Future Tense

Surveillance Was Supposed to Make Long-Haul Trucking Safer. Did It?

A driver behind the wheel of a truck yawns.
Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Adapted from Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance by Karen Levy. Copyright © 2023 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, at noon Eastern, the New America Fellows Program and Future Tense will host an online conversation with Karen Levy about Data Driven. RSVP here to join us.

Perhaps no aspect of long-haul trucking work is more important, and more controversial, than sleep. When and how much to sleep (and concomitantly: when, how much, and under what conditions to drive) is a key logistical consideration in trucking, and one with crucial safety implications. The problem of tired truckers has economic roots: truckers drive themselves past the point of exhaustion because they have to do so to make a living. Rather than solving the problem’s root causes, the industry has turned to surveillance technology to address the issue. But digital surveillance doesn’t solve the safety problems in trucking—and it may make them worse.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s difficult to attach a number to exactly how many hours per day or per week truckers actually work. One study from the 1990s found that non- unionized long-haul drivers worked 65 hours per week; 10 percent of respondents in that study reported working more than 95 hours in the previous week. In another survey, a third of long-haul drivers admitted to falling asleep at the wheel at least once in the previous month. Sleep studies conducted among truckers consistently show that truckers aver- age only five to six hours of sleep in a 24-hour period when they are working.

Trucker fatigue can have deadly consequences. Each year, truck crashes on America’s highways kill about 5,000 people and injure 150,000 more—figures that have been climbing steadily over the past decade. Though several factors contribute to crash risk, driver fatigue has been repeatedly identified as having one of the strongest effects on accident rates, particularly in fatal crashes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Why are truckers so tired? Structurally, the biggest reason is the way truckers are paid. The pay-per-mile arrangement that is standard in the industry incentivizes truckers to overwork. Time spent sleeping is time spent not driving—and that means less money in the trucker’s pocket.

Advertisement

As historian Alan Derickson explains in Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, truckers throughout history have reportedly relied on all manner of tricks to stay awake; a 1935 National Safety Council research paper he cites reported that “[a]mmonia as an inhalant is useful, but its effect is not lasting. Some drivers are even reported to resort to sipping urine in emergencies.” Other truckers “us[ed] an onion to moisten dry eyelids.” Others, afraid of nodding off while driving, “would light a cigarette and sleep until it burned down and awakened them by scorching their fingers.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Stimulant use by truckers remained a known public health problem throughout the 20th century. Truckers sometimes referred to letting “Benny take the wheel”—a reference to Benzedrine, a form of amphetamine. In the 1980s, the Drug Enforcement Administration banned Ecstasy (a combination of methamphetamine and mescaline) after truckers began using it to stay awake for work.

Randomized drug testing in the industry makes drug use a somewhat riskier solution to fatigue in the modern era, though the use of legal stimulants like 5-Hour Energy and Red Bull is extremely widespread. Companies often know about, and even encourage, these practices. A Texas trucking company recently received flak for a meme it posted to its Facebook page that read: “DON’T STOP WHEN YOU ARE TIRED. STOP WHEN YOU ARE DONE!”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s important to recognize statements like these for what they are, and not to caricature or oversimplify them. Truckers’ emphasis on stamina is a cultural gloss necessitated by trucking’s political economy. Much of the machismo, and the “fun and games” of outsmarting law enforcement, masks the tight economic straits in which they find themselves. Oral historian Anne Balay describes this “trucker mentality” as “confidence born of years of experience mixed with sheer desperation.”

One trucker I spoke with described this far more powerfully than I ever could. As I was wrapping up our interview, he stopped me to interject:

It’s just for me, when you talk about breaking hours of service, and you talk about running multiple logbooks, and you talk about, you know, electronic regulation and things like that … [it’s] important for me to touch upon the financial conditions which produce, like, that kind of behavior[.] I mean, it’s not a tenable situation without some kind of help. You know, it’s not something that you could do. And there are a lot of men out there who—there wouldn’t be food on the table, frankly, and the lights wouldn’t be on at home if they weren’t breaking the law and if they weren’t using drugs. And it’s not about having a party, because it’s not a fucking party. It’s very much not a fucking party. I mean, you’re driving something that weighs from about 65,000 to maybe 100,000 pounds. You can go into a ditch. You could crash into somebody. You could rear-end someone. And you’ve been awake for 20 to 30 hours. There’s nothing fun about that. You’re looking in the rear-view mirror. You’re looking in the ditch for a smokey. You’re worried about the chicken coops being open. It’s not fun. That’s not fun.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In an attempt to address the fatigue problem, the federal government has legally limited truckers’ work time through “hours-of-service” regulations. These rules have been in place, in one form or another, since the 1930s. Though specific time limits have changed over the years, most long-haul truckers today may legally drive no more than 11 hours per day, and can be “on duty”—a status which includes both driving and other job functions, like fueling, loading/unloading, and performing required vehicle inspections—for no more than one 14-hour window per day. After the maximum on-duty time is reached, a 10-hour break is required. Weekly limits also apply.

To facilitate enforcement of the hours-of-service regulations, truck drivers have long been required to keep track of their work time using paper logbooks. But for as long as the timekeeping regulations have existed, truckers have fashioned ways to evade them. Drivers face strong economic pressures to maximize their driving time and are incentivized to remain on the road even when exhausted. Thus, it is widely acknowledged that truckers lie on their logbooks. In one survey, nearly three-quarters of all drivers admitted to violating the hours-of-service regulations.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The problem’s roots are economic—to make a living, truckers have little choice but to break the law and to put themselves, and the motoring public, in danger. One might imagine that this problem has an economic solution, rooted in changing the structure of compensation in the industry to prevent truckers from being put in such dire straits.

Yet the solution on which hopes have been pinned is not economic, but technological. Regulators have tried to make it more difficult for truckers to falsify their time records by mandating the use of digital devices, integrated into trucks themselves, that create a record of the hours the truck is driven (as well as, often, other information about the truck and its driver’s behavior). These devices—known as electronic logging devices or ELDs—automate many of the functions served by paper logs in an effort to curtail unsafe practices. The ELD is a small device hardwired to the truck’s engine that captures data about (at a minimum) the truck’s engine status, location, and mileage.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In July 2012, President Obama signed into law the MAP-21 highway bill (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act). Among its provisions, MAP-21 directed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to issue a rule requiring electronic logging in the trucking industry. The FMCSA’s final rule mandating ELDs for nearly all American trucks running long hauls was finally issued in 2015, and the mandate took effect in December 2017.

Advertisement

Large companies eventually came to strongly support the ELD mandate. By the mid-2010s, many of them were already using electronic monitoring to manage their drivers, so the mandate didn’t change their practices very much—and the collateral management benefits of the device outweighed their concerns about lost productivity, as the technology also gave them far more oversight over the behaviors of their own workers.

Advertisement

But the mandate was ardently opposed by most drivers and small companies. Many truckers worried that the mandate would reduce their ability to make money by placing inflexible constraints on their driving time. Even finding parking could be significantly more costly in time (and therefore money) under an inflexible monitoring scheme. A digitally monitored trucker has much less flexibility about when he can stop for the night; as one driver lamented, “ELD leaves no room for dealing with crowded truck stops, making it nearly impossible to preplan.” To avoid this, monitored truckers may simply pull over on a highway shoulder or off-ramp to take their 10-hour break—an unsafe (and often illegal) practice that endangers other drivers.

Even more fundamentally, truckers raised concerns about ELDs as an affront to their privacy, dignity, and independence. A common refrain was that the new rules treated them like criminals, cheaters, or children.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Truckers brought (ultimately unsuccessful) legal arguments to challenge the ELD mandate on privacy grounds. OOIDA, the owner-operators’ association, sued FMCSA again in 2016 to attempt to block the mandate— asserting, among other arguments, that the rule violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on warrantless search and seizure. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this argument under the “pervasively regulated industries” exception, which holds that businesses that operate voluntarily in highly regulated industries (like liquor stores and gun dealers) can be required to undergo administrative inspections without implicating the Fourth Amendment, particularly if they engage in dangerous activities.

Advertisement

But this rationale carried little weight for truckers. The truck cab is not merely a workplace—it’s a trucker’s home. He sleeps and eats there. It is his small corner of the world, from which he can exercise some control. In those ways, it’s wholly unlike a liquor store or a gun shop—electronic monitoring can feel like an infiltration into a much more sacred space.

Advertisement

A related point of pushback from truckers concerned their prized autonomy—to make decisions, to do their work as they see fit, and to know their own physical capabilities and limitations. The hours-of-service rules, as well as the electronic monitoring used to enforce them, challenge this independence, and imply that not only does the trucker lack the stamina needed to do the job, but that he’s too weak and faulty to know when he’s too tired to drive.

Advertisement

Another key concern that truckers brought to the fore was that the ELDs addressed the wrong problem. Truckers weren’t tired because they were able to falsify their logbooks; they were tired because the industry and its pay structure were set up in ways that necessitated them breaking the rules. By focusing on what truckers were doing to react to that system, the ELD mandate viewed them—the least powerful members of the industry—as untrustworthy liars who needed to be better policed, rather than professionals doing their best to negotiate difficult logistics in the face of countervailing demands.

Advertisement

We might reasonably feel that the downsides of trucker surveillance are justifiable if they meaningfully address the high-stakes problem of danger on the public roads. Does electronic monitoring prevent truckers from breaking the hours-of-service rules—and more to the point, do they make our highways safer?

The verdict is decidedly mixed. The most rigorous study of the ELD rollout  found that the mandate did increase drivers’ compliance with hours-of-service regulations, as measured by the number of citations issued by law enforcement during inspections. Before the mandate, inspectors cited drivers for hours-of-service violations about 6 percent of the time; afterward, they found (or at least, recorded) violations only half as often, 2.9 percent of the time.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But crucially, the study did not find that the rollout of electronic monitoring led to any improvement in the safety outcomes we actually care about! Truck crashes didn’t decrease after the mandate began to be enforced—and for small carriers, they actually increased. The number of fatalities in large- truck crashes hit a 30-year high in the first year of the ELD mandate, even as general vehicle fatalities decreased.

The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom, even if you’re not a trucker. Imagine you are told you have about 10 hours to complete a 600-mile trip to see your grandmother. But if it actually takes you 10-and-a-half hours or even 11 hours, no great negative consequence will befall you; your grandmother will just have to wait a little while. If you drive at a steady 60-mile-per-hour rate, you should just make your projected arrival time. And because you can sometimes drive a bit faster—say 65 or 70 miles per hour—during your trip, you have time to take bathroom and stretch breaks, to grab a snack, to slow down in inclement conditions, to get gas, to take a quick look at something that doesn’t sound quite right on your vehicle. It’s certainly still hard work, and you can’t dither around—but you can do the things that allow you and your vehicle to arrive safely and in good health at grandma’s house in 10-ish hours.

Slate receives a commission when you purchase items using the links on this page. Thank you for your support.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Now imagine that your grandmother has told you she’ll write you out of her will if you don’t arrive within 10 hours exactly. How do you feel? How do you drive? Do you take time to stretch, or get a cup of coffee, or go a little slower through an icy patch? Of course not! You drive like a bat out of hell—as quickly as you can—because your financial well-being depends on it. Under this much stricter regime, even one minute past the deadline means you’re in violation.

Truckers, of course, feel these same pressures based on the inflexibility introduced by the electronic monitor, with consequences for the safety of the public roads. In one OOIDA survey, 78 percent of truckers reported feeling more pressure to drive when they felt it was better to stop—and 69 percent felt more pressure to drive in unsafe road conditions—than before the ELD mandate. And under the mandate, while citations for hours-of-service violations dropped, citations for speeding and other forms of unsafe driving increased dramatically across all firm sizes; most notably, independent owner-operators saw a 35 percent increase in unsafe driving violations after they had to install ELDs. The researchers conducting the analysis chalked the spike up to “drivers attempting to make up for productivity lost” because of the stricter monitoring. As one OOIDA rep put it: “[Truckers] feel controlled by that circle-thing on the dash, and they know they can’t be a minute late. I’ve talked to thirty-year drivers, and they say they know that they shouldn’t be driving that fast, but they are so worried they’re going to run out of time.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement