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Distracted Driving: Making our Roads Safer with Brian Kuebler, Author of The Long Blink



October is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. What better introduction to an excellent conversation with Emmy Award-winning journalist and author of The Long Blink, Brian Kuebler, who exposes the staggering cost of the American trucking industry’s rising crash rate through the intimate struggle of Ed Slattery, who is left to piece his family back together after a trucker fell asleep at the wheel and killed his wife and maimed his son. He brings awareness to the critical importance of safety on the roads and the role that the trucking industry can play to improve safety as we explore the rapidly growing dangers we all face from the passing lane each and every day.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams; their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe, yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and The Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Brian Kuebler, who is an investigative journalist who’s also written a very interesting book that’s worth picking up and reading The Long Blink. So, he’s here to share a little bit more about the story. And it’s just a very sad story about a trucking accident that reveals a lot of information he this month, because as you’re probably aware, this is the Distracted Driving Awareness Month. So, Brian, welcome to the show. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. So maybe if you could share to start out a little bit about how you came to know about slavery and a little bit about his story and how that came about in terms of your interest in what you would discover there. Sure. This this this crash happened 10 years ago in 2010. And at the time, I was an investigative reporter for the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland, and is living in the suburbs of Baltimore. It was it was a big story here when the when the crash happened because his wife, Susan Slattery, was it was a very well-known and very well-loved professor at the Stevenson University here in Baltimore, mathematics professor, a brilliant mathematical mind on the track to become Dean and so on. And so, when the when the crash happened, it was it was a huge outpouring here in Baltimore, made it a big news story. Then the crash happened in Ohio. Susan Slattery took her two boys and couldn’t go along because she had to work. He was working as an economist at the USDA. And so, the family went to Susan’s family reunion over in Lorain, Ohio, in the Cleveland area. So after about a couple of days there, she and her two boys were driving back to Baltimore, and that is when the crash happened and it immediately killed her and it permanently disabled and named their youngest child, their oldest child. Peter suffered a lot of very physical injuries, but he was able to make a full recovery. Matthew, to this day, still wheelchair bound and has a traumatic brain injury that filled it with the rest of his life so that, yeah, when that story happened, it was those families that that are that are very well known in a community where no matter how big of a city or small town you live. And they were involved in Boy Scouts. Susan had a bit a lot of extracurricular activities with different fundraisers and stuff, you know, and was an economist, the USDA, they were very well-loved family in the area. So, when the crash happened, my boss at the time approached me to ask me to do the story on it. And in full disclosure, I was and I am a Chronicle sports guy, you know, of a gritty kind of crime reporter in a gritty crime city. So that that was this wasn’t really on my radar. But my boss at the time believed that I was the right storyteller for it. And so, I you know, I met Ed over the phone at first. You know, they were you know, they spent about a month in Cleveland and the family had just gotten back to Baltimore at the time that I hooked up with them. And Matthew was going through intensive physical therapy at Kennedy Krieger Institute here in Baltimore, which is partnering with Johns Hopkins. And you’re listening right now. And that’s where I met the family. And we kind of started our journey from that point. And that was my first long interview with Ed, where I really began to realize kind of what this family had gone through. And then I had followed them over the course of the next few years to tell their story through the different chapters. And eventually, you know, Ed said to me, hey, I want you to write a book because I really want my story out there. Right. And then we kind of came together on that. And the long link is the is the product of that came out late last year. And so. Yeah. And so, this is a story out there. And he wanted it to be out there as kind of a book to show people what can happen on the roadways with large trucks and kind of, you know, where you go from there as a family. And so, it’s phenomenal. And I think the part that really touched me is how and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like that is decided to really do something with the tragic events and try to make permanent change in and around road safety, around accidents. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Because that’s a theme. This is one incident, but there’s so many other cases of significant accidents that kill people on a regular basis on the roads. So, if you can maybe share a little bit about how he’s gone into that space, what he’s trying to do, and maybe some learning, some from that front. Sure, sure. Listen, as a journalist, you know, there are very few times in my career where, you know, I have met somebody or have told somebody a story where that person has the internal fortitude and the strength to take this trauma that has happened to them, turn it on its head and use it for good. And, you know, it’s so it’s so rare. I mean, a lesser man like myself, if this happened to me and my family, I would crawl up in a ball. And I don’t I don’t know what I would do. You know, right from the very first moment I met him, he was looking through the trauma on the other side of how can I make this? So, it doesn’t happen to other people. I mean, I listen for this book and I wrote it in a very narrative way. This isn’t prescriptive nonfiction where you’re reading fact after fact after fact. Right. I mean, this is a real story to tell, because it is one of those people that we develop, obviously a friendship over the last 10 years. It’s just it’s one of these people that that I find remarkable. And he’s a he’s a good man. And you could tell a story through his perspective. And allowing me in this whole time is really able to narratively build this so that my point was to write it to a reader kind of falls in love with it or identifies with it, and along the way learns, you know what, this what this issue is. This is at its core, this book is about surviving trauma, losing the love of your life, raising two boys who you know will never be the same again. And then finally and then finding like that forgiveness and a purpose to create that new life for your family. And that’s what this book is really about. And in order to do that and really, you know, once you got past the I mean, he’s still alive today. He hasn’t been able to really mourn Susan because of all the work he’s done since the crash, I’m sure. But, you know, he once he got past his immediate health crisis and Peter’s immediate health crisis and building a home that is now, you know, it’s a universally designed for Matthew’s wheelchair. So, there are no impediments for him. And, you know, kitchens that the cabinets come down to his level with the stove top comes down the level. There are no the rugs or something. So, there’s no lifts in the house. There are pocket doors out. It’s a beautiful home that he you know, he took some of the money from the settlement and built this this beautifully, universally designed home. So, Matthew will be set for the rest of his life. And so, once you get past all of those chapters, he really started getting involved in the Truck Safety Coalition, which is an advocacy group on Capitol Hill, that that at least once a year doesn’t very hard lobby like to use the word lobby. But advocating for truck safety in the halls of Congress has told countless representatives and senators all the ones in Maryland obviously are super familiar with the story. One of the one of the one of the one of the quotes for the book, it was from Dutch Ruppersberger, who’s a congressman from Maryland. So, I mean, these are some of the lawmakers that he has, he has identified with. And they will sit in their office and tell his story because he knows that if it’s told the right way, it can change minds. And so, he lends his story and his pain and his trauma. He wears it on his sleeve so other people hopefully won’t have to. And, you know, he’s very involved in that. In fact, he’s even calls victims of truck accidents after they happen to the family, surviving family members to tell them what they need to do next to the super involved and how his daughter, his oldest daughter, is involved, too. She’s on that coalition now on the board, and she does a lot of work for them as well. So, it’s definitely a family affair. It was a phenomenal story. Can you touch a little bit, particularly as we’re kind of thinking about distracted driving, this wasn’t really a distracted driving, is somebody, as I as I recall, that kind of dozed off? Can you share maybe a little bit about the case for safety in the trucking industry? Because that’s an industry that, unlike a lot of other industries that struggle in many ways in terms of how do you drive safety truly into how we operate? A lot of organizations have subcontracted work to a point where they’re removing a lot of the responsibility for some of the elements. Tell me a little bit about what is the case for safety in the space. Well, fatigue is a form of distracted driving, and so that’s why it applies to this month as well. And what we’re talking about, I mean, the truck driver here. So just a quick rundown. You know, most tractor trailers that your listeners will see, it’s a one you know, just one tractor trailer going down the road. Right. Some of them double will be hitched to there’ll be there’ll be the two sections to it. Right. And in some states, there are you could have you could have three trailers to one truck. And all of those states are Ohio. And it’s surrounded by states that are not that don’t allow those trucks. So, in order to maximize volume, these trucking companies will trucker that they hire will go to the edge of the state on the east side, pick up a third trailer, drive it across the length of Ohio, drop off that trailer on the on the west side, and then pick up another one and drive it back east. But that’s what this particular driver did every day. That was his route to pick it up and drive across the state of Ohio, pick up, drop it off, pick up another shift, three Ops, they call them and drive them all the way back to the other side. And so, when he got into the crash with Susan, he was toward the end of his drive time. So, this is not an example of a trucker that is fired his books, although that happens or is driving over the limit because obviously that happens as well. This was an incident where he was on his first what they call first night back. So, if you if you have a schedule and you’re working five days a week, by the second day, you’re adjusted to it and your kind of sleeping in a certain pattern and so on and so forth. But on the Sunday night into Monday, your first night back to your shift, obviously these drivers want to spend and maximize time with their family. This particular driver had a farm, a lot of work to do on the farm. And so, he’s spending Saturday and Sunday. So, when he goes to bed on Sunday, you know, you don’t get that full night’s sleep before you your back and you’re at work. So, I mean, he even admitted in all the paperwork in the clip and the crash reports, he only got about three and a half hours of sleep. So that first night back is always very tough. And that’s a big issue with the safety community around trucking in the United States is that first night back on a shift and that’s when this happened. And so, while he was in his drive time limit, he was still only operating on a few hours of sleep. It also come out in the settlement in the court case that he was on a various number of narcotics that have side effects that could lead to drowsiness and drag out a while. And he had a driving record that was that was suspect as well. So, all of this kind of combined into him and him and he a bit of this on the scene that that he dozed off and Susan’s car was merging for construction on the Ohio interstate. And he fell asleep, blew past the signs and, you know, read the book. There’s a whole chapter about what the other witnesses had said, what it looked like, what it felt like, what it sounded like. And it it was it was a horrific and violent crash. And he squares up, hit Susan. And it is amazing that Matthew survived that crash. Susan had almost an impact, or at least I’d like to hope it was on impact anyway, that she didn’t suffer for hours or so on. But it was just a tough, horrible crash. And so, when you’re talking about distracted driving and you’re talking about this issue, there’s a lot of issues in the trucking industry that that that safety advocates are pushing for a lot of different not laws, but the regulations and different technologies that can keep that can keep drivers driving without the fatigue issue being such a such an impediment. I mean, there’s been a study done for upwards of 30 percent of drivers reported fatigue in their careers. And so, it’s a real and the more trucks that are on the road, the more stuff that we’re relying on our packages from Amazon, or especially now when we’re when everything is getting delivered to us. There is this industry is exploding and there’s, you know, and is on the front lines and it’s going this is what happened to me. This is what happened to my family. It happened quite literally. And during a long blink is what is what this guy, this driver had. It was later what he thought it was. And this and it can ruin your entire family. And so, this is kind of what he’s trying to put out there with the storytelling. Phenomenal story, and this is an industry that is highly with a lot of players in it. How do we drive change in an industry of that nature? Because when you’re dealing with oil and gas, for example, there’s a couple of companies that control the vast majority of the work. How do you do it in an environment like this? What’s been his experience to bring success around safer roads essentially for everyone? Right. So, it is important to say that there are some very good trucking companies out there that are adopting the latest technologies like what you would get in a new car without even asking for the you know, it’s involved in the package of a new car. You buy the delayed, delayed avoidance system, the automatic braking, all that kind of stuff, you know, is in trucks now, too. And a lot of a lot of the cutting-edge companies, these big massive companies you want to avoid the liability of fatigue, are loading their trucks with that. But there are some there are so many companies that don’t that don’t abide by that as well. So, there is the capitalistic argument that like, hey, you want to avoid spending. I mean, any settlement. Got his family forty point eight dollars million from the Express Lines, which is one of the largest trucking companies in the country. And that was the largest settlement on record at that point. So, they call that a massive mega settlement. And so, I don’t think that it’s been top since. But, you know, you want to avoid paying out that kind of money. So, you know, a lot of these companies will adopt these of these safety regulations by themselves. But, you know, capitalism can also push toward the toward the idea of making more money. You know, that’s kind of how our system is built. Right. So, I mean, most long-haul truckers are paid by the mile. And that’s a problem of many safety advocates say, because you’re going to drive longer and faster in order to make more money. And the incentive than safety is in the back seat of the front and center. Right. And so, what does it do to truck safety coalition is that they try to use these personal stories and to sit down and talk with these lawmakers in Washington? These aren’t laws. They’re passing their regulations. You know, there’s the Department of Transportation, the federal Department of Transportation has a whole section dedicated to tractor trailers. And so, there are regulations. Those regulations have been hollowed out and rolled back in the last few years. I don’t want to get into politics, but under the Obama administration, the truck safety coalition made some gains. They made some very important gains about sleeping, about RTM sleep for drivers in that first night back issue. But I spoke about earlier making sure that you get RTM sleep between most restorative sleep between one and three a.m. There were all these different kinds of regulations that that that that they passed in 2010. But then as soon as the majority party, the Republicans came back in the House, a lot of that stuff was put on hold and then it just eventually died. So, none of it really was implemented. And there’s a there’s a there’s another chapter in the book where Ed goes to Washington with Matthew to testify, he thought, on the death of one of these committee hearings run by Representative Jim Jordan, who is an Ohio representative. And he and he was not all they did was read his statement into the record. They didn’t allow him to actually testify, which really upset him at the time. And so, and then, you know, obviously, when you have these committees, the ruling party gets to stack the deck the way they want. Right. On these hearings and so on. This on this day, there were four pro trucking companies and one safety advocate. And I didn’t find that to be particularly fair and made that known. And there’s a whole chapter about and kind of quartering Jim Jordan in the hallway during a bathroom break. There’s a there’s a part where Dennis Kucinich at the time who was in the Congress was the one who read him his story into the record. And, you know, he was he was kind of cornering safety advocates saying this is a farce. How could you do this? And I mean, it’s a really interesting way that how politics is involved in this, you know, and I don’t want to get into the current climate or whatever, but the last few years, a lot of those regulations that they have been trying to enact have been rolled back and are parked, you know, I guess, or forgotten about. And that’s what the safety advocates say today, is that if we if we don’t lose any more, we’re in good shape and they’re waiting out this current climate. So that’s kind of where they’re at. You know, in the meantime, they just believe that if they can tell their story to the to. The right lawmakers that eventually they can get some real change. Some change that impacts all industry, because you can obviously, like you said, there’s some companies that are doing the right thing, then investing in the right technology, the right resources, because they want to make a difference or they’re avoiding risk. But because there’s so many players and so many different types of trucks out there. I remember there’s another incident that happened in Canada. It was in Saskatchewan where there was a there was a bus with students that was driving down. It was hit by a tractor. It was I’m not sure if it was a tractor trailer, but some truck hit it and half of a of a hockey team got lost their life. It was a horrible, tragic event. But again, same thing you knew legislation came in and then change of government and similar legislation, as I understand it, is all rolled back. So, it really a case that to get real change in an environment that’s so big with so many players, it sounds like regulation is really the one of the main drivers that needs to that to be at the forefront of this. Any other thoughts in terms of how people that want to drive change in the industry? I think this is an incredible story. Really appreciate you taking the time to write a book on it and to share a little bit about the book. I encourage people to pick up the book as well. It’s available along Blinkx, obviously, on Amazon and other book retailers. Any other thoughts that you have in terms of Distracted Driving Awareness Month? Any other thoughts around how we can make our roads safer that you might want to share? You know, it’s funny. I don’t I don’t think a lot of people I say, you know, when I started the story, I didn’t I didn’t think much about it either. You passed trucks on the road all the time and you don’t we don’t really understand how much of an issue this is. It doesn’t get a lot of press a lot. But when you look in the numbers, they’re startling. You know, since 2010 when Susan was killed, thirty-six hundred people on American roadways were killed in large truck crashes. Now you take you fast forward to twenty seventeen because they still haven’t released the twenty eighteen or twenty nineteen to deal with releasing that stuff late. But we still haven’t gotten twenty eighteen numbers so we don’t know. But through 2010, through twenty seventeen, just seven years that number has jumped by 30 percent in twenty seventeen, nearly forty-seven hundred people were killed on the road on roadways. Bye. Crashes with large trucks. It is not an issue that is getting any better. In fact, it is getting worse year over year over year since 2010 when I started looking into this. So, it quite literally is something that affects all of us. We all see a tractor trailer going by us at least once a day if we’re driving right. And so, it’s just an issue that needs to be raised awareness, you know, and that is part and parcel. I wrote the book. I wrote the book as well, again, driven by character, by Ed, and what his personal journey is to kind of take you along there. But the numbers are there are absolutely startling. And they’re not getting they’re not getting any better. You know, and also in this book, I also want to bring up that toward the end, we were able to actually have an interview with the driver. You know, the driver ended up going to prison for five years because of the of the crash, which is which is also kind of where the judge sentenced him. GITTINGS Yeah. And after a couple of years and there’s a whole couple of chapters in there about Adam Driver going back and forth and writing him in prison and he wants to forgive him. It’s this whole it’s really, it’s heartbreaking. And then after a couple of years and finally writes the judge and says, you know what, he needs to get out and rebuild his life or your building mine. And so, he gets out and that’s when we decide to meet up with him and do an interview. Because I wanted his perspective in this book because I mean, Ed believes, you know, truck drivers are victims of this, too. It’s not they’re not forgotten. They’re the ones doing the driving. They’re the ones that are affected by this as well. So, you know, this book ends in a very explosive and unpredictable manner. And, you know, we were able to sit down and talk with the driver that’s included in this book as well. It’s just it gives it kind of a different another level, another kind of understanding into people’s minds about how this issue really does really does. It ruins families, not just not just the people who are who are the so-called victims in these accidents, but, you know, the drivers as well. And it’s also important to point out that, you know, not a lot of all these crashes are not trucker’s fault. Sometimes they’re bad driver’s fault. And as far as the statistics, anywhere you want on that, but right now we’re looking at, according to the latest numbers in the federal county, is about 40, 700 people a year being killed on our roadways every year. That’s a lot. I mean, when we first started this project, Ops around thirty-six hundred a year, I would say that’s like more than a 911 every year. And I thought that was jarring hour at forty-seven hundred people a year. And you know, it’s just, it’s just it’s an issue that that I think needs a little bit more sunlight. And I hope that I’ve been able to focus a little bit of light on that with this book. Yeah, thank you. And I really appreciate you sharing this and the numbers you’re sharing, which are jarring on their own, don’t even include people that are getting injured or things where there wasn’t a loss of life. And so, it’s really something that is systemic, as you said, and needs more focus around. So, thank you very much for taking the time for sharing and really encourage everybody to pick up the book, to read more about it and to advocate for safer roads. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate the time. Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Fuel your future. come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru Eric Michrowski.

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Brian Kuebler is an award winning investigative journalist. He has been a television reporter for twenty years and has written, published, and broadcast thousands of stories in his career. Kuebler has won three Edward R. Murrow Awards for his writing ability, an Emmy, and recognized for ‘Outstanding Enterprise Reporting’ by the Associated Press. Two of those honors were awarded to Brian for the reporting of the story that eventually became his narrative nonfiction book, The Long Blink. During his career, Brian worked to develop a unique hard news, narrative style of writing that resonates with his viewers and readers.

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