Managing public image

The trucking industry has made considerable strides in improving its safety record. The latest report on large truck crash facts, released in February by the US Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, shows that from 1985 to 2005 there has been a 41 percent increase in registered large trucks and an 80 percent increase in miles traveled by large trucks.

During the same time, the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes declined by four percent, and the vehicle involvement rate for large trucks in fatal crashes has declined by 47 percent.

Noting that this is a commendable achievement, the chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA), James O'Neal, president of O & S Trucking, Springfield, Missouri, believes “the trucking industry can — and must — do more to be safer, and at the same time, improve its public image.” In remarks to the recent Annual Refrigerated Division Meeting of the TCA, he said enhancing the industry's safety and image is “my single driving passion” and he urged others to “embrace this purpose and vision.”

To achieve these objectives, O'Neal said the industry must develop a culture of safety, with the goal of eliminating “at fault” bodily injury accidents, and this has to start at the very top of companies.

Resolute commitment

“It is ecological in nature. To drive safety into ‘the deep structure of the house’ requires a vision that is permanent and resolute. It cannot be compromised. It should not be placed in competition with other corporate interests.”

By way of example, O'Neal cited Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge construction project. At that time, workmen knew a grim rule of thumb: on average, one worker would be killed for every one million dollars spent on a high-steel construction project.

Strauss wanted his project to be the exception. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars — depression era dollars — to improve safety standards and equipment for his workers. He required hardhats, eyewear, and safety restraints for all workers, a nearly unheard of issue in its day.

“Strauss spent $135,000 to build a large mobile net designed to move along under the workers and catch those who may fall,” O'Neal said. “The net saved many lives.”

During the construction of the $35-million Golden Gate Bridge, under perhaps the most dangerous conditions of weather and workplace ever, only 11 people died. Ten of those perished in one accident involving the mobile net.

A platform containing 10 workers collapsed into the net with two other men. At first the net held, but the wind and weight was too much and it broke loose falling over 200 feet into the bay below. Two workers miraculously survived.

Clear purpose

“But to me, the lesson and example is that Strauss absolutely refused to accept the actuarial statistics of 35 deaths. Except for this one tragic incident, only one other person was killed. Strauss was passionate in his pursuit of safety. He placed it as his highest priority. It was his purpose.”

O'Neal noted that in 2005 there were 5,212 highway fatalities involving trucks. In 2,822 of them, trucks contributed all or partially to the accident.

“While our industry's record is outstanding and continues to improve, these ‘at fault’ bodily injury accidents must be eliminated. It must get better … We take a public beating (with each accident) as the media loves to use the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach to sensationalize the situation. In that venue we are always convicted, regardless of fault.

“Like Joseph Strauss, our industry must not accept the antiseptic complacency of statistics by agreeing to kill ‘x’ number of people per million miles we work.”

Main priorities

O'Neal went on to say that every employee, from the top to the bottom, “must possess a passionate commitment to safety as a moral imperative. We should inherently equate any action which jeopardizes highway safety as the moral equivalent of armed robbery or homicide.”

Companies must put safety at the top of their mission statements and establish ways to better know their drivers, he said. Because many different things can affect a driver's ability to operate safely, “we need to keep our finger on the pulse of every driver every day, and that requires us to know every thing possible about the personal, financial, operational, and physical issues our professional drivers are encountering daily.

“A happy driver is a safe driver. Drivers who are angry, worried, anxious, or distracted by the things in his or her world are potential accidents. We must be able to know and recognize the difference.”

The industry's main purpose and dedication has to be saving lives, O'Neal said. “At the end of the day, nothing else matters. Money doesn't matter, freight volumes don't matter, on-time service doesn't matter. If we kill innocent people in the course of doing our jobs we have failed in every area we can measure.”

Manage perception

While acknowledging that the industry has made great strides in safety, productivity, and professionalism, he said it must better promote these accomplishments so as to shrink the gap between the negative perceptions held by the public and the reality of today's trucking industry.

To this end, TCA has purchased from Waggener Edstrom, one of the top 10 international public relations firms, its proprietary “web crawl” software to begin the TCA's Image Mapping Project. It is aimed at managing perceptions and identifying the “voices” that shape trucking's image.

The software is designed to find and catalogue generic words, phrases, and terms like “trucking,” “trucking industry,” and “big rigs” that appear in traditional media, in industry publications, on websites, and on web blogs.

“This will root out the DNA of our image,” said O'Neal. “Along with collecting information relevant to what's being said about the trucking industry, it will develop key words and phrases that when used collectively in speeches, presentations, and media encounters, will drive positive content and comments to the top of web search engines.”

He noted that if the term “trucking safety” is Googled, it usually gets images and reports of horrific accidents. “You have to dig really deep to get the real story about truck safety.”

The Image Mapping Project “can actually begin to shape our public image. That's important because public image shapes public opinion which shapes public policy. Many of the onerous rules, financial burdens, and poor policies we face are all the ultimate products of a negative public image.”

Industry image

In addition, O'Neal said the trucking industry should be associated with a clean environment and be seen as a conservator of natural resources.

“We've been required to pay a continuing financial burden and have made great strides in eliminating engine emissions to the point that the trucks we now drive are actually putting cleaner air out of the stacks than the air they take in many parts of the country. We have a right to the improved public image this creates. This is an issue just waiting for us to capitalize on.”

O'Neal said the industry “must mature as progressive proponents” of its public image and move away from the perception that it is simply opposed to everything. He urged the industry to support a national anti-idling law and to advocate programs to double the fuel economy of Class 8 trucks in the next 10 years.

“Our industry's image, and our destiny, starts at the front doors of each business represented here. We need to shape and change our image one company at a time. As we work concurrently on the state and national level, we'll see the results over time.”

He called for every business in trucking to get involved and to put pressure on others to get involved. With the power of passionate purpose, our image will be improved, our highways will be safe, and our industry will remain strong.”

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.