 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was aware that there weren’t enough places for long-haul drivers to safely park if they were becoming too tired to drive.

Take all of that and add it to threats from your boss that you’ll lose your job if you’re not on time and you get a pretty clear picture of why some drivers push too hard. In a perfect world, there would be no such issues. In an almost perfect world, it would be a no-brainer to tell the boss, as did Johnny Paycheck, to “take this job and shove it,” if asked to risk one’s life and those of others for a profit.

Image courtesy:
Image courtesy:

We don’t live in a perfect or almost perfect world, though. And, neither did Renato Velasquez.

Driving a big rig, according to his daughter Yesenia, was his dream. He finally managed to make it come true, working for one company and learning the federal safety rules there before taking a job with DND International in 2011. DND is the company for which Velasquez worked on the fateful night of his horrific accident.

As companies go, I think it’s safe to say that DND wasn’t among the best operated. Log books and other records were routinely dropped off at a special box outside the boss’ home, a boss Velasquez hardly ever saw. According to the NTSB, there was little enforcement of safety rules and DND’s safety record was awful.

Despite the focus on hours worked, that is not how independent truckers like Velasquez are paid. They are paid by load hauled and earning a living wage requires getting good assignments. This, in turn, often means being on the dispatcher’s good side; drivers who aren’t favored, often get less decent assignments.

Long trips, as well as those that bring the driver back home with an empty trailer, often referred to as hauling “flying canaries” or “dispatcher brains,” can actually cost drivers money.

One driver for DND, Stanford Dean, told investigators from the NTSB that his dispatch orders weren’t even U.S.-based. He received his orders from a dispatcher located in Macedonia. When asked by the NTSB about his logbook discrepancies, he replied, “Do you know how difficult it is to make money? I’m a safe guy, but there’s issues sometimes. There’s so many obstacles. If anybody tells you they roll 100 percent by the book, they’re lying to you.”

Food must be put on the table; rent/mortgages & utilities must be paid and so on. Yes, there is a responsibility to be safe, to not claim the lives of innocent drivers because you’re too tired to do your job. Rather than focus on making the industry safer for everyone though, industry organizations are lobbying Congress to loosen safety regulations, thus giving companies even more power over their drivers’ lives and livelihoods.

The night of Velasquez’ last trip, he’d just finished hauling power cables from Illinois to Nebraska, roughly 450 miles, for $1,600.00. It was arranged for him that he would stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on the return trip to pick up the steel coils mentioned in part one of this series. These, he would haul just over 200 miles on the way home for another $550.00. Take out fuel, tolls and DND’s 20% cut and this long-haul would net Velasquez about $1,000.00.

Velasquez’ logbook showed he was in perfect compliance with safety rules. Sadly, very little of the record for that trip was factual. The logbook stated that Velasquez began the trip leaving Hanover Park at 11:45AM on Sunday, January 26, headed to Elkhorn, Nebraska with the power cables. His logbook also reported that he took a 45-minute rest break at Des Moines, Iowa around 5:30PM. This, if true, meant that he was under the 11-hour limit and the 14 on-duty hours allowed per day.

However, investigators discovered, via Velasquez’ toll records and cell phone, that he actually didn’t leave Hanover Park until almost six hours after the time recorded in his logbook. They also showed he drove much longer than the log claimed, with no rest break.

Perhaps the longest break he had in 37 hours was on I-88, due to a two-truck crash at 9:43PM caused by the whiteout weather conditions. The highway was closed for roughly four hours. According to the NTSB’s assessment of his engine records, the longest idle time recorded that night was actually less than three hours.

Why couldn’t/didn’t he stop for a longer rest break? The contract for the cables had a strict drop-off requirement of 8:30AM. Even pushing it, Velasquez arrived at the drop site at 8:45AM and left for Cedar Rapids at 9:20AM. The window for picking up the steel coils started at 4PM and records show he left at 5:15PM. That left him over 200 miles and four hours to go before getting home.

The rest is tragic history. At 9:20PM, he fell asleep at the wheel and caused the accident described in part one of this series. For want of a less rigid contract, a more understanding boss and a safe place to pull over to sleep, Renato Velasquez may not have gone to prison, one man may not have died and Trooper Balder may not have almost burned to death.

The real questions here are why do we need less safety regulation? Why not better management of trucking companies? Why not more safe places for truckers to sleep?

Tell me this: would the world have ended if those power cables were delivered in the afternoon? No. Maybe a project would have been inconvenienced. Big deal. I’ve been a project manager; slips in schedule are not usually fatal. Pushing people past all reasonable human limits can be, as we’ve seen.

In part four, we’ll take a look at another way Congress and certain lobbyists are eroding safety, both for truckers and other drivers: bigger, longer and heavier vehicles, known by some truckers as “wiggle wagons” and “widow makers.”


Trucks Are Getting More Dangerous And Drivers Are Falling Asleep At The Wheel. Thank Congress.

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