July 4, 2023

Is Washington stepping up for truck drivers?


Chronic underutilization of American truck drivers — not a truck driver shortage — was the central theme of testimony by David Correll, a research scientist and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Nov. 17, 2021.

Correll is co-director of the MIT FreightLab

Correll told lawmakers that based on his research team’s analysis of trucker ELDs, he estimated that American long-haul, full-truckload drivers spend an average of 6.5 hours of their maximum 11-hour federally regulated working day driving their trucks.

“This implies that 40% of America’s trucking capacity is left on the table every day,” he said at the time. “My research leads me to see the current situation not so much as a head count shortage of drivers, but rather an endemic undervaluing of our American truck drivers’ time.”

FreightWaves asked Correll for his progress assessment of the Biden administration and lawmakers in dealing with truck driver issues.

FREIGHTWAVES: At the House hearing over 18 months ago, you testified that you didn’t think the country could afford ‘to let a crisis go to waste, especially not this one,’ referring to your research that revealed chronic underutilization of truck drivers. So, are we letting this crisis go to waste?

CORRELL: I wouldn’t call it a waste. I was quite encouraged in that testimony to see how policymakers were interested in the trucking issues that I and others on the panel talked about.

Following that hearing, there were actions taken by the administration to help improve training for truck drivers, and there were a couple of policy statements from the White House regarding the work conditions for truck drivers.

FREIGHTWAVES: But isn’t it one thing to put out a policy statement and another to actually take action?

CORRELL: That’s a fair assessment. When my research comes up in different venues, I’ve never had anyone say, “That’s old news, everything’s fixed.”

But I will say it was kind of a miracle moment, sitting with my kids and watching the president’s press conference where he mentioned my research — that’s more progress than a guy like me can expect. My only pause is, they didn’t jump on some of my prescriptions for fixing the problem.


CORRELL: One of the things I think the government could do that would really help would be to organize information about all the nodes in American supply chains — starting with pickup and delivery points — and give them an A to D health rating similar to what the department of sanitation does with sanitation grades to restaurants. Those that got drivers in and out quickly would get the highest grades. It could also include things like basic amenities for drivers — is there a bathroom, a breakroom?

The virtue of that solution is that once those grades are out there, they can influence the prices that carriers charge to serve those facilities. I think when people see those prices go up, that provides incentive to take respect for drivers’ time and their dignity more seriously.

FREIGHTWAVES: Speaking of data and transportation efficiency, four months after your testimony the Biden administration launched its Freight Logistics Optimization Works (FLOW) data exchange, a government effort to pool information about incoming ocean containers and intermodal equipment from various transportation modes, including trucks. Does FLOW help address the driver detention time issue you found in your research?

CORRELL: I think the FLOW project does endeavor to address some of the same supply chain issues. I’m not involved in the project so I can’t say how much progress it’s making; I talked to someone a few weeks ago who is; they said they’re getting big companies to partner on it. But my read on it is, it’s a hard thing to say to a company, ‘Give us your operational data which reveals how your company is working, warts and all, just because we want it.’ As a researcher I have that same challenge. But FLOW is definitely a step in the right direction.

FREIGHTWAVES: I wanted to ask about other regulatory and legislative efforts since your testimony. For example, how do you view the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s pilot program for 18-to-20-year-old drivers, which could eventually lead to changing the law to allow young people under 21 to haul freight interstate?

CORRELL: That is not the prescription I would offer to address this [driver inefficiency] problem. What we found in our analysis of the ELD data is that the existing community of truck drivers’ time is being squandered. So to me, lowering the driver age says, let’s find more people and similarly squander their time. To me that really misses the opportunity to practice supply chain management more effectively.

Now, there are debates over whether 18-year-olds should drive a long-haul truck — I don’t have unique insight into that question. But I do have insight into the fact that there is already low-hanging fruit where we can do better by America’s truck drivers and run the country’s supply chain more efficiently at the same time.

FREIGHTWAVES: What about the Biden administration’s registered apprenticeship program under the Department of Labor?

CORRELL: One thing I’ve found with conversations I’ve had with experienced drivers is that newer drivers are not getting the training they need. Opening up that on-the-job training experience can make drivers more comfortable as they learn from others how to set up their life and their workweek when they enter employment. So I think these apprenticeship and mentorship programs might be the missing link of communication and information that can help keep these newer drivers in the profession by learning how to be successful early on from experienced drivers.

FREIGHTWAVES: Owner-operator-backed legislation would repeal the overtime exemption currently provided to trucking companies, which would open the door to required overtime pay. Are you in favor?

CORRELL: I’m very much in support of that effort. There are two things about the way truck drivers are managed that are out of date: one, they do not qualify for overtime pay, and two, that they’re paid by the mile. These have always struck me as anachronistic and part of the problem, so efforts to correct this notion that overtime pay doesn’t apply to truck drivers I really think would help.

I also very much support the effort to require shippers and receivers to provide restroom facilities. I love researching drivers, and the hardest part in talking with them is when you hear grown men and women talk about how they’re treated, particularly with regard to bathroom facilities. It’s unsettling. It seems a strange thing for people to have to take on and fight for, but it really is needed.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.


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