Monday, February 10, 2014

The Wild World of Truck Law

I was driving through the heart of southern Texas, traveling--over the course of two days--from El Paso, Texas to Mobile, Alabama. I had a family reunion to attend in Gulf Shores, and the traffic around San Antonio and Houston was jeopardizing my already tenuous time table. Ultimately, I realized I wouldn't make it all the way to Mobile by the coordinated evening, and I called my family to inform them and possibly come up with a solution as that reality become more apparent.

The personal problem for me here was hours. Professional commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers are only allowed to drive a maximum of 11 hours a day, out of a total of 14 consecutive hours maximum of work. This itself must be punctuated by a break of no less than 30 minutes before the 8th hour of that 14, and all of this is contingent on you having available hours in the first place. A CMV driver is not to exceed 70 hours of time on duty in an 8-day rolling week... unless your company closes on weekends or travels in Canada, where you're limited to 60 hours in a 7-day rolling week. Either of these periods can be reset to the full time by taking a 34-hour break, including at least two 1 am - 5 am periods. Welcome to the DOT's world.

One option that I had considered was using what's called personal conveyance, or "PC," to park my trailer, unhook, and drive the truck as a commuting vehicle to the gathering and back the following day. But even this was shrouded in hazy and ominous regulations. After calling my trainer, my uncle (a former driver), and briefly consulting Google, it appeared that I could, in fact, legally go over my hours through PC, but only if I was traveling a "short distance" to lodgings, restaurants, etc, or if I was using it to commute to or from my "home terminal." Neither of which seemed to be precisely true in my case; I needed to drive about 80 miles from a yard more than a thousand miles from my home terminal, and 80 miles is a "short distance" only by the most generous of comparative interpretations. And here too, a driver cannot operate a CMV period if they have been "placed out of service for exceeding the requirements of the hours of service  regulations." This strange and ambiguous phrase was not made any clearer when I asked about the specifics on PC rules from the safety officer at my company's yard in Texas, who essentially said "it's just a liability thing so that if you get in an accident, and you're over hours..."

Ultimately, my mom and uncle drove out the 80 miles to collect me.

What I've briefly summarized and described here is a problem related only to the hours of service regulations. I'm not expecting you, reader, to absorb and remember all of this, since most truck drivers only have a rudimentary and functional understanding of these laws, which seem to change yearly anyhow (for instance, the "two consecutive 1 am - 5 am periods" clause is currently being debated by congress; far more important than the national deficit). DOT has established specific and particular rules on inspection reports, the paper and e-logs, weight and bridge law, road restrictions and driving regulations, load securement, and the myriad of complications that arise from hauling hazardous material. They've even expanded into personal health, which must be maintained like any other piece of equipment on the rig. In 2010, the DOT created a scoring system for all of these codes and restrictions called the Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program. Under the CSA program, drivers and their companies accrue points for various violations, from minor speeding and warnings to lethal collisions. The more points you have, the more of a liability you are to the company, and the less hireable of a driver you are.

Now, the point of these laws is to make trucks safer on the road. The premise, of course, is that semi trucks are the biggest safety hazard on the road. In reality, however, trucks are simply the most restrictable, giving the appearance of improved safety by government regulation policy. Both car and truck accidents have been in steady decline over the last several decades. What's more, trucks are, largely, safer than cars on the road. In 2009, for instance, the overall rate of police-reported crashes for trucks was one third that of "four-wheelers." While accidents involving CMV's are more likely to result in a fatality, CMV's are significantly underrepresented in the total number of accidents, and while they're usually held financially liable for accidents, collisions between CMV's and cars are the exclusive legal fault of the latter 71% of the time. This makes sense at a very basic economic level; companies lose a lot of money when they lose time, loads, and drivers in accidents.

But regardless, DOT has made it it's mission to make the roads safer from 18-wheelers and their kin. How have their policies performed? It's difficult to say, because "[i]n 2012, the Federal Highway Administration implemented an enhanced methodology for estimating registered vehicles and vehicle miles traveled by vehicle type[...]applied to data from 2007 through 2012." The suspiciously large decline in accident rates at that time looks more politically self-serving than reflective of real road-safety. Aside from that leap, the rate of declining collisions is more or less the same as we've had since the 1970's.

Henry Hazlitt described the problems of policy tunnel-vision in terms of economics. "While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also[...]interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for them plausibly and persistently." It seems reasonable to hypothesize (I won't say "conclude" just yet) by the relationship between data and that law that it was public opinion and the appearance of increased safety, not safety itself, that lawmakers and the Department of Transportation have been after in the recent expansion of trucking law. The cost of this increased perception of road safety just so happens to be the increased stress and demands of following these laws by the drivers of these big rigs. "It's not the same anymore," said one old veteran trucker, describing how the job is more aggravating than it used to be. It lacks the freedom.

But stress and pressure to make economic use of the limited time drivers have during the day (one can easily imagine how this could encourage drivers to move when they might otherwise want to stay still?) is not the only danger of compliance. According to Mike Rowe, the hidden costs of compliance are "staggering," both in economic terms and in terms of safety. According to Rowe, the motto "safety first!"--a mainstay in the trucking world--is not only silly, but even a little counterproductive. "I value my safety on these dirty jobs as much as the people I'm working with," he told the audience at his TED talk. "But the ones who really get it done, they're not out there talking about 'safety first.' They know that other things come first." He went on to decry "the idea that we create this sense of complacency when all we do is talk about somebody else's responsibility as though it's our own and vice versa."

These dubious policies that seem so straightforward and well-intentioned come with hidden costs. Whether those costs outweigh the benefit--which may or may not exist--is a calculation that could feasibly come out in favor of either side, but it's a question we can't address when those costs remain hidden. They could be as important as death statistics in the thousands, or as trivial as making it to a family reunion in time, but they exist and they matter. When the benefits of these policies are elusive or underwhelming, we should take the time to ask whether the costs are worth it, especially when those costs are hoisted onto the shoulders of others.