American Truckers Are Getting Squeezed. Hard.

Long-haul trucking used to be a stable, high-paying job. But thanks to decades of deregulation and pressure from bosses, truckers now have to work grueling hours for little pay, in conditions that put them and everyone else on the road in serious danger.

"If the wheel ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.” (David McNew / Getty Images)

It’s not easy to stay awake at the wheel when you’re a long-haul trucker. A 1935 National Safety Council paper found that some truckers “used an onion to moisten dry eyelids”; others, to keep from nodding off, “would light a cigarette and sleep until it burned down and awakened them by scorching their fingers.” Jimmy Hoffa once cited the latter strategy in arguing for why truckers should organize with his union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which made its name on trucking. (The word “teamster” and the union’s logo featuring two horses come from the precolonial era’s horse-drawn buggy drivers who founded the union.)

Some truckers keep a bowl of ice water next to them while on the road so they can splash themselves in the face when they start nodding off. Famously, they also use chemical aids: as Commander Cody’s 1972 “Semi Truck” goes, “I took three bennies and my semi-truck won’t start,” and there are no lack of pop cultural references to pill-popping truckers. Another classic, from Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road”: “I’m takin’ little white pills / And my eyes are wide open.” But drug and alcohol testing in the industry has led many to rely on legal alternatives like 5-hour Energy and Red Bull, available at any truck stop.

As Karen Levy shows in Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance, the problem is rooted in truckers’ pay structure, which is based on miles driven. That means that the many other tasks the job entails — fueling up, inspecting the truck, and loading and unloading (the latter, called “detention time,” can take several hours) — are unpaid. All that counts is distance. As the saying goes, “if the wheel ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.”

“This payment structure is an effort to align drivers’ economic incentives with those of trucking firms, by encouraging them to maximize revenue-productive time and concomitantly minimize time not spent moving goods around the country,” writes Levy. Whereas the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protects other workers from unpaid overtime, truckers are exempt.

And while many firms used to pay truck drivers an hourly rate for “on duty” nondriving time in addition to mileage, the deregulation of the trucking industry that began under President Jimmy Carter (specifically, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980) changed that. As new firms entered the industry, profit margins thinned, and “the market ‘competed away’ such pay, shifting the burden of market inefficiencies, unforeseeable delays, and mechanical risks to drivers.”

The shift in pay was intertwined, too, with the decline of unionization. As Levy notes, by the early 1970s, over 80 percent of workers in the industry were unionized. But from “1975 to 2000, the rate of union membership among truck drivers plummeted from 60 percent to 25 percent, and it has continued to decline since then.” (For more on that history, and on how many truckers came to see owner-operator status rather than unionizing as the solution to their problems, see Steve Viscelli’s The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream and Michael Belzer’s Sweatshops on Wheels.)

Once a profession, trucking became just a job, and a poorly paying one at that. The numbers are stunning: “During the ten years immediately following deregulation (from 1977 to 1987), truck drivers’ wages dropped an astonishing 44 percent, forcing truckers to drive much longer hours.” The recession was a factor, but truckers were hit much harder than their blue-collar counterparts: “Between 1977 and 1995, the decline in truck drivers’ average real earnings was four times that of demographically comparable workers in manufacturing production.” Whereas the typical trucker in 1980 made around $110,000 in today’s dollars, 2021’s median trucker earned about $48,000 per year, a number that has hardly budged for more than a decade. A retention shortage has followed; large trucking firms have roughly 100 percent turnover.

California Highway Patrol responds to an overturned truck in Riverside, California. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Bottom-of-the-barrel pay and a wage structure that only rewards movement rather than everything else the job entails are why truckers drive for more hours than are safe. Sixty- to seventy-hour weeks are the norm, and Levy cites a survey that found one-third of long-haul drivers admitted to falling asleep at the wheel at least once in the previous month.

The dangers aren’t hard to grasp. Truck crashes on US highways kill about five thousand people and injure about one hundred and fifty thousand more per year; as Levy notes, such numbers have been climbing steadily. As an emblematic example, she recounts a 2014 case in which federal regulators shut down a trucking company after one of its drivers killed an Illinois Tollway employee and injured a state trooper while they were assisting another driver at roadside. As a subsequent investigation by the Department of Transportation revealed, during the twenty-six hours immediately preceding the crash, the driver had driven approximately one thousand miles and had rested for only 3.5 to 5.5 hours.

Better Exploitation Through Technology

Lawmakers have long tried to rein in these risks through hours-of-service regulations that cap the number of hours a trucker can drive. As Levy explains, “most long-haul truckers today may legally drive no more than eleven hours per day and can be ‘on duty’ — a status which includes both driving and other job functions, like fueling, loading or unloading, and performing required vehicle inspections — for no more than one fourteen-hour window per day. After the maximum on-duty time is reached, a ten-hour break is required.” There are also weekly limits: “most truckers can work up to seventy hours in any eight consecutive days, and then must break for thirty-four hours (known as ‘resetting your 70’).”

For decades, hours-of-service regulations have been enforced through paper logbooks. “Columns correspond to hours of the day, a continuous line across the grid is drawn by a trucker in the appropriate row to represent the period of time he spent in that duty status,” explains Levy of the paper logs’ grid format. “When his status changes, he ‘jogs’ the line to the row for his new status and records the name of the city or highway mile-marker where the change took place.” Truckers tally the numbers spent in each duty status each day and are required to keep the previous seven days’ worth of logs available for inspection as well as filing their logs with their employer within thirteen days.

The only problem: paper logbooks are easily fudged to maintain the appearance of legal compliance by truckers who, in reality, regularly defy hours-of-service regulations. Importantly, logbooks are not the basis for pay, meaning that downplaying hours doesn’t reduce the amount of money in one’s paycheck. Such tampering is common enough that it, too, has appeared in trucker anthems: when C. W. McCall sang of tearing up “all of our swindle sheets,” he was referring to faked logs. One survey found that only 16 percent of truckers believed that logbooks were an accurate depiction of their activities; another found that nearly three-quarters of truckers admitted to hours-of-service violations.

While some truckers certainly pride themselves on their ability to drive past legal limits — “Sleep is for sissies,” as historian Alan Derickson summarizes the view — it is their employers who pressure them to commit such violations. Such falsification is all but required in an industry that only pays per mile and at a rate on which one cannot live.

Rather than changing that underlying structure, regulators have tried to better enforce the limits with new technology: electronic logging devices (ELDs), a “small device hardwired to the truck’s engine that captures data about (at a minimum) the truck’s engine status, location, and mileage.” The technology, mandated in December 2017, is Data Driven’s focus.

Levy conducted ethnographic work with truckers, trucking managers, regulators, and technologists at truck-stop bars, trucking firms, trade shows, and regulatory meetings. Her research allows her to demonstrate the consequences — and, in particular, the indignities — of the shift to ELDs. Data Driven recounts calls between truckers and dispatchers, showing how the abstracted data available from an ELD intensifies exploitation and overrides truckers’ expertise. Rather than a mere regulatory tool, the book argues, ELDs are a tool of managerial control; rather than addressing the economic causes of hours-of-service violations, the technology accomplishes something else: surveillance and data collection.

Examples of the managerial control facilitated by ELDs aren’t hard to come by. A trucker tells a dispatcher that a road is impassable because of poor weather, only to be told by the dispatcher, “I know the weather is not too bad to continue driving down I-80, because I see that I have four other trucks on that road now.” Another driver feels he is too fatigued to drive, only to be goaded by a dispatcher: “I know you aren’t (or shouldn’t be) too tired, because I can see that you’ve only been on duty for five hours.”

Not to mention the invasive nature of the technology, such as when Levy reproduces the transcript of a dispatcher calling a trucker who is sleeping. The dispatcher is able to do so because of the two-way messaging capability of the system — a major change from the days when firms had to rely on truckers to check in. “As one industry survey found, 68 percent of drivers reported being told by firms to drive longer, and 29 percent reported being awakened to be given these instructions.”

ELDs create new problems, too. For instance, say a trucker is reaching the maximum driving hours he’s allowed in a day. (“He” is intentional here: some 93 percent of truckers in the United States are men.) He pulls into a rest stop for the night but finds that it’s full (a common problem in a country lacking in truck parking near highways).

“A driver using paper logs, faced with a full truck stop, might hunt for parking at the next stop even while officially off duty,” writes Levy. “But because the ELD automatically detects a truck’s movement, doing this might thrust a digitally monitored driver from being off duty to being on the clock again — potentially putting him in violation of the rules.” The result is an increase in truckers spending their ten-hour break on a highway shoulder, a practice both dangerous and, often, illegal.

And, perhaps most importantly, ELDs don’t seem to necessarily make roads safer. “The best evidence we have demonstrates that the safety outcomes of electronic surveillance are mixed at best, and may actually lead to more accidents because of the inflexibility it introduces to trucking work,” writes Levy.

(Caleb Ruiter / Unsplash)

The reasons are not hard to understand: when you know there is a hard limit to your time, you will drive faster, take more chances, push through in bad weather, and skip breaks you desperately need. Rather than decreasing after the ELD mandate, the number of truck crashes stayed the same (they may have actually increased for small carriers).

One of the more comical sections of Data Driven comes when Levy shows why hours-of-service violations declined significantly following the ELD mandate, which was likely due to weaker enforcement by officers at weigh stations. While officers have well-established protocols for inspecting paper logs, many lack expertise in how to read ELD data.

Further, a paper-log inspection entails the officer approaching a truck driver’s cab, requesting the logbook and additional documentation, and then departing for their own vehicle or the weigh-station scale house to inspect the material. The process often takes half an hour or more. With ELDs, the officer generally enters the truck’s cab to read from the dashboard, as the trucker quite literally looks over his shoulder (and maybe a dog, the frequent trucker companion, yaps at his feet). “For both technical and interactional reasons,” writes Levy, these changes can mean that ELDs are inspected far less carefully.

An Over-the-Road Crisis

In comments opposing the ELD mandate before its passage in 2017, truckers wrote about their concern that ELDs, as Levy puts it, are “an affront to their privacy, dignity, and independence.” She quotes two truckers’ comments to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: “I do not need a federal baby-sitter in the truck”; “I resent the need for a black box on my truck to track what I am doing. I am an honest and safe driver.”

The idea of the trucker as a cowboy-like figure, independent and free, barreling down the wide-open road, has long been fiction. Few workers are subjected to more pervasive federal regulations, drug and alcohol testing, and detailed employer rules and organizational structures, not to mention predatory leasing arrangements. But ELDs add a new means of control.

And they’re often bundled with “other performance monitoring and analytics functions — the same hardware unit captures all kinds of information other than timekeeping, and the same back-office software gives managers access to that data.” A trucker’s “road knowledge,” the source of what autonomy and independence he has maintained despite existing regulations, is abstracted, its ownership transferred to management, leaving him more replaceable than ever.

Big Bill Haywood, a radical labor leader and one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, once said that “the manager’s brains were under the workman’s cap.” Decades of managerial innovation has been about finding ways to dispossess workers of all kinds of such knowledge. How much can management’s extraction of knowledge, recast as data, reduce workers’ leverage as the only ones who truly know how a job is done? If ELDs are anything to go by, the answer is “a lot.”

For all the talk of self-driving trucks, the automation of driving looks more like the integration of humans with machines rather than the replacement of the former with the latter. As Levy notes, the shift to automation is “a slope, not a cliff.” But efforts to automate trucking suggest that if “robotrucks” do ever make it out of testing, it won’t be on local roads but on the country’s highways, across the miles truckers depend on.

That possibility only underscores the urgency of the need to change the structure of trucker pay, bring truckers under the FLSA, and end trucker misclassification, too. Writes Levy, “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.” Unless those root causes are addressed, the crisis in trucking will continue.