Imagine if the former editor and publisher of the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote an op-ed in the New York Times charging the physician community with being a threat to public safety, the AMA with blocking regulators’ efforts to make physician practices safer, and Congress with coddling doctors?
The trucking crowd was treated to this type of surreal scene nine days ago when Howard S. Abramson, who spent 16 years as editorial director of Transport Topics, which is owned by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and considered trucking’s bible, penned a piece for the Times’ op-ed page excoriating the industry for “consistently” resisting efforts to improve road safety, and Congress for doing the “trucking industry’s bidding by frustrating” the regulators tasked with overseeing it. The column had the headline “The Trucks Are Killing Us,” and a drawing of a truck’s cab with a grill in the shape of a skeleton’s face.
If something was needed to shake off the summer slumber, this was it. Abramson, who also spent a number of years as Transport Topics’ publisher before leaving ATA in 2014, was blasted across the trucking spectrum from the executive offices of ATA to other trade journals. It became, for a couple of days at least, the talk of the somewhat clubby transportation journalism fraternity of which Abramson was a part, and who many still know well.
For full disclosure, this blogger worked for and with Abramson in the late 1980s and through the mid-1990s at two other publications. Here’s what is not in dispute: Abramson is a stellar journalist. He has deep experience covering all transport modes from every angle. He understands the business and journalistic sides of trucking. He is tough, and can be caustic, combative, and combustible. And he is nobody’s shill; he told this blogger several years ago that one of his biggest challenges was to keep Transport Topics independent from the state trucking associations that would want the magazine to serve as a mouthpiece for the industry’s line.
It is the reputation of Abramson’s fierce independence that may resonate long after the hubbub over his incendiary piece dies down. The trucking industry is locked in a fierce, emotional, and seemingly endless battle with safety advocates and the railroads over legislative and regulatory issues concerning highway safety. In fact, trucking is coming off a successful legislative period where it got a lot of what it wanted from Congress, namely a delay in the implementation of certain adverse regulations and an advancement of language allowing longer twin trailers on all of the nation’s federal-aid highways. For someone of Abramson’s prominence, and one so closely tied to trucking in so many ways, to use arguably the nation’s most powerful op-ed page to slam the industry is of no small matter to its lobbyists. Abramson was not a casual observer of the trade. Nor was his view colored by personal tragedy as so many anti-truck types who lost a loved one in a truck-related incident. He was an insider’s insider, with access few could match. That is influence the railroads and safety advocates couldn’t buy if they tried. As Congress returns from summer recess to attempt to pass a long-term transport funding bill, it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, Abramson’s column will have on lawmakers and on the status of pending truck safety legislation.
Abramson’s critics—and there a few—will say that he’s been gone from Transport Topics for 18 months, and that his power left with him. Others will call him a hypocrite, claiming he supported the industry when he needed a paycheck and turned on it only when there was nothing to lose. In e-mail exchanges, Abramson said he had felt this way for some time but couldn’t go public with his views while employed at ATA. He denied his column was an attack on the industry. “What I did was to write an opinion piece about a specific area of concern for me, and one that I believe should be a deep concern for anyone who drives on our roads,” he wrote.
Abramson stressed that he doesn’t want to put the industry out of business, that he is aware of trucking’s importance to the economy, and that he has a “deep understanding of the complexities the trucking industry faces.” But true to form, he’s not backing off. “I believe the trucking industry has done much to impede highway safety improvements … rather than supporting technologies that would lessen car-truck crashes, elements of the trucking industry have spent great energy thwarting their use,” he said. “I believe trucking has missed the opportunity to be seen as a partner with the motoring public in efforts to make our roads safer, and has made itself an adversary in this regard.”
Abramson called his op-ed a “service to the more responsible segments of the trucking industry,” saying some industry insiders and truck drivers share his view that special interests that put profits over safety are blocking efforts to employ available, proven, and affordable technology and processes that would reduce the number and severity of truck-related accidents. He also professed wonder at the backlash to his column. “In my many years of covering the trucking industry, I have often been baffled by the inability of those who run it to deal with constructive criticism,” he said.
And what about that slash-and-burn headline augmented by the skull and crossbones-like caricature? Abramson said the Times, like many publications, develops its own headlines and graphics. As one who has spent many hours working with Abramson, this blogger can attest to the truth of that statement.