The weather impacts us all whether we like it or not, but most especially truck drivers. Right now, we’re in the midst of a very cold, snow-filled winter. The roads are dangerous (not to mention the drivers). It hurts when you step outside, and icy-rain and heavy snow make it nearly impossible to get around safely.
Just the other day, I got into my first real skid. When I was a kid, I’d do parking lot donuts like it was nobody’s business. My old BMW 3-series (not-so-aptly named “Gertie”) sure could take me for quite a twirl. At 15-20 mph I could play a game called “slolem” all day long. That was fun.
With a big rig, though, it’s a much different experience. In my case, my truck is my house. It’s where I live. I keep most of my personals in it. My wife’s future depends on it. If I lose my truck, I’m out more money than most people in America save by the time their 40. It’s more than important.
It’s also really big. Often times my truck is loaded to the brim, giving me an extra 40,000 pounds of force pushing me forward—about 15 times the weight of my old beamer. When you get into a skid, it’s not fun.
That skid, it was something else. My truck weaved from one side of the highway and back to the other. The Wyoming wind pushed me to-and-fro and nearly ran me off the highway. I was lucky, a little brake on-and-off got the trailer straight, and I came to a halt on the side of the road without hitting anything or going in the ditch. It was the first time I’d ever been truly scared in a vehicle. I sat on the side of the highway for 15 minutes before going again.
Stories like these, and so many with far worse endings than mine, abound in trucking today. I’ve seen at least five semis in the ditch just in the last 24 hours between Chicago and Philly. Trucks skid. Trailers roll. Drivers die. It’s just not safe.
Why is it so hard to get trucks down the road safely?
First of all, truckers’ choices and driving habits often fail to match road conditions. It’s not uncommon to drive “safely” at 50 mph during a winter storm and get breezed by another truck going 70. Some of us think those guys are insane. We’re probably right, but there are other reasons than madness that propels truckers through storms.
One blog on the topic suggests that drivers should always stop in cases of bad weather—as if it’s their choice. Most of the time, truckers working for profit-hungry companies feel compelled to push through bad weather to keep customers happy and keep the truck rolling. In this way, drivers have little freedom to choose safety over productivity. They’ve got powerful economic forces breathing down their neck, and sometimes their jobs suffer from gaining a reputation for being too safe (a.k.a. slow).
Owner-operators tend to feel it’s part of their duty as professional drivers to overcome the impossible and press on in the fate of inevitable defeat. One main difference between these types and other drivers is that they feel pressed to drive unsafely to keep their businesses profitable. Lost drive time to a storm risks up to several thousand dollars to a driver’s wallet. They can’t just close up shop every time the weather gets dicey.
At least some of them weigh the risk of losing their home against a few thousand dollars in a week. But as I’ve found, most owner-ops don’t have that kind of cash lying around to worry about. A few thousand right now seems like a big deal.
Simply put, truckers aren’t incentivized to be safe during bad weather. They’re actually incentivized to take greater risks.
One would be tempted to think that more closely regulating what conditions truckers drive would be a proper solution, but that’s tricky. Given drivers’ disincentives to drive safely and the relative risk on their wages during down time, it wouldn’t be good practice to increase regulation without concern for the issue of compensation.
In the end, shippers aren’t willing to pay more to get less in cases of bad weather. That doesn’t really comport with the customer service standards our business world currently adheres to. So companies, not holding liability for shipment of goods in most cases, have little incentive to give drivers a break when it comes to timing and service quality. Instead, drivers feel the burden to keep up with demands and the pressure of their carriers.
Thus, it’s clear to me that truckers sit at the bottom of a political and economic food chain. As it stands, truckers have no mechanism to force shippers to compensate them for lost time in cases of bad weather, and they have no mechanism to force carriers to advocate on their behalf. While there are rare exceptions to this, a few good carriers and a few understanding customers (as in specialty goods markets), there’s not much to be done. Truckers get screwed.
Even worse, they die.
So should we keep thinking deeper about this problem? I think so.