Mathematrucker’s take on the current state of long-haul truck driving
This is a guest post by mathematrucker.
There are a lot of pros and cons to being an over-the-road (OTR) truck driver, namely, one who spends weeks or even months at a time on the road. The pros can outweigh the cons for those like me who enjoy long highway trips. But this may be about to change.
A huge issue right now is surveillance. Inward-facing cameras that keep a constant watch on the driver may soon become the norm. Swift Transportation (the largest carrier in the U.S.) began installing them in all its company-owned trucks a few months ago.
Most OTR drivers are allowed to drive up to eleven hours per work shift and seventy hours every eight days. Their actual driving hours frequently reach these limits. That’s a lot of time to be in front of a running camera, never knowing for sure who might be watching you. If these cameras become widespread they are sure to cause many drivers (including me) to look for different work.
ELDs and Hours of Service Rules
One surveillance tool that is already well established is the electronic logging device (ELD). The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA, the regulatory body that covers interstate trucking) recently sent a rule to the White House for final review mandating that all trucks use them.
Federal hours-of-service regulations require drivers to maintain an up-to-date log book. Unlike paper logs, ELDs effectively prevent drivers from driving way past the legal limits. But they can also severely hinder drivers from driving short distances when they need to.
Most OTR drivers are paid by the mile—the more miles they drive, the more money they make. This provides a strong incentive to use all eleven driving hours per work shift. With paper logs, if a driver needs to exceed the limit by a few minutes to get to a safe place to sleep (versus stopping after say ten hours, possibly sacrificing some pay), they can. With ELDs this same scenario might force the driver into choosing between (1) sacrificing pay, (2) sacrificing overnight safety by stopping wherever, or (3) recording a logging violation to get to the safe place.
But many ELDs offer a fourth option as well: gaming the device (without tampering with it). Carriers can and usually do program some flexibility into ELDs. For example, trucks might be allowed to travel up to one mile below 10 MPH without the current duty status going to line 3 (driving), with resets occurring every time it does go to line 3. (Anyone catching a whiff of loophole here may want to hold their nose before reading the next sentence…) Many ELDs update and display the current duty status every second, but only record it at the top of every minute.
If the truck is not on a freeway, the driver can easily game such a device by alternately accelerating to around 45 MPH and decelerating to below 10 MPH once every minute, perhaps signaling a phantom turn to help avoid notice. To keep from decelerating too late, a smartphone can be used to watch the time to the second. Though no logging violation gets recorded, this technique does leave a trail of evidence on the device that might be noticed in an audit, but audits are infrequent. The alternative—recording a logging violation—will be detected immediately.
The FMCSA’s proposed mandate should require that ELDs record duty status by the second. It probably doesn’t.
The hours-of-service rules themselves are far from perfect. For one thing they do too little to prevent employers from depriving drivers of sleep. Ones who sleep nights are routinely directed to drive all night. Such orders went into my personal “go ahead, fire me if you need to” (for refusing) category many years ago, but this shouldn’t have been necessary.
The hours-of-service rules never said anything about time of day until a new rule was introduced in 2013 requiring two 1 AM to 5 AM periods in every thirty-four-hour rest break (such breaks reset hours driven to zero). Strong industry resistance caused this rule to be suspended in December 2014.
Of course, the problem of fatigue at the wheel will finally be solved when automation replaces truck drivers. Some studies predict it will happen soon. Anyone under the age of thirty (forty?) should take this into consideration if they are thinking about becoming a trucker.
Per Diem Pay
Due to a corporate tax strategy that has gained wide acceptance in recent years, income figures reported nowadays for OTR truckers are probably considerably lower than actual—perhaps by as much as twenty percent.
For many years the tax code has supplied OTR truck drivers with a surprisingly generous deduction called the standard meal allowance. For the past several years it has been $47.20 (80% of $59) per day on the road. Multiplied by 300 days (a typical number), this equals $14,160. The driver’s log book suffices to document how many days were spent on the road.
This sweet tax deduction sours into something called per diem pay when employers decide to get in the middle and “reimburse” drivers instead. They get the money to pay for this by reducing wages. Some companies report this nontaxable pay in Box 14 “Other” on the W‑2 but many do not report it at all; they are not required to.
Per diem pay is bad for drivers and good for companies. Companies mainly benefit from the reduction in payroll taxes. Per diem can also subtly reduce driver vacation pay per week: many companies pay 1/52 of the previous year’s earned income. Drivers also get socked with an “administrative fee” when per diem pay is used. I’ve seen this fee as high as 3% of gross income. The other downsides to per diem are too numerous to go into here. More info can be found in this article.
The reason I left my longtime, relatively well-paying OTR job five years ago wasn’t so much because my employer switched over to using per diem pay, it was more because of a deceptive “more pay in your pocket” ad campaign it foisted on drivers while per diem was still optional. Most drivers were not fooled by it. After spouting the same nonsense over and over for nearly two years, the company finally made per diem mandatory in late 2009.
Rather than resign immediately, I decided to stay on until the following June when my annual vacation pay would accrue. Without knowing it at the time, this decision would also bring me the million-mile safe driving award (during calendar years in which I had no preventable accidents, my paid miles at this company added up to more than a million by 2010). The purpose of these awards is mainly to promote the company image, but they do also look good on the resume, so I gladly accepted.
Returning to the theme of pros and cons, I close with a few pros:
- It doesn’t take an inordinate amount of training to get behind the wheel of a truck. Many say more training should be required—and they are probably right—but as of now it doesn’t take that much. Viewed strictly within the context of job-seeking my years of formal math education have served little to no useful purpose to date. By contrast, in 1994 after just a three-week training course plus three more weeks of paid, on-the-road training, I was earning a modest living doing something that didn’t even seem like work (it still doesn’t).
- One of the standard pros people cite is you don’t have a boss breathing down your neck. You do have one telling you where to go and when, but yes, the physical distance helps. Unfortunately inward-facing cameras threaten to obliterate the no-boss-breathing advantage.
- It’s real easy to get out of jury duty if you’re an OTR driver and you don’t want to go.