Allen Parker tried an experiment. He scrapped his routine of driving his powder-blue rig across the Great Plains for 11 hours a day. Instead, he drove it for 10. That one-hour difference wreaked havoc.
The 24-year veteran of Werner Enterprises Inc. had to stop one delivery 15 miles short of the customer. On another trip, he had to cool his heels in a Wal-Mart parking lot for a half-hour because of a mandatory break. He found himself sleeping during the day, waking up at 2:30 a.m. to make early deliveries.
“That’s when people should be sleeping,” said Parker, who lives in Fairbury, Nebraska, a town of 3,942 people in the southeastern part of the state, a little more than an hour from Lincoln. “It just messed me all up.”
The workday of the bearded, 48-year-old Parker and other truckers like him is now at the center of an intense U.S. debate about the extent of government regulation.
President Barack Obama’s administration has proposed cutting the number of hours truckers like Parker can spend behind the wheel each day from 11 to 10. Doing that would save billions in health-care costs and reduced accidents in a profession that is the most dangerous in on-the-job deaths, the administration argues. It’s also projected to add 39,000 jobs.
House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent a letter to the president on Oct. 5 demanding that the rule be withdrawn, saying it would add $1 billion in costs to an industry that already has cut driver fatalities. The weak economy makes the timing of the rule especially onerous, the Republican lawmakers said.
Billion Dollar Rule
The issue of government regulation has become a focal point in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, with candidates asserting that excessive rules on business are smothering job creation. House Republicans have made blocking new regulations a priority on Capitol Hill.
A Bloomberg review published this week showed that Obama has issued 5 percent fewer regulations than President George W. Bush at this point in their tenures. Obama’s rules are slightly more costly to business on average than those of his four predecessors.
The truck-driver fatigue rule is one of a handful of regulations being considered by the Obama administration that would cost companies at least $1 billion.
A related $2 billion safety requirement to add electronic data recorders to monitor truckers’ hours also is under consideration. That regulation isn’t controversial with the biggest trucking companies, which already have bought the equipment. Independent drivers are opposed.
The government faces a deadline tomorrow to produce the final driver fatigue rule under a legal settlement with Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer group, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
There were 3,380 truck-related fatalities in 2009, of which 503 were truckers, according to the latest full-year data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's down from 4,245 in 2008. As recently as 2006, there were more than 5,000 fatalities.
The American Trucking Associations estimates the trucking fatality rate fell to 1.17 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in 2009 from 1.84 in 2004. The rate of all truck collisions is down 11.7 percent in that time period, the Arlington, Virginia-based group said.
Further, Dave Osiecki, senior vice president for policy and regulatory affairs at the organization, said the Obama rule could have an unintended consequence. More trucks on the road means greater risk of crashes.
“We’re having a hard time understanding why the government would want to create more exposure to crashes for our industry,” he said.
Paid by Mile
Drivers stay on the road as long as they can because they’re paid by the mile, not the hour. Parker said he typically works 65 hours a week, driving 3,000 miles. He said he has driven 2.8 million miles without a crash.
Parker calculated the lost hours of driving would personally cost him $5,700 in lost wages annually.
The pressure on drivers has long been thought to lead to widespread cheating on paper logbooks, sometimes called “comic books” by drivers, that highway patrols check during roadside inspections.
“If we are continuously improving our accident rate as an industry, which we are, and fatalities are continuing to decrease, which they are, taking away this flexibility just doesn’t intuitively sound like a smart idea,” said Derek Leathers, president and chief operating officer of Werner, in an interview at the company’s Omaha, Nebraska, headquarters.
The need to work long hours to eke out a living is part of the problem, said Joan Claybrook, president emeritus at Public Citizen, the Washington-based consumer group that sued the Transportation Department in 2003, 2005 and again in 2009 to force the current rule making. Drivers are chronically over scheduled, she said.
“They should be paid by the hour, just like everybody else in America, and they should be paid overtime,” Claybrook said. “You can’t blame the hours-of-service rule for all the other deficiencies that exist in the system.”
While Boehner and Cantor talk about the $1 billion in costs, they’re discounting an estimated $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion in public benefits from fewer highway fatalities and healthier truck drivers, said Fred McLuckie, legislative director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Washington.
The physical stress of driving a truck can lead to spinal problems, heart disease and diabetes over the long haul, McLuckie said.
Costs of Safety
The average life expectancy of a truck driver is 61, or 16 years less than the U.S. average, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote in a September 2010 blog, citing Centers for Disease Control data. Trucking is the most dangerous profession in total on-the-job fatalities, and the eighth-most dangerous in deaths per worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency Congress created in 1999 to monitor the safety of the trucking and bus industries, said in its December notice of proposed rule making that the costs were large in absolute terms.
They are, however, “minor when compared to the size of the industry,” the agency said. A $1 billion expenditure reflects less than 0.5 percent of industry revenue, it said.
Withdrawing the regulation, as Boehner and Cantor urged, wouldn’t be easy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has twice challenged the government’s current 11-hour rule, citing safety considerations.
The problem, according to trucking companies: The Transportation Department proposal would limit driving time, forcing them to hire more drivers -- almost 39,000, according to government estimates.
“You’re going to have more drivers driving and fewer people killed,” Public Citizen’s Claybrook said. “That’s a pretty good trade-off.”
It’s hard to understate how important driving time is for the trucking industry, said Leathers, the Werner president.
With customers expecting shipments to be delivered on time, there won’t be much flexibility for traffic congestion or other contingencies, Leathers said. Trucking companies will have to rework routes that fit comfortably under 11 hours of driving, he said.
“There are going to be places in everybody’s network when you go down to 10, you’re simply going to be unable to deliver the service expectations customers have,” Leathers said. “You can’t have very many hiccups in your network.”
About 40 percent of Werner routes are in the 400-600 mile range and may have to be reworked, according to Steve Phillips, Werner’s senior vice president for operations.
On its route from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Amarillo, Texas, for example, a single driver can cover the 568-mile round trip averaging 52 mph with about 11 hours of driving. Under a 10-hour limit, a trucker would have to average an unrealistic 57 mph, Phillips said, meaning a second driver probably would be needed. Werner drives 20 loads a day for a single customer on that route, he said.
Werner expects the new rule will cost the company between 3 percent and 5 percent in productivity, Phillips said. The 10-hour limit would mean 6 million to 7 million lost miles a year, he said. Werner would have to buy 50 to 60 new trucks and hire 120 drivers.
The biggest impact may be reworking the route structure. When hours-of-service rules changed in 2004, Werner spent $2 million reprogramming its computers, Phillips said.
Harder on Drivers
Even with the national unemployment rate at 9.1 percent, it’s not easy for a company like Werner to find enough drivers. Turnover at long-haul trucking companies was 79 percent as of June 30, 2011, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis. In good economic times, turnover exceeds 100 percent.
The pool of desirable drivers is about 122,000 short and will become 300,000 short in 2012, according to Bloomberg Industries.
Parker, the Werner driver, said he thinks the new rule would actually make it harder on drivers, not safer.
Rest breaks count against a 14-hour limit on the work day, which has to include driving, safety inspections, loading and unloading. Drivers trying to make their destinations won’t be inclined to stop, even if they’re tired, Parker said.
“I see a lot of guys late at night weaving in and out,” Parker said. “A driver needs to understand his body and recognize when they do get tired. When that happens, they need to do something. Get out and walk around the truck.”