Archive for March 21st, 2011

Keep On Truckin’

That was one of the less forgettable catch-phrases from the 70s, when the independent trucker seemed to embody what remained of the free spirit of America.  The part, anyway, that was engaged in constructive work rather than the self-indulgent self-destructiveness that came to pass for independence during that decade.

In fact, trucking has become increasingly regulated over the years, so much so that the notion of the independent trucker, gamely staying awake to deliver his load, is a thing of the past.  And with good reason.  These are very large, very dangerous vehicles.  They’re necessary, but they share the road with, and occasionally crush, passenger vehicles a fraction of their size and weight.  As a result of making sure that drivers get a decent amount of rest, the number of fatalities involving heavy trucks, per 100 million miles traveled, was at 2.34 in 2005, down from 6.15 in 1979.  More recent analyses have it falling even farther.  And those same statistics show truck driver fatigue as a factor in only 1.7% of those crashes.  The accident rates continue to decline.

So naturally, what we need is: more rest time!

That’s right.  The government has proposed rules that will require longer rest times, fewer hours on the job, more frequent breaks.  At first, this sounds like something truckers might like.  Until you realize that it’s basically forced idleness, with little marginal benefit to the rest of us using the roads.  Truckers hate sitting around.  They have loads to deliver, and a forced 15-minute break is actually more stressful, because instead of taking the break when the need it, they’re just as likely to be sitting around watching the clock tick until they can get back on the road.

The company that I am currently contracting for, Werner Enterprises, ran a little experiment with one of their more seasoned drivers, asking him to work to the rule for a month to see what would happen.  Turns out that idle trucks aren’t just the Devil’s workshop, they’re also expensive.  Two-day trips stretched into three days, and his income, which is based on miles covered, dropped 6% year-over-year.  Adopted nationwide, these standards would not only play havoc with the many businesses that use just-in-time inventory management, they would amount to a pay cut for the drivers they’re supposed to help.  And in an industry that tends to face driver shortages in good times, anyway, it would require even more drivers, and even more trucks, with all of the overhead that implies, even before they drive their first mile.

This is not an industry that opposes regulation for opposition’s sake.  They ended up supporting, for instance, the stricter rules against cell phone use.  There are signs on many of the tables in the company cafeteria warning truckers against cell phone use, not on the grounds that if they get caught, they’ll lose their commercial license and have to hitchhike back home from Keokuk, but because it’s dangerous.

They object to this brilliant idea, cordoning off I-70 at certain hours, because it would greatly complicate route planning, on a fairly major truck thoroughfare.  (C’mon guys, just widen the road, already.)  In combination with the new rules, mandating stops where it might or might not be possible to stop, it would turn driving that stretch into a nightmare.

Colorado’s own Cory Gardner serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which might be able to exercise some oversight here. (Although, so does Diana DeGette, who’s probably miffed that even after decades of trying, there are still trucks on the road at all.)  Perhaps he can take a look at this.

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