Written by Jeff and Linda Halling, a husband-and-wife driving team based in Missouri. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
While the federal government is adding new trucking industry regulations — including speed limiters for big rigs and electronic logging devices for drivers — these moves don’t really address the root causes of truck crashes.
If we really want to improve safety for truckers and the motoring public, we need to focus on the base reasons for unsafe behavior. We believe better training is key — teaching drivers good work habits. That will reduce the frequency of truck crashes.
Safety starts with education, and we need a much better system for training drivers. Obtaining a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, should be a three-step process and should be the same no matter where you live or do your training in the U.S.
It should start with a probationary CDL that requires at least 40 hours of classroom time, 40 hours of practical in-the-yard training and 40 hours of actual, behind-the-wheel driving that includes day and night operation and, if possible, inclement weather driving experience. This can be obtained from a certified training center or offered through a trucking company that provides training to potential employees.
Currently there are several states that allow applicants to test for their CDLs with only a semi-truck — they don’t have to pull a trailer. This should not be allowed, and the requirements should be consistent for all states.
But there’s more. Once students have received their probationary CDLs, they should be required to have on-the-job training by certified in-the-cab instructors. This should include 100 hours of driving and cover all aspects of the job for which they are training. Only then would they be permitted to drive solo.
Part of the reason that training doesn’t get the attention it needs is because of the federal job classification for tractor-trailer drivers. For some reason, a truck driver is listed as unskilled labor. A heavy-equipment operator is considered a skilled labor position, but not someone who operates an 80,000 pound tractor-trailer. Go figure.
Unskilled labor is defined as labor that does not require workers to have special training or skills. That does not describe the job of a truck driver, who must navigate all types of roads in all types of weather conditions and constantly make adjustments for the poor driving habits of many members of the public.
Changing this classification would allow for stricter training requirements and better pay for drivers. Better training and pay would result in better drivers. They would have a more career-oriented outlook on the job and would take it more seriously. Driver turnover would be reduced, which in the long run would save companies money.
Many people in the industry, including drivers, complain about the hours of service regulations. We actually agree with the 11-hour limit on driving during a 24-hour period, the 70-hour-a-week driving cap and the restart rule — the regulation governing when drivers can jump back into the cab.
It is the 14-hour workday rule that causes all the problems. This needs to be reworked to accommodate the real world. The 14-hour rule begins the second you go on duty and ends 14 hours later, no matter what. You have 14 hours to accomplish everything in your day, including driving, picking up loads, delivering loads, getting fuel, eating, etc.
Many of our fellow drivers agree that it is the 14-hour rule that messes everything up. Allowing more flexibility would result in safer, less-stressed drivers on the road.
The proposal we submit is that if you take a minimum of three hours during your workday to actually go in the bunk and sleep, you can push the 14 hours out. We spoke to an Idaho Department of Transportation officer about this recently. He agreed that such a change in the rule would eliminate a lot of the “hurry up” attitudes that drivers display on the road.
If you are sitting at a dock for four hours and take a nap, it should not affect the time you have to get your job done. Say a driver doesn’t want to battle through Chicago rush-hour traffic. The driver should be able to stop and take a five-hour nap and then go through the city after traffic has thinned. It would allow better time management and planning for finding parking. It would also make the electronic logging mandate easier for drivers to work with.
We also need to address the crucial shortage of truck parking in the U.S. There is not near enough safe and secure parking for big rigs. This encourages drivers to drive on when they are tired so that they can get to a destination where there is parking. Some are forced to seek parking in crime-ridden neighborhoods or in in areas that either impede the flow of traffic or cause unsafe conditions for traffic, such as the side of the interstate.
We noticed that some of the rest areas and service plazas in Ohio and Indiana have greatly increased the available truck parking. Kudos to them. Allowing existing truck stops to expand parking would be a boon. We understand cities not wanting public parking and street parking for trucks, but something has to give. Allow good truck stops to come build on the outskirts of town or in industrial areas. Also, shippers and receivers really need to step up and allow for parking on or near their sites. They want the product picked up and delivered, but they don’t want to deal with the trucks.
Distracted driving has become a risk for all drivers. Both truckers and the general public are guilty. We estimate that three out of every five cars that pass us have a driver who is texting or playing with a phone in some manner. We see plenty of truckers doing the same thing. We have to be able to use phones for calls while driving to run our business. But there is no need to be texting, emailing, checking Facebook or using a hand-held device while driving. We need traffic officials to do a better job enforcing rules that reduce distracted driving.
We also see a problem with too much reliance on the electronics and monitoring devices that are currently used or are proposed to be installed on trucks. We are in danger of drivers becoming too dependent on electronics and having their skills atrophy. A driver needs to be responsible for the actions of that vehicle. Drivers need to fall back on common sense, proper training and less micromanagement by their companies. We drive the truck, the truck does not drive us.
Some of the electronics such as anti-collision braking are downright dangerous. If we are driving on icy roads and a car cuts us off, that system is going to brake and possibly cause us to jackknife.
Speed limiters were originally developed as a management tool to help save on fuel costs. But governing a truck limits the driver’s ability to maneuver properly in situations in which it may be necessary to speed up to get out of a potentially bad situation.
Braking is not always the best answer when you weigh 80,000 pounds and are travelling at highway speeds. Having some vehicles on the road limited so that they can’t go at the same speed as the rest of traffic isn’t a good idea. Traffic flows better when everyone is doing the same speed. Moreover, the reaction time for a vehicle moving toward a slower vehicle goes down exponentially when the difference in speeds increases. Capping the speed of a big rig across I-90 in Montana might not be a big deal, but it is a very different story, and sometimes dangerous, travelling on I-30 through Texas.
And the devices don’t always work as the traffic safety regulators intend. We have talked about this with many drivers operating trucks in which their companies cap the speed.
When their speed limiters reduce their speed to 65 mph in a 70 mph zone, they later find themselves driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone to “make up for lost time.”
We are either members of or follow Parents Against Tired Truckers, Work Zone Safety Coalition and several other safety groups. We voice these ideas to make sure that all sides of the story are heard and that regulations are implemented that are real, viable and good for all drivers on the road. Trucking industry associations, carriers, regulators and politicians always talk about trucking as the backbone of our economy. It’s time they start treating it as such.
Editor’s note: Jeff and Linda Halling have had their own long-haul trucking company, Razor Sharp Express, since 2004 and are based in Missouri. Jeff has 38 years of experience driving and over 5,500,000 collision-free miles. Linda has 28 years of experience in administration, bookkeeping and management. She has three years of collision-free driving.