Society has an obligation to truckers’ safety as well

A couple of weeks ago, I was going through my desk and clearing out old files. I ran into a document I had not seen in a very long time, and it brought a very terrible story back to my mind.

At the time, California was going through one of the worst heat waves in recent history. I found a report about a woman who had died inside a truck.

We were closely watching reports out of California related to new CARB restrictions and local idling ordinances, and the possible connection between that and the woman’s tragic death caught my attention.

As I looked into the story further, I came to the conclusion that I had found what may have been the first death attributable to anti-idling regulations. So I decided to plumb a little further.

That involved calling the coroner and asking for the autopsy report that was produced after the woman’s death. I also talked with a trucker who knew the woman and her husband, who were both in the sleeper when the incident occurred.

Here is what I learned:

The couple were at the end of a run at a company terminal, but when they arrived company officials told them they had to leave the truck in the company lot.

However, as they were not at their home base, and the terminal was in an industrial area, they had no transportation to get to another location before the start of their next run. So they were stuck with their truck at the terminal. The building was locked, preventing use of the bathrooms, and no food or water were available there.

The area was under a tight anti-idling ordinance and of course strict CARB regulations.

Because nothing was available to eat or to drink, the husband and wife decided they had to do something. In the midst of that terrible heat, they walked a mile and a half to the nearest convenience store and then back to their truck.

Because of the heatwave that was underway, the sleeper – essentially a big metal box – amounted to being inside an oven. Their company truck could not idle, and it had no APU or other CARB-approved power source to run the air conditioning.

The Centers for Disease Control says that when outside temperatures range from 80 to 100 degrees, the inside of a vehicle can quickly climb to anywhere between 130 and 172 degrees. With the outside heat so high, with the lack of any meaningful shade, in a parking lot made of material that absorbs heat – well, you get the picture.

Not long after they returned, the woman began to exhibit serious medical symptoms. Her heart failed and she died.

I tried to call the husband, but he never called me back. I have to think that it was simply too much for him to talk about after what happened. Who could possibly not understand that?

My hope was that I could get something from the coroner’s report that would link her death directly to the lack of climate control, hence to idling. And I knew that her having to walk so far in the heat to get basic food and water played a big role.

The coroner was simply not willing to make that leap in logic, to draw that conclusion. In the end that’s why I dropped the story. I simply didn’t think I had enough to go forward.

Cleaning out those old files, I found the coroner’s report and it brought the entire incident back to mind.

I did not use her name here, nor will I. I simply do not think in the circumstances it’s appropriate.

However, I think it’s a story that on some level, I need to share.

To the general public, these laws sound very well meaning. Many think, who could possibly object to less pollution?

They leave out the human cost. Then leave out the fact, as so many do, that these trucks are not simply automations, but vehicles driven by people, real people, people who have the same basic human needs as anyone else.

That includes food, water, shelter and a safe environment. The parking lot where the couple and their truck sat was lacking the food, the water and the safe environment.

The coroner pointed to factors like the heat, like the fact that the woman was a bit heavier. I understand that was part of the equation. However, to me, it does not negate a very basic truth.

Someone stranded where they didn’t have their basic human needs met through no fault of their own simply because of the job they chose to pursue to make a living, died because of a regulation.

Those anti-idling regulations are still there, and so many truckers – especially company drivers who have no choice in what they drive – are still vulnerable, still facing that danger.

Plus, now we are debating things like ELDs, like hours of service, like underride guards, like so many other regulations that are floating around there as realities or proposals, all of which can have a significant effect on a trucker’s safety and well-being.

We need once again to recognize the same basic fact I mentioned earlier: These are not just automations or machines. These are vehicles driven by real humans.

And society has just as much of an obligation to protect them as anyone else.

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