The Government’s War on Long-Haul Truckers

by Lee Habeeb and Mike Leven
Intrusive new regulations might actually make our highways more dangerous.

Manuel Hernandez is not a complainer. But lately, he’s got a lot to complain about. Excessive government regulations are making it harder and harder for him to earn a living. And he’s not sure what he can do about it.

Hernandez is not an energy executive being hassled by the EPA, a banker trying to cope with Dodd-Frank, or a doctor getting nickel-and-dimed by HHS and Obamacare; he’s a long-haul trucker. And his story is one all Republicans running for office should know, because it personifies our government’s war against a large category of middle-class workers who make our economy hum.

Readers of the Wall Street Journal met Hernandez in his truck somewhere on Interstate 10 between El Paso and Los Angeles, thanks to a superb piece of reporting by Betsy Morris last week. This first sentence caught every reader’s attention: “Manuel Hernandez is one of a vanishing breed: a professional long-haul trucker.”

Long-haul truckers are vanishing? Is there someone protecting this endangered species? God knows we have enough people fighting for the survival of the dunes sagebrush lizard.

We soon learned why this breed of middle-class worker is vanishing, and we learned more about the 50-year-old Hernandez, too. Like many truckers, he loves what he does, especially squeezing his 18-wheeler into tight spaces. He’s a guy who doesn’t get his fashion tips from GQ and never once dreamed of landing that big corner office. His office is the rig he works in every day, accompanied by a whole lot of horsepower and thousands of miles of open road.

Hernandez’s story got more interesting a bit farther down in the article, as we learned how public policy dictated by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., was affecting his life — and the lives of all long-haul truckers — for the worse: “Lately, though, Mr. Hernandez’s patience has been worn thin by a confusing tangle of rules, efficiency directives, and electronic devices that cap his speed, log his every move, and practically try to autopilot his truck. Magnifying the stress are more federal rule changes that took effect in July and are now roiling the industry.”

The federal agency that is doing all this is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), an agency within a bigger agency, the Department of Transportation.

Under a revised rule by the FMCSA’s trucking czars, the average workweek for men and women who make a living carting around America’s stuff was shortened to 70 hours from 82. But that wasn’t the only change. It turns out the required 34-hour break between workweeks must now extend over two nights, including the hours between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., according to Betsy Morris’s article.

The micromanaging of what truckers can and can’t do is nothing new, but adding this new set of rules to lots of old rules — particularly one that limited truckers to no more than eleven hours of driving in a day, with a required rest of ten consecutive hours — has cost Hernandez and truckers like him dearly.

Why the changes? Has there been a spike of trucking accidents involving sleepy drivers?

Actually, no. Crashes involving large trucks declined 26 percent between 2000 and 2011. It turns out that the rule changes were the result of a decade of litigation against the FMCSA by safety advocates and plaintiff lawyers pushing for tougher driving laws.

What was supposed to be the upside to the changes foisted by the FMCSA on already-overregulated truckers like Manuel Hernandez? The agency predicts the new rules will prevent about 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries and save 19 lives a year.

What do the folks who run trucking businesses think about the new edicts issued from D.C. for their own health and safety? Costs are already up, and business is down — in some places by as much as 5 percent.

But no federal bureaucrat ever lost a minute of sleep worrying about declining business or rising costs.

What about those 19 lives the bureaucrats say will be saved each year? The irony of all these rules designed to protect Americans from reckless truck drivers — and protect truck drivers from themselves — is this: They might actually make our roads more dangerous, because they put more trucks on the road during rush hours. And worse, the rules force truckers to sleep when they might not be sleepy, and drive when they might be tired.

That’s the kind of rule-making only a Washington, D.C., bureaucrat could dream up.

One thing is certain: The new rules are pushing turnover among long-haul truckers, which was already high, even higher. That’s a great way to improve safety: Drive experienced truckers out of the business and bring in less-experienced drivers to fill the void.

These new rules are a big deal to Americans because trucking is a $642 billion industry, and truckers cart nearly 70 percent of all the nation’s freight. When costs go up, that’s money out of all of our pockets — and in this case, for no real reason.

And the new rules are a big deal for truck drivers like Manuel Hernandez. As Morris’s story pointed out, Hernandez is a hard-core long-hauler, with average trips of two to three weeks. But he is also a serious family man, and his goal with every trip is to drive as many miles as possible and return home to El Paso to spend his 34-hour break with his wife of 30 years, Teresa.

You’d think that would be incentive enough to drive safely — the desire to stay alive, get paid, and get home to your wife. But it isn’t enough to satisfy the whims of Washington.

The new FMCSA rules have already had a huge impact on Hernandez. Since they took effect in July, he has been stranded on the open road five times; his 70 on-duty hours had run out before he could get back home. On one such occasion, as Morris reported, he dropped a load in Dallas and then drove to a truck stop on Interstate 20 to park and simply wait until the rules allowed him to drive again. “There was nothing to do,” he  said. “It can be a nightmare of having to sit for 48 hours, tired, when all you want to do is get home.”

“Who made up these rules?” he asked Morris. “Did they have any experience in driving truck, and traffic, and dealing with customers?”

What a silly question; doesn’t he know bureaucrats don’t have customers?

It turns out that Hernandez and truckers like him are required to take those ten consecutive hours of rest because it supposedly promotes their circadian-rhythm sleep cycle. That’s right; our nation’s bureaucrats know better than the truckers themselves when they should and should not sleep.

These rules aren’t just stupid, they are hitting Hernandez and other drivers where it hurts most: their wallets. Pay for experienced drivers has plunged to about $50,000 a year from $65,000, Hernandez said.

Things have gotten so bad, and the industry so riddled with regulations, that many drivers are calling it quits. “Sometimes I think they’re trying to choke out the trucking industry,” Hernandez lamented.

This is a real war story all Americans should know about: the war the administrative state is waging against industry upon industry. And all Americans should meet the real-life working-class victims of that war.

Forget the fake war on women; let’s start talking to Americans about the war our government is waging against our long-haul truckers.

Let’s tell the very real story of Manuel Hernandez.

And see how it stacks up against the fake story of Sandra Fluke.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network and a senior adviser to AmericaStrong. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan. Mike Leven is the president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands and a member of the Job Creators Alliance.