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Labor Rights in the Trucking Industry

The trucking industry is synonymous with American roads and highways. On family road trips, semi-trucks are such a common sight that there’s even a traditional signal the kids can use to encourage a truck driver to honk his or her horn. Semi-trucks are so ubiquitous, in fact, that they transport about 71% of the nation’s total freight, according to American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Although truck driving is such an integral component of capitalism, drivers themselves aren’t always treated with the respect they deserve. The unfortunate reality is that, while truck driving is an inherently dangerous occupation, drivers typically remain overlooked in the realm of labor rights. Further, trucking company owners may engage in unscrupulous business practices that put drivers at risk every time they get behind the wheel.

Stories of roadway accidents involving semi-trucks are headline news on a daily basis in America. Some truck accidents, such as a December 18 Florida collision involving a semi-truck and a cargo van, don’t result in injuries. But that crash is an exception rather than a rule, and trucking accidents are often fatal.

History of the Trucking Industry

It may come as a surprise, but America’s first semi-truck hit the road in 1899. Ohio-based engineer Alexander Winton needed a way to deliver his company’s manufactured cars to buyers across the U.S. without putting wear and tear on the vehicles themselves. So Winton designed a hauler that could handle the transport and delivery of a single automobile. Winton’s semi-truck hauler was soon adopted by other car making companies.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that semi-trucks became firmly rooted in America’s freight industry. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 allowed for the construction of interstate highways, which allowed for travel between states at high speeds. And it is those high speeds that help contribute to the elevated number of fatal crashes involving large trucks that occur on America’s roadways.

The Federal Motor Carrier Transportation Administration (FMCSA) reports that about 4,440 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal crashes in 2016, but that’s only part of the overall picture. It’s easy to blame truck drivers for these types of roadway accidents, as they drive hefty vehicles and are susceptible to driver fatigue, which can slow reaction times and impair decision-making skills. However, studies show that the majority of fatal car-truck crashes are actually caused by car drivers.

In fact, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that car drivers were found to be at fault for more than 80% of fatal car-truck accidents. Yet truck drivers typically receive the brunt of the blame. It’s an unfortunate side effect of choosing a career in the truck driving industry.

What it Takes to Be a Truck Driver

Depending on one’s state of residence, the path towards a career as a professional truck driver may differ significantly. But in general, the first step is obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) as well as a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Then, professional training is required, most commonly from an accredited truck driving school. Prospective drivers must also pass the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation (FMCSR) exam, which screens a driver’s vision and hearing abilities.

Once a driver has successfully passed all exams and completed professional training, it’s time to find work. Many truck drivers are employed through a trucking or freight company. Others, however, opt for a more independent work life and become independent owner/operators.

While working as an independent trucking contractor may seem like a good idea on the surface, at least where employee protection is concerned, it comes with a hefty upfront cost. For instance, independent drivers generally must supply their own rig for hauling. On top of the cost of the vehicle itself, maintenance, and gas, there’s also insurance to consider.

In most cases, truck drivers who drive their own vehicles are required to carry commercial auto insurance. That requirement in itself effectively puts truck drivers at risk: In the event of an accident, an independent commercial truck driver may ultimately be responsible for associated costs, such as property damage and/or medical bills.

The Future of Trucking Industry Employment

The motor vehicle landscape is constantly evolving, and modern technology is helping to alter the trucking industry even further. Some researchers postulate that alternative transportation may be the future of trucking, reducing emissions on a national level and making our roads safer. Perhaps the mere idea of alternative transportation technology is one of the primary reasons behind America’s current truck driver shortage.

There are approximately 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., which sounds like quite a lot on the surface. But many of those truck drivers aren’t active, and those who are tend to be middle-aged or elderly men. Although tractor-trailer truck drivers may earn upwards of $43,680 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, young people may be turned off by the industry’s long hours and changing safety laws.

For instance, there is a limit to the amount of total time that drivers can spend behind the wheel in a day. But many times, a driver’s expected delivery time doesn’t account for required breaks or rest periods. The Department of Labor requires that drivers be paid for at least 16 hours in a 24-hour period, but a number of trucking companies have fought against paying their drivers during periods of rest or sleep.

Final Thoughts

Despite rampant globalization and the fact that a significant amount of U.S. goods are manufactured overseas, trucks remain the go-to shipping method across the nation. Unfortunately, truckers are significantly overlooked when it comes to safety rights in an inherently dangerous profession. The trucking industry just isn’t an attractive employment option among young people, primarily due to long hours and a lack of overall protection.

Posted by jhamilton at January 6, 2020 6:17 PM
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