Last month in this column, I discussed the need to revise the truck driver hours-of-service (HOS) regulations. I believe the data support the argument that, contrary to their original intent, the HOS regs actually make the nation’s roads less, not more, safe, as they force truck operators to beat the clock—driving too fast to reach destinations or safe parking spots before they run out of hours. If drivers were not on the clock, they could drive at lower speeds and take breaks when needed.
But the HOS regulations are only part of the story. Another factor contributing to the speeding problem is the way drivers are paid.
Since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, truckers have been exempted from many normal work-for-hire regulations, including eligibility for overtime pay. Instead, drivers are customarily paid by the mile. It has been this way for more than 80 years. Even with the adoption of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, the exemption remained.
There were reasons for the exemption at the time. Back then, little freight was hauled by trucks. Good roads were scarce, and railroads dominated the freight industry. We didn’t have the long-haul trucking we have today. Instead, trucks primarily hauled farm goods. Service hours were not capped, so drivers could take as long as needed to reach their destinations. The more miles they drove and loads they hauled in a day, the more money they made.
Most truckers at the time liked being paid by the mile, as they could boost their earnings by working longer days and logging more miles. Owners liked the system because they could easily calculate the cost to deliver each load.
Fast forward to today. The only way to boost earnings under HOS and make up for wages lost to traffic delays is to log more miles by driving faster. But those added earnings come at a cost. Of the nearly 147,000 truck speeding violations recorded in 2018, the first full year under the HOS regs, 10.3% were for driving 15 mph or more over the posted limit.
Critics argue that paying by the hour would overpay drivers for time spent on nonproductive tasks like fueling and loading and unloading. But that happens in every job where some functions are valued more than others.
Let’s instead look for a better way to pay drivers. Adequate hourly pay or payment by the load are two ways. Or better yet, pay drivers safety-based bonuses that more than make up for any earnings lost by ending the pay-by-the-mile system. It’s time to value the drivers and not the miles they drive.