A capping moment as time ran out in my appearance today on Mark Willis’ Road Dog Trucking News show on Sirius XM came with the question from a company driver who called in to ask if owner-operators’ challenges today — which prompted Max Heine to ask if you were in fact of a “dying breed” in this blog post on Overdrive Extra — were in part a result of too many shooting themselves in the foot over the years accepting cheap freight and being reluctant to change by becoming better businesspeople. My answer — a reluctant and qualified yes — while OK as it was, failed in the time allowed to stress the very real fact that, throughout trucking history of the past decades, it’s not just owner-operators who are the culprits in cheap-freight dynamics and “running two or three logbooks” to make it up, as the driver who called in put it.
Over the years, most of the anecdotes I’ve heard on such practices were of course cases where it was aided and abetted — or even encouraged — by fleet personnel. Most of the anecdotes stem from days gone by, and in today’s world deliberate hours violation of that type appears to be if not a thing of the past certainly much less common than in decades prior.
Part of the reason for that is an increasingly buttoned-up business culture among owner-operators and other carriers. Another is that company drivers and leased owner-operators know well they’re will be on the hook for uncovered hours violations just as much as their employers should when investigators intervene and uncover patterns.
Another element of some of the recent conversations I’ve had with Trans Products Trans Services Regulatory Manager Richard Wilson include his thoughts on the phenomenon of civil penalties or fines issued to drivers as a result of hours violations found during FMCSA interventions. He’s seen such fines as growing in frequency of issuance in recent times.
“In the process of intervention, drivers are held accountable for every action that they have that is an hours violation,” Wilson says. “They and the motor carrier are both held accountable.” In some cases of particularly “nasty driver treatment,” says Wilson, the driver could be saddled with the vast majority of that accountability.
He tells the story of a motor carrier who had its drivers sign off on a “pseudo-corrective action policy” made “after they were notified that the DOT was coming in to do their new entrant audit.”
Essentially, the carrier scrambled to put together a plan after sitting on six months of logs with no review, then made drivers sign documents saying the carrier reviewed their logs and warned those drivers in violation.
When FMCSA came in, they saw a particular driver with a pattern of logging errors and nothing done to correct the violations. “Then the company hands FMCSA the documents that say ‘we warned him,’ ” Wilson says. “The violation now rolls over to the driver because it shows a lack of consciousness on his part to make an effort to improve, which in every case I was involved in [where such happened] the motor carrier itself honestly promoted and condoned hours violations until they found out that somebody was coming in and made an immediate about-face – and made the driver sign the paper, and if the driver didn’t, well, he was terminated. And in some cases, these drivers did walk away – those drivers obviously weren’t fined.”
In the worst such case, a driver was issued a $4,000 fine, and the company got a Satisfactory safety rating with no penalties. “It was the perfect example where the driver was expendable” in the eyes of the company, says Wilson. “To get the Satisfactory rating, he was a sacrificial lamb. By the way, I will say, that particular driver is with another company – happily employed, loves his company. Did I have anything to do with that? I would never admit it, even under waterboarding.”
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