Much has been made in recent years of the looming replacement of human drivers with Robots Self-Driving Trucks. I, for one, welcome our new Overlords of The Road, and my concerns lie less in the inevitable evolution of technology, and more in how the state, and large, corporatist, Legacy Carriers, have been slowly chipping away at the autonomy of the individual, Over The Road, Long Haul Trucker. In this article I hope to illustrate the history and recent trajectory of this trend, and explain the extent to which the regulation of the Trucker has destroyed a once honored and noble occupation, and caused me to give up on it for good … even though I’ve had a pretty successful 20 year run in the business. Perhaps, if you wonderful Glibs will have me back, I might comment on why I think those robot trucks are a bit further away than their cheerleaders anticipate, and give some insight as to why certain sectors of the business will probably never be fully automated.
Jimmy Carter Deregulates The Business End of Trucking
Back in “The Old Days”, getting into the trucking business was extremely difficult. A prospective trucker had to seek a license, much like a taxi medallion, to even operate, and any rates you negotiated with your customers were mandated to be public knowledge, and could be interfered with by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Most trucking was done by in-house transport; many shippers had their own trucking fleets, or hired lease operators who had to run exclusively under those shippers’ operating licenses. Of course, this lead to unnecessary inefficiencies, inflated rates, and a rather noncompetitive marketplace. And that’s not even considering the effects of one James Riddle Hoffa. *(Warning, shameless plug for one of my favorite commentators and pod-casters, well known to the readers of this site.
All of this mess in the marketplace was somewhat corrected, and the field further opened to competition, by the passage of The Motor Carrier Act of 1980, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on July 1, 1980. Similar legislation followed, both provincially and federally, in my homeland of The People’s Soviet Republic of Canuckistan.
Of course, this momentous bit of de-regulation was met with howls of protest by the dominant legacy carriers, who were now losing their oligopolies, and, to this day, is also complained about by that portion of the truck driving community who do not understand what free markets actually mean in practice. God knows I’ve been wincing at their economically illiterate commentary since I was a kid, especially given that de-regulation allowed for once small, independent operators, like my former employers here, to grow from a tiny, family run operation, to having a fleet of nearly 100 tractors and 300+ trailers, a warehousing division, and to such size that they now employ over 200 people.
That’s the good news part of this article.
Any Action Will Be Met With an Equal and Opposite Reaction
The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw a massive increase in the competition in the trucking marketplace, which also saw the growth of 3PL’s, also known as load brokers. Many more new companies were opening, many more independent owner/operators were hitting the roads, and the marketplace continued to evolve. Things at the operational end of the business, however, were also evolving, and not always in a good way.
The state, as it is want to do, can never leave a good enough thing alone, and major increases in roadside enforcement operations began to take place. One thing that had not changed over this period of de-regulation of the marketplace was the hours-of-service (HOS) rules governing the amount of time a Trucker could work, how much rest was required, and when. What had also not changed, since their introduction in the 1950’s, was the use of paper log books, by which truckers were supposed to record their driving hours, location, odometer readings, commodity being hauled, and base of operations, such that enforcement personnel could keep an eye on us. The Nanny State was not satisfied with this arrangement, and through fits and starts in the early 2000’s they began to dismantle a regulatory framework, which, when matched with the ‘pliability’ of paper logs, allowed for an easier to manage compliance situation for most drivers smart enough to work with, through, or around the rules.
From the linked wiki –
Between 1962 and 2003, there were numerous proposals to change the HOS again, but none were ever finalized. By this time, the ICC had been abolished, and regulations were now issued by the FMCSA. The 2003 changes applied only to property-carrying drivers (i.e., truck drivers). These rules allowed 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour period, and required 10 hours of rest. These changes would allow drivers (using the entire 14-hour on-duty period) to maintain a natural 24-hour cycle, with a bare minimum 21-hour cycle (11 hours driving, 10 hours rest). However, the retention of the split sleeper berth provision would allow drivers to maintain irregular, short-burst sleeping schedules.
The most notable change of 2003 was the introduction of the “34-hour restart.” Before the change, drivers could only gain more weekly driving hours with the passing of each day (which reduced their 70-hour total by the number of hours driven on the earliest day of the weekly cycle). After the change, drivers were allowed to “reset” their weekly 70-hour limit to zero, by taking 34 consecutive hours off-duty. This provision was introduced to combat the cumulative fatigue effects that accrue on a weekly basis, and to allow for two full nights of rest (e.g., during a weekend break).
In 2005, the FMCSA changed the rules again, practically eliminating the split sleeper berth provision.  Drivers are now required to take a full 8 hours of rest, with 2 hours allowed for off-duty periods, for a total of 10 hours off-duty. This provision forced drivers to take one longer uninterrupted period of rest, but eliminated the flexibility of allowing drivers to take naps during the day without jeopardizing their driving time. Today’s rule still allows them to “split” the sleeper berth period, but one of the splits must be 8 hours long and the remaining 2 hours do not stop the 14-hour on-duty period. This rule is confusing and impractical for most drivers, resulting in the majority of drivers taking the full 10-hour break.
The split sleeper provision, such as it was, was the tool in our HOS regimen which gave us the flexibility to meet the demands of life on the road, shipping schedules, traffic, you name it. If you were held up at a customer, unpaid and with nothing you could possibly do about it, as is a common practise and endless source of frustration for the average trucker, you could at least log that time in the bunk, and make up the driving time later. No more.
In 2005, the FMCSA changed the rules again, practically eliminating the split sleeper berth provision.
This rule change, as well as the introduction of satellite linked electronic log devices, or ELDs, which become the law of the land this month have pretty much eliminated the possibility of most truckers being able to work around any schedules, traffic, weather, or this little thing called ‘life’; and to my great disgust, further remove any autonomy one might have as a trucker. As has been posted here in a thread by yours truly a few weeks back, this is certainly not good news to the over 3 million truckers in North America who are being affected by these changes. I mean, who doesn’t want Uncle Sam riding shotgun with you, telling you when you can eat, sleep, or shit, or undermining your fourth amendment rights against your privacy? Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Some anecdotes from my last trucking job about how that effects your life on the road –
Situation a – I am dispatched from my former employers home base in Syracuse, New York, to a trailer manufacturer in Cheeseheadville, Wisconsin, to pick up a brand new trailer. Around midnight, I get tired, and pull in to the Petro Truck Stop at Angola, Indiana. No problem, right? Yours truly wakes up at a little after 630am, pre-trips the truck, has breakfast, and is ready to roll at 730. But according to Uncle Sam, and the mandated logging device in my truck, I cannot go anywhere til 10am, when the minimum required 10 hour break is up. So I have 2 and a half hours to catch up on the fun and excitement to be found here at Glibertarians Dot Com, but not make any fucking money, all because some enlightened public servants pieces of shit at the FMCSA have deemed that my sleep patterns must fit into what they believe is a proper regimen of rest.
Situation b – Yours truly is on his way back to Syracuse, on a similar trailer retrieval mission as situation a. Approaching Cleveland, I am about to run out of available driving hours, and pull into the last service plaza on the Ohio Turnpike prior to the 90 splitting off into the west side of Cleveland. Guess when my ten hour rest period allows me to drive again? Right in the middle of morning rush hour. Under the old regimen of paper logs and the split sleeper provision, or if I worked in a civilized place that allows for 16 hour (or more) windows for your drive time to be completed, or allow more driving time (such as Canada, where it is 13 hours, or Western Australia, which is quite similar), I could have kept driving through Cleveland in the evening, and parked on the east side of town, thus avoiding contributing to rush hour traffic. The next time you are sitting in traffic in some major metropolitan area, and you’re wondering why all of these trucks are on the road at the same time, you know who to blame.
And there are millions of situations like this taking place every day, in every subdivision of the trucking industry. Imagine being a cattle hauler, and you have a full load of calves on board, and it’s winter time. You run out of your 11 hours driving time, and have to stop, in the middle of winter, most likely at a location where you can’t unload your cargo and get them inside somewhere where they won’t freeze to death. Or imagine that you are me, or one of the many other people who used to run The Ice up North (remember this stupid piece of crap of television?), and your run basically can’t be done, because it’s 16 hours from Yellowknife to the mine under optimal conditions. In fact, there are so many of these situations, that dozens and dozens of industry groups that depend greatly on trucking are lining up and begging for exemptions to the rules.
And the trucking industry continues to wrestle with a driver turnover problem, that, although it has decreased slightly through 2015, appears to be on the rise again. Gee, I wonder why?
It also seems that many of the older guys on the road, gents who have been trucking for many decades and are used to managing their own schedules, regardless of what Uncle Sam has to say about it, are going to take early retirement or find something else to do.
At Werner, as Leathers explained, the number of drivers in the 60-67 age group had held steady for “a long, long time,” as a few would retire and about an equal number would move up.
In the 90 days leading up to the hours-of-service change, that number fell by half.
“It’s my belief that’s a representative sample across the industry of drivers who just said, ‘I’m out. I’m done. Thanks, but I’m moving on,’” Leathers said. “That’s been the silent victim of these changes: The drivers that are probably some of the most-qualified we have are saying, ‘I’ve had enough and I’m not going to do it.’ That’s concerning.”
Steve Gordon, COO of Gordon Trucking Inc., offered a similar take.
“The thing that’s most unfortunate is we’ve worked very hard to build a better lifestyle for our drivers – more out-for-a-week, home-for-a-weekend opportunities. The new restart has been most painful for those folks,” Gordon said. “They can’t leave the house until after 5 a.m. If they get hung up somewhere, they lose that time the next week. So the very people we’re trying to tell, ‘we’re going to do right by you, we’re going to get you home to see your family,’ they’re the ones paying the price.”
Think about this for a minute. A job which attracts people who typically want to be left alone, or have some kind of ‘adventure’, or at very least not be under the nose of their boss all day, is being regulated to a degree which gives you very little room to schedule your day, virtually dictates your sleeping patterns, penalizes you for taking naps or otherwise attempting to make the most efficient use of your time, and provides the government with an instantly accessible record about where you have been, 24/7, and gives them unlimited access to review your HOS compliance and issue fines at will. WHERE DO I SIGN UP?
Where Do We Go From Here?
For the liberty minded professional driver, the situation looks bleak. I doubt very highly that the FMCSA is ever going to change the HOS regulations to match more humane and productive provisions in places like Canada or New Zealand, where a guy can drive 13 hours a day and, at least in Canada, has a bit more flexibility with shifting hours around. And I also doubt very highly that the FMCSA or any state level DOT is going to give up on the rolling cash cows that are ELDs. If you are an owner operator and you have a truck with a model year older than 2000, you are exempt from the ELD mandate, but that doesn’t help with the stupid HOS regs, and many large carriers won’t take on owner operators who choose to run older equipment. (And don’t get me started on the EPA rules and how they have completely screwed up the engine marketplace, such that Caterpillar quit making on-highway diesel engines. Another article entirely …. ) Trucking is an ultra-competitive marketplace for rates, and the little guy has an enormous hill to climb in competing against legacy carriers, who benefit both from economics of scale, and being large enough to enjoy the privileges of regulatory capture. Hell, some of these arseholes, through cronyist organizations like The American Trucking Association, go right along with all of these stupid laws because they know they can comply with them. The Provinces of Ontario and Quebec instituted mandatory truck speed limiters, restricting trucks to 105km/h (65mph) by law, even for carriers not based there. These rules were not proposed by the Ontario Ministry of Transport, or it’s analogs in Quebec; they were proposed by mega-carriers like Challenger Motor Freight, and their crony mouthpieces in the Ontario Trucking Association.
So what’s a guy to do? As reported above, many older drivers who were already close to retirement are just going to pack it in. Some, like myself, are young enough to move into other fields of pursuit, and some, perhaps, already have training or qualifications in other fields. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the business, and the demographics of people who it typically draws from, this is not the case for the majority of people behind the wheel. What are they going to do? What was once considered a free-wheeling, adventurous, decent paying gig, looks more and more like a rolling prison from which many may not escape.