Driven Out - Modern Farmer

Driven Out

America’s food economy depends on long-haul trucking. Monitoring devices intended to make the industry safer might not be working.

A semi-truck on the highway.
Photography by Shutterstock

If you’ve eaten today, you can thank a trucker. Much of the food we eat in this country, and most other things as well, are transported by trucks—as much as 70 percent of the value of all commercial goods shipped in the US. And while the average American might not think too much about long-haul truckers in their day-to-day life, maybe we should. Not only is this an industry that we depend on critically, it’s one that is going through something of a transformation.

Effective January 1, 2024, intrastate trucks in California must be equipped with Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs), following in the steps of other states that have made similar mandates. Trucks making interstate deliveries have been required to be equipped with ELDs since 2017. 

ELDs are small devices, but the impact they’ve had on the trucking industry is monumental. Monitoring devices that track when the truck is in motion and for what duration, ELDs are largely intended to address road safety issues associated with drivers pushing themselves too far for too long. But some say ELDs are having the opposite effect and are a violation of trucker privacy and workflow.

“It just seems like the trucking industry is getting regulated out of existence,” wrote one trucker, Allen Boyd, in response to a request for comments on ELD regulation updates by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 2022.

Why ELDs?

Long-haul trucking used to be a secure and respected career. Today, it’s a job with high turnover and a lack of security. Many headlines today talk about the future of trucking, which includes the possibility of autonomous fleets replacing human-driven ones at some point down the line. But the predicament in which truckers find themselves now actually goes back in time by several decades.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which created a guaranteed minimum wage, passed in 1938. An exemption was included for truckers, so they could earn more and be more productive. But, in 1980, when the Motor Carrier Act was passed, truckers for the first time encountered Hours of Service rules, capping how many hours they were allowed to be on the job. While this is a pretty standard labor regulation, the fact that truckers still didn’t have a minimum wage created the issue as it stands today: Many truckers are paid by the mile, but they are limited in how many hours they can work. To earn a comfortable wage means there’s an implied and incentivized race against the clock. This, of course, is a dangerous combination on the open road.

ELDs are attached to the engine and can set very firm boundaries on how long the truck can be in operation and when it’s time for a mandated break. The FMCSA estimates that ELDs will lead to 1,844 fewer crashes and 26 prevented deaths every year.

The issue, says Karen Levy, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University and author of Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance, is that ELDs don’t address what she believes is the actual root cause of fatigue-related crashes or unsafe driving.

According to Levy, these problems can be traced back to the standard pay structure for long-haul truckers, which is compensation for miles driven. There’s a common saying in the trucking industry, “If the wheels ain’t turning, you ain’t earning.” The issue with this is that there are tasks inherent to the job—getting gas, loading the truck, unloading the truck—that take place when the truck is stationary. As the saying implies, money isn’t earned during these periods, even if they take hours. This can incentivize driving longer without breaks than is safe. 

“One of the things that has really been striking to me is it can’t really be overstated how fundamentally dependent we are on this system that hardly works,” says Levy.

Truck dashboard with ELD.

A truck dashboard with an ELD screen. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Not only do ELDs not solve the problem, says Levy, they could even make it worse. Firm constraints on driving time, while the pay structure remains based on distance traveled, means that drivers are implicitly encouraged to drive faster and more recklessly to maximize their mileage within the allotted time.

“We haven’t changed the economic structure of the industry or the rules,” says Levy. “All we changed is how they are monitored.”

It’s only been a few years since the 2017 mandate, but one study suggests that accident rates haven’t gotten better yet and might have even gotten worse.

One of the reasons for this, says Levy, is that it takes the flexibility out of the work. She gives a hypothetical:

Before, if you had 11 hours to get somewhere, and it takes you 11 hours and 10 minutes, it’s not a big deal. That’s just part of being on the road.

But, with an ELD, if you have 11 hours to get somewhere and taking a minute over would put you in violation, you might handle that drive differently.

“You’re probably going to drive much more recklessly, much faster, you’re not going to take the time to go get a cup of coffee if you feel like you need it,” says Levy. “You’re not going to stop and check on something that sounds weird on your truck.”

And, at the end of the allotted drive time, the trucker might not be anywhere near a place they can pull over to rest. If they drive further looking for a truck stop, they risk being in violation. In response to a request for comments on ELD regulation updates by the FMCSA in 2022, an anonymous trucker voiced their concern.

“In my honest opinion since ELD there has been more accidents because drivers are always being forced to race the clock so they can get loaded/unloaded and to [the] next pickup or safe spot to sleep for the night because they are out of hours.”

Another commenter agreed, saying that the ELDs make it harder for drivers to take breaks when they need them. And if they hit traffic, construction or unreliable road conditions, the driver loses miles and hours.

“We keep getting told that these laws, [these] rules are put in place to make it easier and safer for the driver. In doing so, it makes it harder.”

The road ahead

There’s a path forward, says Levy, but it’s got to go beyond just technology. “I don’t think there’s a tweak we could make to the ELD that would solve all the truckers’ problems,” says Levy. Safer roads probably require an approach that focuses more on trucker pay and labor rights. Trevor Ralphs, in a comment response to the FMCSA prompt, echoed Levy’s point about trucker pay structure.

“If you really want to make driving more safe for not only truck drivers but everyone else on the road, you would make it so that truck drivers are all paid hourly. This would make sure truck drivers are not in a rush to make the most money but instead they are taking things slow, steady and safe because you will be paid more for your time.”

Trucks parked in a row.

Trucks at a truck stop in Missouri. (Photo: Shutterstock)

While the industry pay regulations haven’t changed, some companies have started shifting toward time-based pay in the ELD era. Nathaniel Hosea writes in response to the FMCSA prompt:

“I personally like ELDs as a company driver, it keeps everything organized and I get a[n] hourly pa[y] now. Before ELDs, I got paid CPM [cents per mile] and lost lots of money waiting time in stopped traffic and not being paid at warehouses. Finally, with ELDs and hourly pay, I don’t have to be pressured to speed and driving unsafe to deliver loads.” 

Hosea goes on to say that driving per mile should be a thing of the past. “There should be a law to end CPM [cents per mile] wage payments, traffic is too congested today to make any money on CPM.” 

We should remove the trucker exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act, so that truckers can be paid more fairly, says Levy.

“I think, fundamentally, the problems in the industry are political and economic,” says Levy. “Truckers don’t have the political power to successfully argue for labor rights that would really make us all safer.”

More broadly, says Levy, there’s been a cultural shift from seeing truckers as the heroes of the highway to seeing them as on the fringes of society. But, at the end of the day, our country—and our food system—would not function without long-haul truckers and the work that they do. 

“Building dignity back into the job,” says Levy—not barring them from using business bathrooms or filming them constantly—“those are good places to start.”


Interested in learning more about this topic?

You can find Levy’s book here:

Truckers are paid a little differently than most other professions. A breakdown of why can be found in this article from FleetOwner. For a longer history of the trucking industry, check out this podcast called On the Move.

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Pablo Sosa
6 months ago

Excellent article. Finally someone addressing the root of all this stupid laws. I can not believe that laws and regulations are made by people that never leave a desk….never put the butt on a truck….inwill invite someone from DOT or FMSA to come with me and travel one week….to understand a little bit more of all this regulations And you forgot to mention something very important and simple Math and common sense. 1994 when I started trucking in 5he USA…a gallon of diesel fuel was in Calif just about 2 to 5 cents over the $1….and many states…under the $1.… Read more »