Warning lights for truckers

When truckers - independent or unionized - argue that the current economic climate has been particularly hard on them, they are stating a case that deserves careful attention by Congress, the Reagan administration, and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Consider: because recession occurred at the same time as federal deregulation of the trucking industry, thousands of drivers have been idled, firms have been forced out of business, and cut-rate pricing wars have broken out in many parts of the United States.

That is not to say that independent truckers should be encouraged to justify such actions as tying up roadways or freeway access ramps, as happened during trucking strikes back in 1974 and 1979. The independents surely have a right to protest what they regard as unwise federal policies, such as the new fuel tax and truck fees recently enacted by Congress. But trucking leaders and individual drivers also have a clear obligation to prevent protest from spilling into violence or the actual jamming of roadways which creates public safety hazards for other motorists and emergency vehicles.

Yet the federal government would seem on best grounds in avoiding a protracted labor confrontation, as happened in the case of the air controllers. That calls for restraint on all sides.

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Congress might well consider whether the pace of trucking deregulation has not gone too far too fast. The deregulatory process was long overdue. But given the fact that the ICC has chartered some 8,000 new firms since deregulation, it may be prudent to slow the pace of certifications until current newcomers can be absorbed in the industry. The intent of deregulation was never to drive existing firms out of business through price wars but, rather, to ensure lower prices through greater efficiencies within the industry.

The ICC and Congress might also take up whether the commission went too far several weeks ago in scrapping a 48-year-old restriction that prevented railroads from competing with trucking firms by offering full-line trucking services of their own. By now allowing the rail carriers to expand their trucking services, existing truck firms will find themselves face-to-face with powerful new competitors.

The independent truckers, for their part, need to rethink their opposition to the new nickel-a-gallon fuel tax and truck fees. Truckers have not really borne their fair share of the costs of maintaining the nation's roadway system over the years. Now that truckers will be able to operate even larger rigs on roadways - thus contributing to the highway maintenance problem - it would not seem reasonable to reduce their tax load while the general public was being asked to pay even more in taxes for repairs.

Yes, the truckers do need to be heard. But some listening also seems in order inside the big rigs.

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