Fun in Front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee

December 12, 2011

There are fibs, there are omissions, and then there are lies.

All are bad. When fibs, omissions, and lies get started by the artful testimony of a federal official, trust in our federal government drops like a rock.

On November 30, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne Ferro appeared in the second session of a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee to testify on the impending changes to the Truck Driver Hours-of-Service (HOS) rules. During the course of that testimony she slipped some new data into the discussion of the HOS rules, muddying the debate.

She did not lie. Nor, after being questioned, did she neglect to stipulate that the data she provided was only an estimate. But her artful presentation of her preliminary findings sure allowed others with an agenda to raise a crimson banner.

At the hearing, Administrator Ferro stated that truck-related fatalities are on the rise, approaching 4,000 for the year. It did not take long for the media machines of the truck-safety advocates to crank out an excited press release, which hit multiple Internet news sites.

ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 2, 2011 /PRNewswire/ For the first time, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Administrator Anne Ferro revealed that initial 2010 data on fatal truck crashes indicate truck crash fatalities have increased to nearly 4,000 people. In 2009, 3,380 people were killed in truck crashes and 74,000 others were injured. Administrator Ferro released this information during her testimony on the pending truck driver hours-of-service (HOS) reforms before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Wednesday, November 30th.

The press release goes on to sensationally report, “Under the current rule truck drivers can drive 77 hours a week and work up to 84 hours a week.”

There are just a few problems with this press release, and with the reporting based on it. Problems like omission of facts and a few factual errors.

Let’s touch on the factual errors first. Drivers cannot drive or work the kinds of hours reported in this press release. The FMCSA web site’s page that explains the HOS rules is clear on the total hours that a driver can drive in a week:

60/70-Hour On-Duty Limit

"(Drivers) May not drive after 60/70 hours on duty in 7/8 consecutive days. A driver may restart a 7/8 consecutive day period after taking 34 or more consecutive hours off duty.”

As an old ink-stained wretch (i.e., a former journalist), I can tell you that one of the things that would have gotten any of us old news reporters fired was to wrap factual errors into a story. But the press release flacks at Truck Safety Coalition, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, and Parents Against Tired Truckers don’t have to tell the truth, and it is clear that they don’t have any compunction about fanning the flames with bold, sensationalistic lies about the issue. In the name of safety they must feel compelled to do anything to further their agenda.

But the trade press should do a better job of checking the facts, as Food Logistics failed to do on their web site when they ran the story on December 5. I don’t know how many other trade press sites ran the press release verbatim, but it is clear that this outlet did.

It was the red flag of the factual error that led me to question the validity of the rest of the report.

Once I knew it was nothing more than a reposting of the press release, I had to find out what Anne Ferro really said at that hearing. So off to CSPAN and a viewing of the video of the hearing Nov 30, 2011. You have to fast forward to late in the hearing to watch Administrator Ferro speak to an empty panel, starting 1:37 into the video.

Early in her prepared statement, we hear Ms. Ferro testify that, “Last year, in 2010, nearly 4,000 people died in crashes involving large trucks. By the department’s estimates, nearly 500 of those would have been related to a fatigued driver.”

“Nearly 4,000” is not 4,000. “Nearly 500” is not 500. Her statement is carefully worded, but vague. Ms. Ferro does not say that the number is 4,000, or above 4,000, just that it is nearly 4,000.

The first question Chairman Jordan poses to Ms. Ferro focuses on the number of truck-related deaths. Ms. Ferro answers that 2010 Department estimates, based on data collected by state law enforcement partners, “form that data, preliminary, we’re showing an uptick in 2010. Crash rates remain at historic lows, which is a tremendous outcome, if not even being close to low enough. But that is what we are showing preliminarily.”

Under further probing into the issue of the fatigue-related deaths, Ms. Ferro relates that the 500 deaths presented are “[another] estimate… we feel are underestimated, derived from our large truck crash causation study that shows 13 percent of fatal truck crashes attributed to fatigue.”

So incomplete data from an estimate of incomplete data is the basis of another estimate that uses the results of an outside study.

Is that clear to you? Estimates on estimates is what is being presented to the oversight committee, and what the safety advocates are crowing about. That gives a whole new meaning to the expression, "close enough for government work."

For more balanced reporting, reporting that includes multiple voices speaking against the yet-to-be-decided-upon HOS changes, you can watch the 1:45 of video or read the summary that appeared on CSPAN.

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