I’ve been a truck driver for over 20 years. I suppose I always knew I would be, ever since that career day in the third grade when among all the kids dressed like doctors and baseball players, there I stood dressed like Jerry Reed from Smokey and the Bandit. Pop culture in the 80s painted the picture of truckers as rugged men, wild and free, burdened by nothing except their own wanderlust. That romanticized version of the American truck driver still lingers in the back of my mind, but in recent years the burden of government regulation has proven to be greater than my desire to see what’s over the next hill.
Oppressive regulation in the trucking industry has been around almost as long as the iconic chrome bulldog on the hood of Mack trucks. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Federal Motor Carrier Act (FMCA) of 1935 during his first term. This gave the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), an agency originally formed to regulate railroads, the authority to regulate the burgeoning business of moving goods by tractor-trailer. The ICC ultimately decided which companies could haul certain goods, for whom, where, and what they could charge. The ICC even decided if new transportation companies could enter the market by requiring eager upstarts to prove their services were “needed.”
The only exemptions to these laws were in the agricultural sector. FDR and his horde of central planners did not want to cause an increase in food prices during a time when many Americans were already struggling to put food on the table. Nevermind the tacit admission that the FMCA would raise prices on all other goods. This exemption had its own unintended consequences. While independent drivers, commonly referred to as wildcatters in driver slang, were not subject to the price floors previously mentioned, they were limited to hauling only agricultural goods. This limitation caused a significant logistical dilemma for wildcatters delivering in industrialized parts of the country, and is largely responsible for the mythos of the outlaw trucker we all know today from music and film. Whether in an old country song from Red Sovine or Kurt Russell’s character in Big Trouble in Little China, such renegades are almost always hauling agricultural goods.
Thankfully, a trend towards deregulation began in the 1970s, and the cesspool of cronyism and perverse incentives created by FDR was substantially reined in with the FMCA of 1980. This is why we now see hundreds, if not not thousands of company names sprawled along the sides of 53-foot trailers. Granted, we still have the ICC, though today it is known as the Department of Transportation, and any truck driver that has had to spend 10 hours at a scale house without a shower or a hot meal over a minor infraction of hours of service rules (another specter of the FMCA of 1935) will tell you it remains quite burdensome. But things are still better than they used to be.
Unfortunately, the federal government continues its misguided attempts to control an industry regulators know little to nothing about. But today’s attempts tend to focus more on something they understand even less than trucking: technology.
The electronic logging device (ELD) has been around since the late 1980s. The devices were first adopted by large nationwide fleets to simplify managing their plethora of drivers, and eventually became a way to lower insurance costs. Manufacturers and employers claimed the devices prevented drivers from driving longer than legally allowed, therefore reducing the number of tractor-trailer-related crashes. It was under the latter premise that the DOT mandated that all trucks be equipped with ELDs no later than the end of 2017. Unfortunately, fatal accidents involving tractor-trailers have seen a recent increase following a sharp decline. This correlation suggests that mandating ELDs has not had the promised or intended safety improvements.
More recently, environmental regulations requiring manufacturers to reduce emissions gave us the diesel particulate filter (DPF), an exhaust treatment system that replaces a standard muffler. While there is no current federal mandate requiring a DPF, the filters are required by the 2008 California Statewide Truck and Bus Rule, which has incentivized many nationwide fleets to adopt them. The problem with DPFs is the filter system clogs. A lot.
When DPFs go down, trucks roll to a stop. Truckers report having to have a DPF serviced as often as every 5,000 miles, which means lots of lost productivity and stranded cargo. I’ve had four breakdowns over the past two years, and three were due to my DPF. A tow truck driver I spoke to on one of those occasions told me half of his business comes from malfunctioning DPFs. Repairs are a specialized affair, and replacements can cost up to $2,000. When my truck isn’t moving, I’m not earning. And these regulators have required that my truck stand still far too often.
Next up on the government’s list of ways to make truckers’ lives miserable are proposed speed limiters. Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation, wants to limit all tractor-trailers to the same speed. Imagine being stuck behind a pair of tractor trailers side by side, who can’t speed up to pass each other. It’s relatively rare right now, but it will become the norm. Every single interstate nationwide will be populated by moving roadblocks, inspiring road rage and blocking critical services. What happens when the fire truck or ambulance is stuck behind these unbreakable pairs?
However well-intentioned these rules and regulations might be, it’s clear that no one is consulting with the long haul truckers about the totally foreseeable bad outcomes. The great problem with all central planning is that regulators lack local knowledge, and are not inclined to speak to the people living with the consequences of their decrees. Probably because we would tell them what idiots they are.
The last two decades I’ve spent traversing this beautiful nation have, by and large, been a wonderful experience. I have countless stories to share with other drivers over a cup of coffee at my favorite fuel stops or with my more stationary friends over a cold beer. I wouldn’t trade the things I’ve seen, the binds I’ve been in, or the successes I enjoyed, for anything.
But the burden that has been laid on these old tired shoulders by bureaucrats and central planners has become more than I’m willing to bear. I’ll always yearn for the open road, but now I’ll have to satisfy that wanderlust in my pick-up truck. I’m pulling the parking brake on this Peterbilt for the last time.