In 2003, I wrote about a man waging an uphill campaign to pass state legislation to slow down trucks. Steve Owings, a Buckhead financial planner, was a grieving father whose son, Cullum, was killed a year earlier when an 18-wheeler slammed into the son’s car.
“We are total amateurs at this,” Owings admitted at the time. To gird himself for battle, the determined and successful businessman honed his skills by visiting a personal coach who told him goals must be visualized before they are achieved. Owings vowed he would not be deterred. “It’s our mission. We’re going to stick with this because we are right.”
The deadly crash this week that injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed his friend had all the earmarks of the crash that forever changed Owings’ family. In both accidents there was a speeding, massive truck, an inattentive driver and a stopped smaller vehicle occupied by sitting ducks.
I recalled Owings had started an advocacy group, Road Safe America, and wondered what ever became of him. Tragedies often beget advocates, but it is unusual for them to endure for the long term. Energy often fades. Obstacles wear them down. Life moves on.
A Google search found that Owings has kept his promise to not fade away. Last year, Owings was appointed chairman of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s advisory committee, a group with members from varied backgrounds appointed to make recommendations to the agency on truck and bus regulations.
In the past decade, Owings has immersed himself in regulation battles, increasingly in Washington. Perhaps 10 percent of his life since he started his quest has been spent in D.C. cajoling, debating and advocating.
These days, Owings, 59, looks pretty much like he did a decade ago - trim, full head of hair, a friendly, yet intense direct gaze. He inhabits a corner office overlooking Phipps Plaza and wears the uniform of a man in such surroundings: Blue blazer, starched shirt, loafers, no socks.
The recent crash brought together a celebrity and corporate America’s premier retailer. It was a Walmart truck. Once again, trucking safety is at the fore.
“The vast number of the worst crashes are companies you’ve never heard about before,” he said. In fact, this tragedy may help move the debate on truck safety, he said. “I hate that it happened,” he said, adding, “We’ll reach out to (Morgan) when he’s out of danger and see if he wants to help using his fame.”
'You drive as fast as you can get away with'
Over the next two hours, Owings talked about trucking safety, about driver fatigue, decreasing speeds, about increasing trucks’ insurance minimums, about doing away with paper travel logs and instituting electronic trip monitoring to prevent truckers from pulling 20-hour days.
“You drive as fast as you can get away with for as long as you can get away with it and you’ll make the most money,” Owings said, referring to the pay-per-mile model that dominates the industry.
He has become a font of statistics for his cause: trucks with speed governors are half as likely to be in speed-related crashes. Georgia ranks in the top five states for deadly heavy vehicle crashes. The minimum insurance level ($750,000) that truckers must carry hasn’t changed since Jimmy Carter was president, but health care inflation is up 600 percent since then.
Each year, he said, nearly 4,000 Americans are killed in crashes involving large trucks and 100,000 injured.
“We have the equivalent of two major airline crashes a month. Where’s the outcry? It’s insane.”
Several times, Owings used “insane” and “insanity” to describe the state of the highways, positioning himself as a common-sensical man trying to make a crazy world less nuts. His positions are simple “walking around sense.”
Owings parries questions about himself and his feelings, preferring to stay on message. He declines to describe his political persuasion and does well to compliment both Democrats and, Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Even those who often are his opponents are “stakeholders” with whom he tries to find common ground.
'People who will use him and his tragedy'
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, serves on the motor carrier committee with Owings and often finds himself as the Atlanta man’s loyal opposition.
Spencer said the advisory board is stacked against the trucking industry. Only two of the 20 committee members have ever driven a truck for a living.
He said the board is filled with “conflicts of interests,” with lawyers being brought in to argue for higher insurance rates (and higher payouts for them) and other “safety” officials being brought in to peddle “gadgets and gizmos” like speed governors and electronic driving logs.
“Steve Owings is now chairman of the committee; it sort of brings the conflicts of interest further into the open,” said Spencer. “Steve is encouraged along the way by people who will use him and his tragedy to further their economic agenda.”
Spencer calls many of the improvements, like electronic logging and speed governors, unproven. He said safety advocates are calling for more intrusive bureaucracy that eats away at truckers, who are overwhelmingly mom-and-pop operations. And bumping up the insurance, he said, would be costly.
(Owings argues that taxpayers are often stuck with the medical bills for catastrophic injuries because of the low insurance payouts.)
'An acceptance that tens of thousands of people will die'
John Lannen, head of the Truck Safety Coalition, has worked alongside Owings and calls him a master of boiling down complex issues. “If someone wasn’t pushing for these (safety improvements), then these things wouldn’t happen.”
Owings entered the fray 11 years ago with grief and righteous indignation. Both feelings survive but he knows they must be fuel, not emotions bubbling at the surface.
Many of the issues he has pushed – electronic logs, speed devices, limiting drivers’ hours, and even insurance, have all moved toward acceptance, but all can still get bottled up.
Just a week ago, a Senate committee moved to suspend a requirement in the so-called “restart rule” that mandates truckers take off at least 34 hours and two consecutive nights to rest before they start a new work week.
Inertia frustrates Owings. “There’s even an acceptance that tens of thousands of people will die on the highways each year. (There’s a feeling of) It happens, like world hunger.”
Owings has slowly come to another realization: “I found this isn’t going to be for a few years. This will be the rest of my life.”