The Federal Motor Carrier Administration not only wants to know when I’m sleeping, resting, and driving—it tells me when I can sleep, rest, and drive.
I never thought I’d come to a time in my life when “Big Brother” would be watching me 24/7. But then I became a truck driver.
Every minute of every day is monitored by Uncle Sam, who takes care that I can never make a decision for myself based on my circumstances. Because let’s face it, I just can’t take on that kind of responsibility. There’s no way I can decide for myself when I’m going to sleep or rest or drive. After all, I’m just a stupid truck driver. What would I know about such things?
Unless you own a business, when you hear pundits and politicians drone on about “overregulation,” the notion probably goes in one ear and out the other. But being a truck driver is similar to owning your own business. So next time you hear your Senator or your favorite radio show host decry government regulation and oversight, let me give you an idea of what “overregulation” looks like on the ground.
For Truckers, Life Is About Fighting The Clocks
For starters, let’s talk “logs” and “hours of service.” While you’re only fighting one clock on your morning commute, a truck driver is fighting five clocks. Like you, he’s fighting real time. You have to be at work by 9:00 a.m., and he has a 9 o’clock appointment at the local distribution center. It’s 8:45 and I-40 is a parking lot. In addition to this, he has four other clocks to worry about: the “eight-hour break” clock, his “14-hour on-duty, not driving” clock, the “11-hour on-duty, driving” clock, and the “70-hour weekly on-duty” clock. For simplicity, I will call each of these the “eight,” the “14,” the “11,” and the “70.”
Now I’ll explain what’s known in the transportation industry as the “Hours of Service” regulations. The Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCA) requires drivers to log everything they do, where they did it, the duration of the task, and when the specific tasks were done. The biggest principle to keep in mind is that when any one of the “clocks” runs out, you can no longer drive legally. Once you start the clock by going on-duty, you have eight hours before you must stop driving and take a 30-minute break.
Also, once you start your clock, you have now started a nonstop 14-hour window in which you must get all the driving done you need to for that day. If you get stuck at a shipper for three hours, you now have only 10 hours to drive. Which brings us to your “11”: In any given 14-hour on-duty period, you are only allowed to drive legally for 11 hours within that 14-hour period. In addition, in any eight-day period, you are only allowed to be on-duty (not driving and driving) for a total of 70 hours. Hence, your “70.” (This week, I made it back home with only one hour on my 70… I was cutting it close.)
Clear as mud? Basically, as I said in the outset, the FMCA (that is, Uncle Sam/ Big Brother) not only wants to know when I’m sleeping, resting, and driving—it tells me when I can sleep, rest, and drive.
The Government Regulates My ‘Off Duty’ Time
Even now, as I write, I am being monitored. I am on the “off-duty” line of my logs. If I get pulled over next week by a “diesel bear” (a state trooper dedicated to enforcing FMCA regs), he’s going to want to know where I was and what I was doing at this very moment, and whether the FMCA does or doesn’t allow that. For instance, even though my logging computer says I’m “off duty,” if it were found out that I’m writing an article for The Federalist instead of “resting,” I’d be in violation. I’m technically not supposed to be doing any work right now. I’m not supposed to mow the grass, or take out the trash. I definitely would be in violation if I got a part-time job on the weekend while I was supposed to be “off duty.”
I’ve heard horror stories on this. A colleague of mine was once cited for a log violation because he sent an email to his dispatcher while he was in the “off duty” status. The penalty for that? Well, if the judge wants to throw the book at you, he can send you to jail for six months in some states. The fines are at least $500. So if it were determined by the powers that be that I was “working” during my off-duty time, I could be jailed for that. (Just in case my boss reads this, I consider writing a leisure activity.)
Now back to the logs/clocks, and I’ll show you what I mean when I say Big Brother tells us when to drive, rest, and sleep. Once a truck driver’s “eight” runs out, he has to take a 30-minute break before he can drive again. When his “14” expires, he must take a 10-hour, off-duty rest period. Once he’s driven for 11 hours, he must stop and take a 10-hour break.
But say you get stuck at a shipper for three hours: you can log two hours of off-duty time, which can serve as part of a later 10-hour break, but then you must take the remaining eight hours on the “sleeper-birth” line of your logs. This is called a “split sleeper.” After your eight hours in the sleeper, you will get the time back you had while you were stuck at the shipper, minus any time you used after the two hours, but before you took eight hours in the sleeper birth.
Simple, right? I’ve been driving trucks for a while, and these are aspects of the log system I still don’t completely understand. My outfit uses electronic logs, so basically when that computer tells me to stop driving, I stop. When it says go, I go.
Big Brother’s Regulations Make Us Less Safe
So why does Big Brother impose all of this on the truck driver? It’s supposed to be for safety. While I’ll agree that a man should not be driving until he can’t keep his eyes open, or using illicit drugs to stay awake, the sad fact of the matter is that these strict and complicated log regulations make driving trucks substantially more dangerous in my experience.
The reason I can land an elite driving gig is because I run like a machine. I know how to work those five clocks and to get the most out of them. Often, I’ll end the day with a gallon of fuel in my tanks and one minute left on one of my clocks. But what am I doing to get that done? I’m rushing and in a hurry. That is a very, very bad thing to do when you’re operating an 80-foot, 80,000-pound vehicle that will go 70 miles an hour downhill. “In a hurry” and truck driving don’t mix. But because Big Brother tells me that I am required to get my work done in this time frame, I feel forced to rush and to push things.
Also, if a driver gets sleepy while his clock is running, pulling over for a nap is not an option. If he didn’t sleep well because his 10-hour break happened to fall in the middle of the day, that’s too bad—even if he then must run overnight. All the safety experts will tell you, “If you’re sleepy while driving, pull over and get some sleep.” Well, that’s like calling in sick when you don’t have any sick days left. If you have to try and sleep in broad daylight and drive overnight, you’re either out a day’s pay, or you’re pounding the coffee and energy drinks with the windows down and the music blaring.
Certainly the driver wishes he could just pull over for a few hours and grab some sleep. But if he did that, his load would be delayed at least eight hours because of the clocks. Without the clocks, the driver could pull over and take a two or three-hour snoozer and then continue. But no: since Big Brother has decided when he’ll sleep, he’s forced to either drive unsafely or have his pay docked. A system meant to keep the motoring public safe makes them more unsafe—and hurts a man’s income.
I Can’t Be Trusted To Keep Myself Accountable
Now, add to this the fact that truck drivers are required to make sure that not only are they legal, but that the truck is as well. Ever notice all those trucks lined up at those weigh stations? There’s a reason for that. Your truck cannot exceed a gross weight of 80,000 pounds. The 80k must also be distributed properly on each axle. No more than 12,000 lbs. are allowed on the front axle, or “the steers,” and no more than 34,000 lbs. are allowed on the tractor rear axles (“the drives”) and the trailer axles (“trailer tandems”), respectively.
So never mind the fact that I can parallel park an 80-foot vehicle that bends in thirds amid Brooklyn traffic. Oh, no—that’s not good enough. I must also make sure the thing weighs what Big Brother wants it to weigh.
Now, honestly, I get this law. I don’t have too much of a beef with it, other than that the government feels the need to so tightly enforce it. I remember sitting on a scale one time, and both my drives and my tandems were reading about 33,500 lbs and my steers were hanging out around 11,900. For about two minutes I sat there laughing, because I knew the “diesel bear” monitoring the scales was just hoping one of those weights was going to spill over into a violation.
The thing is, I hate driving on rough roads. And overloaded trucks are what cause rough roads. So even if they never checked me, I would make sure my weights were right. But, as we’ve already established, I can’t be trusted to keep myself accountable. Big Brother must always be watching.
‘Liberty Is the Soul’s Right To Breathe’
Henry Ward Beecher teaches us, “Liberty is the soul’s right to breathe, and when it cannot take a long breath, laws are girdled too tight. Without liberty man is in a syncope.”
I love driving trucks. I would love to buy my own truck and start my own trucking outfit. But every time I think about what I’d have to go through regulation-wise to do that, “syncope” fits the bill.
So not only are these regs not producing safety on the highways, they are discouraging entrepreneurism. Regulations that discourage interstate commerce and entrepreneurism in the name of safety? I could be wrong, but my considered guess is that there’s an agenda afoot here. But of course, as I’ve been told, I need to don my tin-foil hat for that.
Matthew Garnett is the husband of Jennifer, the father of two children, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, truck driver, and host of the “In Layman’s Terms” broadcast.