There is a growing belief that the way truck drivers are paid is leading to unsafe practices. The majority of truck drivers are paid by the mile, rather than by the hour. When a truck driver is stopped in traffic or is waiting for the truck to be loaded or unloaded, that driver is not getting paid. Obviously, getting paid by the mile is an inducement to drive too fast and to drive in weather that makes conditions unsafe. Truck drivers are exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act which mandates the minimum wage. New legislation was proposed to the U.S. Senate last week that would require employers to pay truck drivers for the hours they work, rather than for the miles they drove.
Headlines concerning truck accidents often focus on truck drivers. Distracted drivers and truck drivers who are suffering from fatigue due to lack of sleep draw headlines. But many accidents involve trucks that cannot be safely operated by any driver. Trucks that are not properly maintained or that are loaded improperly are a danger to the truck driver as well as everyone else on the road. The regulations in place to ensure that trucks are maintained in proper working order are proving insufficient to protect the public.
The safety of "ordinary" citizens is regularly sacrificed in the face of motivated special interests. One company employing thousands of people is highly motivated to destroy protections for those workers. Each worker has limited resources to assert his or her rights, so the fight is one-sided. It is a problem that has compromised the rights and interests of almost every American. Special interests impact highway safety in the same way they affect everything else - things get worse for the majority so that a highly interested minority can profit. The latest spending bill being considered by Congress has now had a rider attached to it that could increase trucking accidents and deaths caused by exhausted truck drivers.
There is no shortage of regulations aimed at the trucking industry. Many of these regulations are intended to ensure that truck drivers are well rested, properly trained, have safe driving records and are monitored. Trucks are supposed to be carefully maintained, properly loaded and designed for safety. Trucking companies are supposed to employ competent, safe drivers, keep their trucks in good working order and provide a working atmosphere that is conducive to safety. As with many regulations, these are often ignored when they get in the way of profit.
It is no secret that employers will pay employees as little as possible to maximize profits. The law sets a floor for hourly wage, though some companies attempt to get below even that paltry figure. The impact of wages, particularly low wages, on employee health and morale is concerning in many industries. In the trucking industry, pay practices may even have a detrimental impact on safety. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is now conducting a study to better understand the relationship between how much drivers earn and how safely they operate their vehicles.
Traffic deaths have generally declined over recent years. Improvements in safety technology have offset a growing population to lower highway fatalities. In 2011, we reached the lowest number of highway deaths since 1949, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The downward trend of deadly highway crashes is driven almost entirely by safety gains in passenger automobiles. Motorcycle deaths and fatal truck accidents have risen in recent years. Deadly truck accidents have increased each year since 2009. This bad news is made worse by the fact that economic indicators suggest the industry will grow substantially in the near future.
A New Jersey police officer and Marine Corps veteran was killed this week when his car was struck by a tractor-trailer. The truck reportedly made no effort to stop before rear-ending the parked police vehicle on the shoulder of Route 17 in the early morning hours. The officer was operating radar, looking to catch speeders, on the side of the road. The 32-year-old officer was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.
In 2013, the federal rules regarding hours of service for interstate truck and bus drivers changed. The maximum workweek was reduced from 82 hours to 70 hours. In addition, the rest needed to "restart" a week was set at 34 hours which must include two consecutive periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The justification for that last change was studies showing the importance of nighttime rest in preventing fatigue. It's true that the government can't force truck and bus drivers to get enough sleep. They can, however, see the toll taken by tired drivers and do what they can to encourage drivers to get adequate rest.