By John Hausladen
Minnesota Trucking Association
This story appears in the Feb. 18 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.
Look closely at the tractors traveling down the road today and see if you can spot the real-time digital readout of the unit’s Safety and Fitness Electronic Record System scores. They’re like the display on your bathroom scale, with numbers that glow bright red and fluctuate with every move you make, easy for the world to read and to judge.
Wait a minute — is this for real?
Not yet, but it might as well be, given that, literally within minutes of a recent high-profile crash in Minneapolis, a general assignment reporter from an ABC-TV affiliate had those numbers in her hand and wanted to talk to the tractor’s owners. Not hours after the crash, mind you, but minutes, and reporters from the other TV, radio and print news media were right behind her.
The rules of the public image game have changed dramatically with the advent of SAFER scores posted on the Internet by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Instant access to this very public data is tantamount to installing digital readouts on your truck cab.
That crash in Minneapolis should serve as a wake-up call for truckers in the digital age.
Near the end of the morning rush hour, a tanker truck loaded with diesel fuel rolled over while exiting Minnesota’s busiest interstate in the state’s largest city. As with the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi, this event immediately shut down a major traffic artery.
Meanwhile, 7,000 gallons of diesel fuel followed gravity down into a roadside drain, flowed under the heart of downtown Minneapolis and dumped directly into the Mississippi River.
We can be thankful no one was injured or killed in this incident. However, the operational and public relations damage had just begun. Traffic had to be rerouted, with major congestion ensuing, and businesses along the drainpipe were closed by the fire department as noxious fumes escaped from the drain’s air vents.
As the highly flammable liquid entered the waters just north of the I-35W bridge reconstruction site, work on the bridge was stopped for the better part of a day. That’s a crucial point, because the reconstruction work must take place 24/7 to finish the new bridge by its December 2008 contracted completion date. However, bridge-welding torches and diesel fuel are a potentially deadly mix.
As the road closure extended into the afternoon rush hour, the tanker-truck rollover became the lead story for every media outlet. Because the incident happened in a metropolitan area, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s traffic cameras caught the crash on tape.
At 6:30 p.m., on the day of the crash, I found myself sitting down for an interview with a reporter from KSTP-TV 5 that I was told would be a background interview about hazmat training for drivers. But to my surprise, the reporter placed before me printouts from the Web with detailed information about the carrier’s FMCSA safety and fitness ratings.
Her first question: “These are pretty bad scores, right?”
Understanding SAFER scores is tough enough for professional safety directors, but try explaining them to a reporter who is working on deadline and has no background in trucking.
You simply cannot win. Talking about algorithms or flawed data won’t cover the simple fact that the SAFER scores are out there for everyone to see.
The lesson from this incident is simple: Be prepared to publicly talk about your company’s SAFER scores. We must stop treating these technical numbers as “insider information” that only those in the trucking industry care about or understand. Every trucking company in the United States — and every association that represents them — must be thoroughly prepared to discuss these scores in simple, clear terms.
Here are four basic steps you can use to prepare yourself before your company faces the media:
• Go to www.SAFERsys.org and download your current scores.
• Study your scores until you truly understand them. The SAFER Web site offers very detailed information explaining how the scores are calculated. Remember, while you may view a “paper” violation as minor, in the untrained eyes of a reporter, they carry equal weight.
• Create a one-page document that explains in very simple terms what goes into the scores, which could include crashes, inspections and Safety Status Measurement System data — better known as SafeStat. Keep the document on file and ready for use at a moment’s notice.
• Call your state or national trucking association when you are preparing for a media interview. While such help is a membership benefit you probably hope you’ll never need to use, it’s there for you and invaluable.
Your company’s SAFER scores may not yet be displayed on your tractor units, but the Internet has put them just a few easy clicks away for a reporter on a deadline looking for a bad guy to blame — and just a few clicks away from a customer deciding whether to do business with you.
Are you prepared to tell your story?
The 700-member Minnesota Trucking Association is based in Roseville, Minn. The author has been its president and chief executive officer for 12 years.