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Our Broken Trucking Regulatory System

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When the Wal-Mart truck driver crashed into Tracy Morgan’s limousine last week after falling asleep, I wanted to write a short piece on how the trucking companies endanger workers and drivers through their horrible labor practices. But I didn’t have time to do the research (pro tip: don’t write 2 books at once). Luckily, David Dayen did write this up and it’s typically excellent. The whole system is a nightmare of labor exploitation, corporate purchase of politicians, and casual indifference toward you and I when we are on the road. An excerpt:

But the fact is it’s difficult for truck drivers to make a decent living by playing by the rules, and employers, including Walmart, effectively create a hazardous workplace by constraining pay to make cheating attractive, and ordering faster shipments with deadlines that can only be achieved through cutting corners. Roper had been awake for over 24 hours when he crashed his truck, according to the criminal complaint. A January accident in Illinois featured a driver on the job for 36 straight hours.

The average trucker makes around $37,000 a year. While trucker pay varies from one company to the next, in general terms they get paid by the mile, but not for each mile driven. If a driver goes from Seattle to Minneapolis, they get an “as the crow flies” rate, meaning that any detours or miles spent lost on the road are unpaid. Most drivers aren’t covered by Fair Labor Standards Act requirements on overtime pay beyond 40 hours. Truckers are also often not paid when the haul gets loaded or unloaded, so they could spend hours at a facility working without being on the clock, adding to fatigue. Some industries, like oil and gas, have exemptions from hours-of-service rules that make driving even more dangerous.

Drivers also face tight deadlines to deliver loads on time. Employers restrict speed because it impacts fuel costs, so the only way to get goods to their destination faster is through more driving hours.

5 quick points. All drivers should be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Second, trucking companies simply need to be held criminally liable each and every time one of their truckers gets in a crash from overwork and exhaustion with vastly increased financial punishments. Third, drivers need to be paid for established route miles, not as the crow flies. This should be set by the federal government. Fourth, OSHA needs authority over the truckers even when they are on the road (the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has jurisdiction on the road). Fifth, as Dayen suggests, electronic logbooks need to be kept for every truck. The nation can spy on its citizens but can’t prevent truckers from working 100 hour weeks. Right.

And all those life-threatening hours and stress for $37,000 a year. That’s a terrible hourly rate.

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  • Warren Terra

    Third, drivers need to be paid for established route miles, not as the crow flies

    Wouldn’t paying them per hour, including at the loading dock / in the queue be better yet? Sure, they could try to cheat on that, driving inefficiently or padding their hours – but with the electronic logbook the employer would catch them, just as the regulators would catch excessive hours or speeds.

  • mpowell

    I thought the real way that truckers were getting screwed was too hire them as ‘contractors’ and then you don’t have to worry about unions or any other pesky regulations designed to protect workers and the general public.

    I don’t think it’s feasible to create blanket bans on contract work, but this is really a problem that needs to be addressed somehow.

    • PSP

      And I fear that applying the FLSA to all drivers would push the industry further into the independent contractor scam, since the statute only applies to employees.

      Lots more investigations into whether contractors are actually employees would be a good thing either way.

  • liberalrob

    Fifth, as Dayen suggests, electronic logbooks need to be kept for every truck.

    Shirley that information is already available to some extent. Many (if not all) states have weigh stations on their major transportation corridors that force all commercial vehicles to either stop at a weighing plaza or go through a “weigh in motion” section that records their passage, for the purpose of collecting state taxes. I’m sure those weigh stations record the time of collection (almost certainly the electronic ones do, and how hard can it be to write down the time as well as the date of weighing on those that might still be manual) as well as some kind of vehicle identification; and the vehicle owner/operator certainly knows who is driving the thing.

    I’m not sure what is gained by giving OSHA jurisdiction instead of FMCSA; unless the latter is simply untrustworthy or something, or there is some kind of legislative SNAFU preventing FMCSA from adequately enforcing worker safety rules.

    In any event, this is yet another consequence of the deregulation fetish the insane Republicans have been indulging for the past several decades. Freedom!

    • efgoldman

      Many (if not all) states have weigh stations on their major transportation corridors that force all commercial vehicles to either stop at a weighing plaza or go through a “weigh in motion” section that records their passage

      True, but tell me the last time you saw an open one in MA or RI.
      Seems dumb to me: violations are a source of free revenue.
      When we drive tot DC, there’s an open weight station just inside Maryland after you cross from Delaware.

      • Nathan Williams

        You don’t see them open because they’ve largely been replaced by the aforementioned weigh-in-motion sensor systems; trucks do get weighed and registered but barely have to slow down to do so. Next time you pass a defunct-looking weigh station on a major highway, look around a bit and you’ll probably see some lines on the pavement and an overhead bar of transponders.

        • noseflower

          Not quite. To qualify for transponder use, a company must have a certain safety “score”. Companies below that threshold cannot use Prepass, and believe me there are many companies that do not qualify. I worked for one. The closures of weigh stations is primarily a budget issue for the states.

          • yinz

            …and don’t call me Shirley!

            • When was the last time anybody had to show a logbook? When I worked at an outdoor camp, we traveled interstate for some of our trips. We had to keep a log book including all the time we spent backpacking etc. We also had to stop at all the checkpoints. I still drive interstate a lot and have a certain fondness for Petro and other truck stop chain diners. But I can’t remember the last time I saw someone filling out their logbook at one of those. Is it all electronic now? I find that hard to believe quite frankly. If you are stopped for a traffic violation you have to show your logbook too.

              • TribalistMeathead

                I’ve seen logbooks/blank logbook pages for sale at truck stops as recently as a few months ago, so…someone is. I’m sure the trucking industry contains the same percentage of Luddites as any other industry, if not more.

          • efgoldman

            The closures of weigh stations is primarily a budget issue for the states.

            That’s what bothers me. I’d guess the ROI on operating costs vs. fines is pretty good.

        • efgoldman

          Next time you pass a defunct-looking weigh station on a major highway, look around a bit and you’ll probably see some lines on the pavement and an overhead bar of transponders.

          Nope. Very often her in RI or MA, you see a sign that says “closed,” sometimes with a barrier across the entrance.

  • Davis X. Machina
    • Alex O’connor

      Let alone a little item known as the Commerce Clause.

      • efgoldman

        Let alone a little item known as the Commerce Clause.

        Hey, now! There’s not a goddamned word in the Constitutions about trailer trucks.

        • Alex O’connor

          Got me. But I swear there are dinosaurs in Deuteronomy

  • DrDick

    Today in adventures in the greatest economic system ever devised. Capitalism at its finest, workers are disposable and profits (rents!) are paramount.

    • Jewish Steel

      Another great example of socialized risk for privatized profits.

      • DrDick

        It is the capitalist way and always has been.

  • cpinva

    an electronic logbook would need to be connected to one of the vehicle’s axles, in order to keep the driver from being able to change it. it would also have to be locked, with only maintenance personnel able to access it. again, to prevent the driver from manually changing it.

    • Warren Terra

      The Electronic Logbook is a GPS with a tamper-evident seal and inputs from the tach and other sensors, I’m assuming.

      • cpinva

        I know many companies have a gps installed in their trucks, to keep track of where they are. I wasn’t aware that it was also being used as an electronic log. what will probably be required, is some type of “official” gps unit, only accessible by the DOT, using a tamper-evident seal only sold to the DOT. sort of like the paper used for printing money, that’s only sold to the dept. of engraving & printing.

        even then, that’s not going to, by itself, stop a driver from driving longer than the officially allowed # of hours, unless the gps is connected to a cutoff valve in the engine, which automatically shuts it down, every time the hours limit is reached, or something.

        this actually worked a lot better, when trucking was a more regulated industry.

        • runsinbackground

          even then, that’s not going to, by itself, stop a driver from driving longer than the officially allowed # of hours, unless the gps is connected to a cutoff valve in the engine, which automatically shuts it down, every time the hours limit is reached, or something.

          Or, since we’re already reinstituting an (by modern standards) intensive regulatory regime, we could just set up this hypothetical GPS black box to automatically alert the state patrol when and where a violation is committed, so that a trooper could be dispatched to pull the offender over and arrest them.

          • Anonymous

            Is this a discussion about the practicality of electronic logbooks? They have been compulsory far all trucks built in the EU since 2005.

        • BigHank53

          A lot of this stuff already exists. SmartDrive and PeopleNet are out there right now, though I have no idea how large their user base is.

          Encrypting or hashing the data stream is trivial. Adding an electronic logbook would cost less than $500 per truck, and the driver could toss any paper logs.

          • How does this work if you team drive? Fingerprint id? In a logbook in the 90s there were at least three categories, driving, on-duty not driving, off-duty, and I think sleeping in cab was a fourth. (I was always on-duty driving or off duty). Many drivers tag team so they don’t have to stop as much for mandatory breaks. Anyone know how the current electronic log handles this?

            • MV

              I have a relative that team drives and I believe that it is only a log in to the system.

              There isn’t much point to cheating as it is tied to a GPS. If your distance/location and times don’t match you are pretty much screwed (my relative would probably be fired). It just makes driving a pain (regardless if it actually makes sense). That’s the downside of regulation.

              According to him, Walmart uses electronic logs.

              Finally, the fact that the driver was up for 24 hours isn’t exactly the company’s fault (although it will be). Unless you want the companies to dictate what employees do on their off time… Exactly how many crashes are due to tired drivers that don’t make the news because they don’t injure a celebrity?

            • BigHank53

              Dave, I wish I could tell you but I just don’t know. PeopleNet uses a login. The SmartDrive system has a camera on the driver; unless your partner is your identical twin it’s pretty obvious who has the wheel.

              Most of these systems are set up for fleet operations: scheduling, fuel economy, and so on. The SmartDrive is the only one I’ve seen that has safety as one of their marketing claims; one of their target markets is buses in public transit systems.

              • tribble

                I suppose it would be technically possible to add something similar to a lockout/tagout system for loading and unloading to the electric log. It could require a driver’s fob to access the cargo compartment and log the load/unload time to the driver as hours worked.

                No company will want to do this, of course.

                It seems right now the electronic logs are centered around measuring things directly tied to the company or truck – speed, location, fuel cost and consumption, the person actually driving. Not logging the hours and actions of the drivers allows the veneer of plausible deniability.

                “We didn’t know he or she was going to rack up extra hours loading and unloading or waiting around at the warehouse or doing side jobs to earn more money, and we didn’t care to.”

  • Ns

    Something should be done about this, but in the long run the industry is doomed as driverless veichles become more widely accepted. When this happens we shouldn’t blame the technology that obviates the need for extremely alienating labor, but the political system that perverts this into a Bad Thing.

    • Hogan

      In the long run every industry is doomed.

      • Ns

        Maybe but the writing is on the wall for trucking. The tech is already on the road.

        • So we won’t even be able to get shitty truck driving jobs then?

          Well gosh isn’t that wonderful?

          How long before McDonald’s invents the Burgermatic 5000 fast food robot?

          • NonyNony

            Look if they want to turn their restaurants into automats, more power to them. The technology to do it from the taking money and delivering food end has been around in one form or another for over a century at this point.

            I suspect that even at $15/hour McDonald’s would do better hiring actual people to sell the food than installing an automat in every restaurant.

      • “In the long run we’re all dead.”

        • Hogan

          Well, except for me.

          • Not a bacon wrapped fried chicken on a waffle with honey fan?

        • John Maynard Keynes

          “In the long run we’re all dead.”

          I believe that was my line.

          • Therefore the quotes, sir.

            • Cheis Hedges

              but no attribution, therefore still plagiarism

              • Yeah, I think attribution is unnecessary with a quote that famous.

        • JMP

          In the long run, the second law of thermodynamics will take over, stars will stop forming, and eventually die, then even the remnants will deteriorate thanks to proton decay, and all that will be left in the universe will be black holes, until eventually they, too, die under the very slow process of Hawking radiation, and the universe is just a cold, dark, empty place, with the occasional stray electron or photon but nothing else.

          But until then, enjoy yourselves.

          • Malaclypse

            That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built. – Bertrand Russell

    • PSP

      There will still probably be a person in the cab telling the computer where to go. The driving computer probably won’t deal well with: “Wait over there until bay 17 opens up and you can unload”

      The drivers also supervise (or do) the loading. The weight has to be in the right part of the trailer or there will be stability issues.

      • efgoldman

        The drivers also supervise (or do) the loading.

        Fleet drivers, not necessarily. That’s what dispatchers and dock supervisors are for.

  • DAS

    My parents always said that it used to be that truck drivers were the best and most courteous drivers on the road, and you could always count on them to help you out if you were in trouble. They credited this to the strength of the Teamsters’ Union and its ties to organized crime. As far as they were concerned, one of the worst things to happen to the road was that the mafia lost control of the teamsters.

    I do not know how serious they were when they said such things.

    • noseflower

      FWIW, my two years as an over the road trucker for two different companies, both of which told me in no uncertain terms to NOT help people stranded or whatnot under any circumstances. The argument was that should I try to help but not succeed, the company would be sued. Trucking is an abysmal nightmare, and there is no amount of money (well, it would have to be VERY high) that could take me back to it. The E-logs are a huge improvement, but a driver can still cheat. I would spend hours at a time technically off duty or sleeping when I was actually hooking up to traliers and getting loaded/unloaded, just so I could make a decent wage. I often started a shift with very little sleep.

      Also (and not related to your comment) there is a huge push among truck companies to only hire owner/ops, while most owner/ops are getting out of trucking or becoming company drivers. That used to be where you could make good money trucking, but people are getting out of it in droves, because its impossible to cut it any more as an owner/op.

      • BigHank53

        I have met exactly one truck driver in the past five years who liked his job. He was responsible for towing one of ESPN’s portable production studios around between football stadiums. Not only is the trailer worth about eight million dollars, it’s going to cost ESPN a lot more than that if the damn thing doesn’t show up on time. He had 4 days, minimum, to get it between destinations and he slept in decent hotels every night.

    • Just Dropping By

      Truckers being the “Knights of the Road” has been a punchline since I was a kid in the 1970s, but it was indeed apparently once a thing: http://www.truckingtruth.com/trucking_blogs/Article-2317/a-new-era-for-the-knights-of-the-road

  • Anonymous

    These incidents are horrific, but it’s important to understand the circumstances that create them. This is not a simple case of greed on the part of management. Greed plays a role, but it is only one factor of several. I saw this while I was involved in a transportation industry venture for several years.

    The transportation industry is one of low profit margins, and has been under heavy pressure in recent years from high fuel prices. This is true whether one is discussing small operations with a few trucks or a large company like Old Dominion Freight Lines (whopping profit margin in 2013 of 8.8%). Even though this is a large industry in terms of revenue, it is not one that is enriching large numbers of people. It is an industry with aging equipment, one that is unable to pass its increased expenses fully on to its customers, and one that operates with little room for error. That leads to tragic and criminal incidents like the ones that we have seen recently.

    The industry attracts the dishonest, and corrupts the honest. I have been involved in several different industries, and the drivers that I encountered, were, with a few exceptions, the worst employees with whom I have ever worked. The fundamental issue is information asymmetry. Companies can use GPS trackers, electronic logbooks, and fuel cards that provide lavishly detailed reports of drivers’ fuel purchases, but the bottom line is that the drivers are unsupervised and heading out on long trips alone. They remain one step ahead of the companies in devising ways to game the system and increase their earnings through dishonesty such as stealing fuel. This constant exposure to dishonesty corrodes the morals of the managers in the industry, and leads to a situation of everyone trying to get over on each other and the system in general.

    I do not pretend to have a solution, although I do believe drivers and managers whose greed and negligence leads to accidents should be punished. If trucking companies could charge their customers more, or if retailers like Wal-Mart with in-house trucking divisions could charge their customers more, it would alleviate the pressures described above. The harsh reality is that trucking is not lucrative enough for companies to be able to pay their employees to drive safely. Stricter enforcement, as suggested above, might have an effect, but, paradoxically it could also increase financial pressures and give trucking companies even more of an incentive to cheat.

    • efgoldman

      My first real job out of college (’68-’69) was with a large New England trucking company. Eventually I took their 53 week management training course, and spent ~a year as assistant terminal manager in Albany, NY.
      The Teamster local in Albany was very strong; it used to be said of the business agent (essentially the boss)was still living in the 1930s. They’d threaten to close us down for the smallest infraction.
      But as crooked and as much of a pain in the ass as the union was, they negotiated enforceable contracts, and the ICC and NLRB helpd enforce them.

      the drivers that I encountered, were, with a few exceptions, the worst employees with whom I have ever worked.

      The drivers I knew (40+ years ago) were a mixed bag. I wouldn’t have trusted some of them to drive a truck from here to across the street, but many were real pros, salt of the earth, and very proud of their good driving records.
      They were kept from being hazards by a combination of regulations (remember those?) and contraccts.

    • shah8

      torts and deep pockets doctrine.

      • Does anybody else think profit margins of 8.8 percent are pretty decent? Have our expectations on money making become so screwed up that 8.8 percent profit is considered small?

        • Just Dropping By

          8.8% is indeed a decent profit margin in a “mature” industry, but that’s just one company. According to this article the average net profit in long-haul trucking was 6% in 2013 and averaged 3% to 4% over the previous three years.

  • Bitter Scribe

    I’m sorry, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for truckers about this, especially independent truckers. This is very much a case of “careful what you wish for.”

    Up to the 1970s, trucking rates were set by the Interstate Commerce Commission. If you wanted to move goods by truck across state lines, you knew what it cost you. It allowed for truckers to make a good living and not have to work insane hours and put everyone else at risk.

    But independent truckers disliked regulated rates because they made it impossible for the independents to undercut the union drivers. They started getting sympathetic coverage in the press and attention from politicians as the brave little Davids going up against the union Goliaths. (It didn’t help that the Teamsters union at the time was headed by the thuggish Frank Fitzsimmons.)

    So Jimmy Carter signed deregulation, and, what a surprise, there was a race to the bottom, in terms of not only rates but working conditions.

    • rickhavoc

      “While others talked of free enterprise, it was the Democratic Party that acted and we ended excessive regulation in the airline and trucking industry, and we restored competition to the marketplace, and I take some satisfaction that this deregulation legislation that I sponsored and passed in the Congress of the United States.” – Ted Kennedy, speaking at the 1980 Democratic National Convention

      • John Maynard Keynes

        this is how the whole concept of “just in time” delivery came about. it was great for wholesalers/retailers, because it reduced their investment in products, and the costs of storing them until needed. not so good for the truck driver, who may have only a very narrow time frame in which to deliver those products.

      • Bruce Vail

        Kennedy deserves some of the blame for the truck deregulation bill, as her doe for some of the worst aspects of ‘No Child Left Behind’

        Ted Kennedy could always be counted on to help the local unions from Mass that contributed to his campaigns, but his complete labor record has a lot of crappy stuff in it. Liberal Lion, my ass.

    • It wasn’t the independent truckers who were the real power behind Carter’s decision. How often do presidents actually listen to relatively small groups of unorganized workers? Never. It was the companies using the independent truckers for PR.

      • That’s crazy talk. Why, next you’ll try getting me to believe that the Republican concern about the estate tax wasn’t due to a sincere concern for small family farms.

    • sharculese

      I mean, even reading all of that in the worst possible light, which I’m not sure I’m inclined to do, there are truckers on the road who weren’t born yet when Jimmy Carter was President.

    • JMP

      Wasn’t there a bizarre big pop culture glorification of independent truckers in the late 70s too? Hell, apparently this ridiculous piece of crap was actually a hit back in the day.

      • FlipYrWhig

        That’s what I was going to bring up. It’s almost like truckers were cowboy gunslingers crossed with moonshiners and hacker anarchists or something. And CB radio was like Twitter.

  • DAS

    I wonder if the truck driver involved will get into deep trouble for staying awake for so long, but those who supervised him or contracted for his work will escape any legal sanction?(*) If I were to purchase a product knowing full well the only way the seller of that product could produce the product in the timeframe the product was produced, I get into trouble: e.g. if I purchase a DVD of a movie which is just released in the cinemas, I could get in trouble even if I say “I thought the seller was selling a legitimate product” because I should have known that there is no way I could have purchased such a DVD so soon. Similarly, if you place an order for a delivery and the only way that order can be fulfilled is if the truck driver is awake for 24+ hours and an accident happens, shouldn’t you be responsible (at least in addition to the truck driver)?

    BTW, this issue reminds me of what happens with sweatshops. Clothing companies place orders with contractors and then express shock, shock, shock I tell you that the clothes they ordered were made in sweatshops even though for the price they pay for the clothes they ordered, the only way the order could have been fulfilled is via a sweatshop. But the clothing companies’ defense boils down to “I was just giving orders”.

    * well actually I don’t wonder much at all … heck it was the prosecutor making the “he didn’t get enough sleep” argument — you’d expect the defense to use it to put the blame on someone else: “the accident only happened because this man’s livelihood depended on his staying awake for so long … if you want to blame someone, blame the people who told the defendant ‘you either deliver your payload by [X] time or you are fired’ knowing full well the only way to make that delivery on time was for the defendant not to get any sleep”

    • knowing full well the only way to make that delivery on time was for the defendant not to get any sleep

      This

      • cpinva

        and/or drive at unsafe speeds.

    • Just Dropping By

      If I were to purchase a product knowing full well the only way the seller of that product could produce the product in the timeframe the product was produced, I get into trouble: e.g. if I purchase a DVD of a movie which is just released in the cinemas, I could get in trouble even if I say “I thought the seller was selling a legitimate product” because I should have known that there is no way I could have purchased such a DVD so soon.

      Assuming this statement is true (which I’m pretty sure it isn’t; I’ve never heard of an individual being prosecuted or sued for purchasing a pirated DVD at retail, only for torrenting or other more self-evidently illegal downloads), the vast majority of purchasers legitimately have no idea whether the “only way that order can be fulfilled is if the truck driver is awake for 24+ hours.” Even retailers and wholesalers often don’t know exactly where goods are being shipped to them from and what kind of driving schedule is involved. People are generally allowed to assume that the businesses they are transacting with are complying with all applicable laws and it would add massive transaction costs to force businesses to independently verify the regulatory compliance of all their suppliers, shippers, etc.

      • mattH

        In this specific case though, we have an in-house transportation system of a company that prides itself on it’s logistics. Trust me, they know exactly where these drivers are, where they’re going, and where they need to be and when. These drivers go from a warehouse to a store(Walmart/Sam’s Club) and back. Unless this driver was up for hours partying, we know who is at fault.

  • Anonymous

    Sixth, trains.

  • rickhavoc

    I continue to be impressed by the celebrity-driven attention span in the US.

  • Matt

    I’m not sure if it’s still so, but it use to be that you could buy “trucker’s asthma medicine” at truck stops. I don’t know of that stuff was good for asthma or not, but it was sure good for keeping you up. (After a while, it doesn’t matter if you’re not asleep- you’re not really aware anyway.)

    I’ve long assumed that being a long-hall trucker must be a pretty bad job because of the fact that lots and lots of trucking companies advertise openings all the time, even over that last 5 years or so. If there are openings for semi-skilled labor over the last 5 years, it must be because they job is bad and the pay is really bad compared to the work.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      ever heard “six days on the road”?

      ‘i got ten forward gears
      and a georgia overdrive
      i’m taking little white pills
      and my eyes are open wide
      i just passed a jimmy and a white
      i’ve been passing everything in sight
      six days on the road and i’m gonna make it home tonight’

      … or not, maybe

      • tribble

        I do love Taj Mahal’s verion of this.

  • Bruce Vail

    I agree that David Dayen is typically excelllent.

  • DrDick

    On reflection, the system is not broken. It works exactly the way our plutocratic overlords intended.

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