Mix Two Parts Negligent Truck Drivers and Trucking Companies and One Part Innocent Public And You Get A Recipe For Disaster
What do you get when you combine tractor trailers with a huge demand for shipping, too few drivers, and trucking companies that look the other way and often encourage drivers to drive more than they are allowed under federal law? You get a recipe for disaster!
The recipe starts with the growing demand for shipping over our roadways. Over 95% of the counties in Tennessee depend almost exclusively on trucks to deliver goods to their communities. Most of our counties do not have commercial railroad or shipping by waterway off-loading facilities, but they all have interstates and/or highways. The next ingredient in the recipe is the huge shortage of drivers needed to haul all the loads. In fact, the trucking industry currently has about 40,000 openings for truck drivers and expects that number to skyrocket in the next decade. The shortage of truck drivers means that trucking companies have increasing load commitments with a decreasing labor force. Industry watchdogs report that one in four trucks sit idle in Tennessee due to the driver shortage.
The remaining drivers face increasing pressure from their employers to deliver goods to a wider geographical range in an ever-shortening amount of time. The trucking companies’ increasing demands on their drivers for more and faster deliveries put the drivers in an impossible situation. If they attempt to meet the companies’ expectations, they well may exceed their physical ability to safely operate the truck. Although the Federal Government has passed laws designed to encourage safe driving in the trucking industry, trucking companies and their drivers find ways to circumvent them – a practice called “cooking the books”. This saying, once common to reflect bad accounting practices, is now widely used in the transportation industry to describe how a trucking company and/or its drivers manipulate information in their log books to hide dangerous and sometimes illegal driving practices.
Under federal regulations, once a driver goes on duty after a 10 hour off-duty break, that driver can only drive a maximum of 11 hours. Of course, a driver may have non-driving “on-duty” work to perform after coming on duty (like time spent loading or fueling the truck). Therefore, once a driver goes on duty, he or she must completely stop driving 14 hours after going on duty, even if he or she did not drive the full 11 hours by that time. The driver must also take at least one 30 minute break in the first 8 hours of a shift. Also, once a driver has reached 70 hours of driving in an 8 day period, the driver must stop driving. Once per week, the driver can reset their hours by taking a 34-hour rest break that must include two time periods between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. (in other words, at least 2 consecutive time periods when most people are asleep). These rules provide a higher level of safety for the driving public—IF they are followed by the trucking companies and their drivers.
Unfortunately for the driving public, these rules are easy to get around in the trucking industry and the punishments for being caught breaking them are not punitive enough to offset the lucrative contracts and bonuses that can be made by not following them. According to federal regulations, trucking companies and their drivers are not considered “egregious” (flagrantly in violation) in their actions until they are caught driving 3 hours past the federally mandated hours. So, a company and their drivers could consistently get caught driving over the time limits and only be cited for minor infractions, if they are cited at all. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll explore how books get cooked and offer proof that the transporation industry’s focus is on money, not public safety.