Thomas — who, like all the trucking industry employees we spoke to, asked us not to reveal his full name — spent several years crossing the country as a long-haul driver, skating over thousands of miles of blacktop to reach a finish line with a dubious reward: the opportunity to unload his goods and start all over again.
By law, Thomas could drive only for 11 of the 14 hours he was allowed to be on duty before he needed to pull over for mandatory rest. In the old days, truckers would fudge their schedules, lying about time spent on the road in order to meet delivery windows and keep their jobs. They also slept when they felt tired.
The increasing presence of “e-logs” (also known as electronic logging devices or ELDs) have largely erased that deception by automatically starting a clock when a truck is in motion. It’s an attempt to offset the 4000-plus fatalities caused every year by drivers who lose control, often due to fatigue. In removing the honor system and installing Big Brother in the cab, the idea is that drivers will have no choice but to sleep. It makes sense — until you see it in practice.
Because he’s not a robot, Thomas sometimes got tired in the middle of that 11-hour window. Maybe he hadn’t been able to sleep during his allotted 10 hours. Or maybe he couldn’t find parking at one of the many overfilled truck stops dotting his route and spent a chunk of his time finding a safe place to pull over.
None of it mattered. When the truck was supposed to sleep, so was Thomas.
One day, Thomas was exhausted, eyelids like lead, and decided he needed to pull over. He was on the clock. He notified his dispatcher he was going on a break; the company could send out another driver to take over the load if it wanted.
While Thomas tried to rest, the dispatcher kept sending messages over the truck’s e-log device. “They were ‘high alert’ messages that would disturb my sleep,” he recalls. He stuffed the e-log in a cooler to muffle the sound.
When he reached his destination, he was told the delivery wasn’t needed for two more days. They didn’t want it because then they’d have to store it. He’d have to come back.
Thomas is no longer a truck driver.
Trucking is the main artery of commerce. It’s how fresh milk arrives in stores, how Amazon can guarantee you’ll get a cat-scratching post in two days and how manufacturing plants can get the parts they need without spending money on inventory storage.
Because the pressure to keep the gears moving is so immense, shippers and receivers have a low tolerance for trucking companies that prioritize trucker safety above being on schedule. “This is a ‘we want it now’ type of society,” says Andrew Young, an attorney specializing in injuries caused by trucking accidents. “It’s pushed the industry beyond capacity. The consumer is more spoiled than ever before.”
Take breadsticks, Young says. A couple goes into Olive Garden and is disappointed to learn they’re out of them. They’re out of them because a shipment didn’t meet a delivery window. The customers get upset. There’s no perception of a driver being tired, or caught in traffic or being woken up at 3 a.m. by an unsolicited prostitute pounding on his cab door. It’s Olive Garden. Where are the breadsticks?
The urgency of shipments has origins in the automotive industry of the late 1980s, Young says, when Japanese carmakers who didn’t have the space to keep engines in stock realized they could save money and time by having a “floating” fleet of trucks carry parts to where they were needed — but only when they were needed. If the truck was early, there would be no place to store them. If the truck was late, the entire assembly line would shut down. For a driver, there could be no excuses. Or sleep.
The cliché became pervasive: the bleary-eyed trucker popping gas-station caffeine pills, forging his reported hours, and making crème brûlée of drivers in puny sedans when they finally nodded off. (It is telling that the most inoffensive portrayal of a trucker in mass media during the 1980s was Sylvester Stallone as an arm-wrestling driver in 1986’s “Over the Top.") And while some drivers still mainline stimulants to drive late into the night, most would be happy to sleep if they didn’t have a glorified intercom telling them they’re supposed to feel awake.
“Truck regulations are all well and good,” Young says, “but the abuse comes from the shipper or receiver pushing the freight. Can’t make the delivery? Fine. They’ll take their big contract somewhere else. It’s a low-margin industry forced to make moral and ethical considerations.”
Because those choices were often not in favor of safety, regulations have crept in over the years to take autonomy away from companies and their drivers. The most notable example has been the Department of Transportation’s forced-rest mandate, which tries — and often fails — to automate human behavior.
“The rule prevents drivers from moving their trucks 14 hours after they first start their day,” says Spencer, a dispatcher for a trucking company. “Once you start that clock, you can’t stop it without a 10-hour break.”
The 14/10 rule is cyclical, not daily, with a 34-hour “reset” coming after a workweek intended to span two nights. If the driver just wants a one-hour nap and nine more hours of driving, he’s out of luck. If he spent most of his 14-hour shift loading or handling logistical issues, with only a few hours on the road, he still needs to break. If his 70-hour workweek expires before he can complete a delivery, he’ll be spending 34 hours stranded, unable to reverse course until he can make the delivery. If 14/10 begins to slowly slide out of rhythm a normal sleep/wake schedule, some drivers will eventually drive tired and sleep wired.
According to Department of Transportation spokesman Duane DeBruyne, “The federal hours-of-service regulations exist to prevent fatigued driving by long-haul commercial drivers…there are no minimums for on-duty hours or driving hours.”
While a driver isn’t mandated to keep driving for any set time, there’s a limit to their break — and restless or delayed sleep still counts.
“Once that 10-hour break is up,” Spencer says, “the drivers are expected to resume their trips no matter how much sleep they may or may not have gotten.”
When James, a driver based in the mid-Atlantic states, gets tired in the middle of a shift, he doesn’t slug coffee. He tells his dispatcher he’s pulling over, even though he’s rejecting the expectation he’s had his chance to rest. “That's one way you can end up fatigued at the wheel even though you're legal to drive,” he says. “When I get into that situation, I explain to dispatch and inform them that I'll pick up the load but will park as soon as I feel sleepy and that delivery will not be on time.”
Dispatch, however, doesn’t want to hear it. The 14/10 schedule was supposed to solve these problems and make James an alert and cooperative motorist. '“I've had dispatchers respond by saying, ‘Well, don't ever expect to receive a raise while working here because we run hard and I expect you to be a team player.’” (It should be pointed out that not all trucking companies are fueled by commerce over common sense; Spencer says his employer makes driver safety a priority.)
As the system’s critics have pointed out, the DOT’s mandates do more than simply ignore the circadian rhythms of a human being; they also do nothing to address the abominable quality of sleep on which truckers are expected to function, beginning with the lack of places where they can actually attempt to rest.
“'Just in time' shipping created more trucks on the road but not an infrastructure to get them off the road,” says Young. “Receivers don’t want them parking overnight. Rest stops don’t have enough parking spaces.”
According to James, rest-stop parking becomes a fairy tale after 5 p.m. “Laws have gotten stricter so trucks have to spend more time parked,” he says. Municipalities don’t often tolerate trucks in random areas like a Walmart lot; when drivers get desperate enough with their 10-hour clock running, they may decide to pull over in unsafe areas.
"Sometimes you end up having to park in areas that may not be safe,” James says. “It's hard to sleep if you think you might get robbed, or worse.”
If they do manage to find a spot, their vehicle won't morph into a Ritz-Carlton suite. “I've had to sleep in Arizona in 120-degree weather as well as in North Dakota in the dead of winter,” he says. “We used to be able to idle our engines nonstop but rising fuel costs, noise pollution, and air pollution laws have changed all that.”
Truckers trying to cram rest into their schedule are often woken up by loud engine noises nearby, thumping bass music or beggars and hitchhikers rapping on their doors. Refrigerated trucks hum all night. The beds themselves are almost prison-issue grade, thin and hard. E-logs chirp with dispatchers confirming drivers are okay to deliver on time tomorrow. For all its insistent, mechanical mandates, industry regulation doesn’t require companies to try and map out a safe, quiet place for their drivers to rest.
Will the industry ever take a turn to meet their obligations without inflicting a workforce of zombie drivers on the public? Young thinks it’s possible. Already, he says, some major carriers provide hotel rooms for their motorists to get a good night’s rest. Others make use of a relay system that swaps out drivers so a fresh pair of eyes are always on the road.
E-logs, considered the gold standard for stricter driving supervision and required to be installed in all freight vehicles by December 2017, might have one unintended consequence. “I think they’ll cause many old drivers to retire,” James says. “Many owner-operator drivers who bend the rules on paper logs to earn more have said they will leave the business when e-logs become mandatory.” While that sounds good, statistics have yet to determine if having fewer highly experienced drivers on the road will benefit safety across the industry.
The tech world hasn’t ignored the issue. There are phone accessories, already available or in development, that sound an alarm if a driver’s eyes begin to close or their head starts to bob forward. Automatic braking, already a feature in some luxury cars, could sense when a massive truck is about to cause an accident.
But these devices treat only the symptoms, not the disease, of driver fatigue. James doesn't believe the ruinous sleep schedule imposed by the trucking industry will come by automating human behavior. Rather, it will come by removing the human element entirely. “Other drivers groan and roll their eyes when I say this, but I believe that driving jobs will become obsolete and phased out as self-driving vehicles get better and better,” he says.
Until then, drivers who are paid by the mile and risk termination for missing narrow delivery windows will continue to do the only thing they can: keep driving. Says Thomas, “A parked truck makes no money.”