No business like show business

No business like show business

The Safe Chassis Show has been touring the country, starring truck drivers, top Teamster and longshore union officials, and veteran mechanics who offer a close-up of the brakes and bearings of an intermodal chassis.

The performance has been getting rave reviews: "Unsafe at any speed?" (Savannah Morning News); "Safety issue is raised about vehicles used to haul ship containers!" (Baltimore Sun); "Legislation will make the roads safer!" (Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville).

OK, I admit I added the exclamation marks - a time-honored tradition in show-business publicity - but you get the point. The Teamsters, working with longshore unions and trucking companies, have found an effective way to publicize their campaign for legislation to change the way intermodal chassis are maintained, repaired and inspected.

They hold a press conference and rally that attracts local television news cameras and generates newspaper coverage. Union officials emphasize the problems of unsafe chassis, make a pitch for their legislation, and allow a mechanic to show why a truck driver can't detect worn brakes during a walk-around inspection at the terminal.

It's an effective way to deliver a clear message - that the current system allows unsafe chassis on the highways, that the industry hasn't regulated itself, and that federal legislation is needed to protect the public.

And who can argue with the need for safe highways? Forty-two House members - 23 Democrats and 19 Republicans - have joined in supporting the Intermodal Equipment Safety and Responsibility Act backed by the Teamsters, the American Trucking Associations and the East and West Coast longshore unions.

When it comes to intermodal chassis, though, nothing is as simple as it seems. There's wide agreement that the current system has flaws. But it's equally obvious that there's no easy solution. Everybody involved wants something different, usually at the expense of someone else.

Ship lines would love to quit providing chassis, but no one else wants the responsibility. Truckers want to avoid liability for chassis problems they didn't cause, but equipment providers balk at paying for damage caused by truckers - and assigning fault isn't easy. Ports, terminals, importers and exporters fear that tinkering with equipment-interchange agreements will subject them to lawsuits and higher insurance costs.

Unions advocating chassis legislation have goals that other parties don't endorse. They want safe highways (who doesn't?) but the Teamsters also want to organize port drivers, and the longshore unions want to add to their existing chassis maintenance and repair work. Companies oppose unionization of drivers and worry that increased inspections could give longshore unions more leverage than they already have.

With so many competing interests, no solution exists that will make everyone happy. The trick is to find something that most parties can accept. An equally important challenge is finding a way to address chassis-related problems without causing upheaval in an international transportation system that, while imperfect, generally works well.

If various industry factions can devise such a solution, everyone will benefit. If they can't, Congress may do it for them. Despite the current publicity blitz, opponents of chassis legislation probably can block the bill's passage next year. But the longer the controversy drags on, the greater the chance that such a bill will be enacted.

The average voter doesn't know or care about the importance or problems of intermodal transportation, but highway safety is an issue with broad public appeal. That's why industry action is so important. If the Chassis Safety Show keeps getting favorable reviews in places like Savannah and Baltimore, it's eventually going to play well in Washington.

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney@joc.com.