Regulator incompetence: Ending truck driver fatigue

Truck stop - Wikipedia
Truck stop - Wikipedia

Special to Communities Digital News by Gus Wright

LOS ANGELES, December 2, 2013 – On July 1 2013, rules regulating trucker hours set forth by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in December 2011 went into effect. As is often the case, regulators set out with all the right intentions, but arrived at a solution that ignores the the real problem while only addressing the symptom, making life harder for everyone involved, including both truckers and trucking companies.

Needless to say, there has been some serious pushback.

The current hours-of-service regulations as outlined by the FMCSA:

  • The maximum average work week for a trucker cannot exceed 70 hours. (Down from 82 hours.)
  • A minimum of 32 consecutive hours of rest are required after one 70 hour work week before continuing, including two nights where the truckers sleep from 1-5 a.m.
  • At least one 30 minute break must be taken during the first eight hours of the shift.
  • A driving limit currently set at 11 hours per day and 14 labor hours per day.

Both drivers and their employers face very steep fines for breaking these rules.

The new regulations seem completely reasonable looking in from the outside. As the fact that most trucking companies were actually not affected demonstrates, these regulations are, in fact, reasonable labor standards. They do nothing, however, to solve the problems in the industry that are causing miserable labor conditions for those that are affected.

The American Trucking Associations appealed the regulations, but their appeal was denied by U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in August 2013. The decision was that combating driver fatigue was worth the harm incurred by the business and the inefficiency brought on by the regulations as well.

In another bid to combat these changes, U.S. Representatives Tom Rice and Richard Hanna cosponsored the TRUE Safety Act bill, which would undo the FMCSA regulations. Both met with FMCSA Administrator Anne Farro last week to point out some of the regulations’ flaws. An example: the 1-5 a.m. sleep rule forces truck drivers to drive during the day when the roads are already congested.

The one good point Farro raised proved irrelevant to her defense of the new regulations was that current driver compensation is inadequate. Her point that was quickly cut off, however, as her agency has made no efforts to remedy that specific problem.

The greater issue was left unaddressed, however.

Nobody saw fit to raise the point that no trucker works over 70 hours per week on average because he enjoys it. No trucker wants to drive more than 11 hours per day, or avoid taking breaks. The problem here is specifically that driving safely costs the driver a significant amount of money.

Regulators want to solve the problem of driver fatigue, which is a hazard on American roadways, especially when it’s affecting the driver of a forty-ton truck. The FMCSA’s solution did not involve investigating why truck drivers work themselves to the brink of unconsciousness, or proposing changes to the system that motivates them to do this.

Truckers are driven to skip breaks and work overtime because they are paid for results, not work. A driver wouldn’t feel any desire or pressure to drive dangerously – which often can involve speeding while fatigued in the middle of the night – if his paycheck was secure within the parameters of a normal, customary work day.

Drivers are, in fact, paid by the mile, not the hour, and that affects their priorities at work.

Any delay, including heavy traffic, breaks, sleeping, and eating, will cut into a truck driver’s pay. Trucking companies essentially force their employees to bear the financial risks of weather and traffic patterns rather than covering those themselves.

The top 50 trucking companies alone made over $100 billion in profits last year. Asking them to shoulder the burdens of traffic and weather would not be an unreasonable thing to ask in the name of public safety.

While the issue is not particularly difficult to understand, regulators know that addressing these problems in the system by banning the piece-work pay system would cost the businesses money. Clearly it would cut into profits somewhat. But such a solution would solve the problem of driver fatigue and the labor abuses that port truckers in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and now Oakland have attempted to address though strikes and unionization efforts.

In an attempt to avoid stepping on the toes of big business, FMCSA avoided consideration of this solution. Instead, they have opted to adopt rules that help nobody in favor of something that could only look good to a bureaucrat.


Gus Wright works with Trucker Classifieds. He has been active in the trucking community for over a decade, and is hopeful for its future. 

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