Driver shutdown afoot? Facebook groups stir controversy over calls to turn off the keys

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Updated Jan 27, 2019

Around the turn of the new year, a group of truck operators began attempting to rally support for a nationwide trucking shutdown, planned for April 12. The drivers detail in a document titled “Truckers Declaration for the 2019 Shutdown” a long list of grievances, including issues near and dear to many drivers, such as unreasonable hours of service restraints, the required adoption of electronic logging devices and a nationwide lack of truck parking as among the reasons for their planned protest.

Though groups have set up bare-bones websites, organization and communications are concentrated inside, coalesced around a myriad of groups and pages, with the “Black Smoke Matters” group gaining the most recent attention. As of Tuesday, that particular Facebook group had more than 20,000 followers there.

The group calls for an “industry-wide shutdown” for April 12, with a media blitz scheduled for February 21, says Oklahoma-based owner-operator Bryan Hutchens, an administrator of the Facebook group and one among many organizers promoting the February and April actions. “These sorts of events make it to where it’s not a two- to three-year delay before things happen” on the regulatory front in favor of drivers, Hutchens believes, whether that means “us going to Washington and talking to them” or these actions. “If we have to keep knocking on their door, we’ll keep knocking on their door.”

Oklahoma-based owner-operator Bryan Hutchens’ 1996 Peterbilt 379 parked on the National Mall during “That’s a Big 10-4 on D.C.” last October.Oklahoma-based owner-operator Bryan Hutchens’ 1996 Peterbilt 379 parked on the National Mall during “That’s a Big 10-4 on D.C.” last October.

Some truckers involved with recent demonstrations and/or engagement efforts question the timing, however, noting that moving to shut the industry down in protest — as the agency works to overhaul hours of service regs, among other efforts largely driven by feedback from owner-operators — would be like “spitting in the FMCSA’s face.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association notably declined to answer questions regarding their support or opposition to any threats of driver actions or whether such threats have any influence on lawmakers or regulators, and TruckerNation discounts the shutdown tactic altogether as unproductive.

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In its Declaration document, protest organizers seem to discount the efforts of some of their own to engage lawmakers and regulators. Referring specifically to the October-held “That’s a big 10-4 on D.C.” on the National Mall, protest organizers note that “still truck drivers feel as if they aren’t being heard.” They go on to ask, “What will it take for truck drivers to be taken seriously?”

An official from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the agency has an “open-door policy,” and that it encourages industry stakeholders to meet with agency officials to spell out their concerns. The official also said any group or individual is free to file a petition for regulatory changes, and all petitions are filed in the Federal Register and open to public comments.

The official also noted that nearly all of FMCSA’s regulatory actions are mandated by Congress, and that the agency’s job is to execute laws established by lawmakers. The ELD mandate, hours of service regs, the coming Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse — all were mandated by Congress and must be executed by FMCSA, the official said.

The February 21 effort is planned principally at this point for areas around Indianapolis.

Beginning early in the day, participants plan to gather at points outside the long I-465 loop around the city and then begin a convoy starting on the West side of Indianapolis and picking up other groups along the way to join and circle the loop a couple of times. Reps from the Pennsylvania-based United States Transportation Alliance, founded by owner-operators Mike Landis, Brian Brase and other associated truckers after involvement in 2017 and 2018 protest actions in Washington, D.C., will be on hand with other truckers in the city to speak with local media about driver-centric issues.

Hutchens notes “there’s also locations in Texas and California, and North Carolina and South Carolina,” among other locales, that may do something similar on the same day. He likens it to the ELD media blitz press-outreach that happened Dec. 4, 2017, in a variety of locations across the country. This time, organizers are hoping to better “concentrate people in areas where we might get attention,” Hutchens notes, with the visibility of large numbers involved. “If you can get 500 to 600 people to show up, [media is] going to pay attention.”

As with most such efforts, it’s unclear if, and even unlikely that, the groups’ Facebook following numbers will translate to similar participation numbers when the time comes in February and April. Similar shutdown threats and rallies in recent years, most of them organized via social media, have seen relatively few participants showing up at protest sites and seemingly few shutting down.

For example, a planned 2013 shutdown, which garnered national news coverage in many more ways than one in the run-up to it, fell well short of the 10,000 drivers its organizers said would descend on Washington, D.C., to protest and block traffic. In that protest, the Ride for the Constitution, only 30 drivers showed. More recent efforts have been marginally more successful in inspiring participation, but many participants point to one-to-one relationship-building efforts and conversations with lawmakers and regulators as bearing the most fruit.

But if there was a common refrain among owner-operators and drivers who participated in “That’s a big 10-4 on D.C.” on the National Mall this past October, it was disappointment in the inattention of local and national media to the effort, a rally in the capitol that served dual functions.

  • Advocacy for driver-centric issues, from support for revised hours of service regulations currently pursued by FMCSA, support for an exemption for small carriers to the electronic logging device mandate, concerns about an ongoing parking shortage particularly stark in large metropolitan areas but critical in many parts of the country.
  • Outreach to the public, including D.C.-based regulators and lawmakers, on these and other, broader issues like the importance of trucking generally to the American economy, in what was for all intents and purposes a truck-show atmosphere.

The central frustration with media’s spotlight shined elsewhere, however, in part led to what followed the D.C. event and its photo-op highway stoppages on I-95 and I-395 (no non-industry media covered those, either) – and a swift determination among some participants and others around the nation that more drastic action was warranted, and quickly.

As early as late October, mere days after the D.C. event, members of “Black Smoke Matters,” among other 10-4 D.C. participants and other groups, were mulling a “One and Done” protest action, as they were calling it at the time, with some participants calling for dramatic moves like blocking various highways and/or ports of entry, potentially including a call for a shutdown on a date in early November.

Around the November time frame, this image began to appear in place of the avatars of Facebook profiles of owner-operators and other truckers sympathetic to those early calls for a shutdown.Around the November time frame, this image began to appear in place of the avatars of Facebook profiles of owner-operators and other truckers sympathetic to those early calls for a shutdown.

Former owner-operator Scott Reed, with whom regular readers will be familiar from his early involvement in the founding of the ELD or Me Facebook group to protest the mandate in 2017, among other efforts, says he and others urged those rushing to mount disruptive protest actions to allow time to do its work. After all, 10-4 D.C. saw regulators visit with truckers on the National Mall, and many participants used their time in the nation’s capitol to continue to forge connections with both lawmakers and regulators through indoor meetings as well, to say nothing of all that had come before that event.

The “Truckers Declaration” document essentially argues in its first paragraph that shutdown proponents believe their calls for government action to the better of owner-operators and drivers’ situations are “falling on deaf ears,” in the words of owner-operator Hutchens. Issues related to the imposition of e-logs, despite years of preparation for the mandate by regulators, have led to an untold number of truckers “selling out, and out of trucking now,” Hutchens adds. “Folks going bankrupt, some that are on depression medication now —  when their day is up on the e-log, they can’t sleep. This is affecting more than people’s money, and a lot of people are at their wits’ end.”

But when it comes to drivers exerting influence on regulators, Reed and others draw a direct line from previous engagement efforts by countless truckers – from the 2017 protest actions of Operation Black and Blue and ELD or Me, the emphasis on driver issues at MATS the following Spring and further D.C. actions in April, 10-4 D.C. in the Spring – to the agency’s attempt to expedite a proposal for hours of service reform. The latter is currently in process, though reportedly hampered by the ongoing partial government shutdown. FMCSA chief Ray “Martinez had gotten real serious about [reforming hours of service] in April,” Reed believes, following the intense focus on the issue the regulator saw at the Mid-America Trucking Show there, Martinez’ first industry event.

Since October, Reed and small fleet owner Scott Jordan, also head of the Independent Carrier Group they’re both part of, have hosted two conference calls with regulators and several owner-operators and independent carrier representatives to hash out issues and address questions, inviting wide participation from a variety of truckers. The second such conference call happened January 10, Reed notes.

The agency is intent to finish its notice of proposed rulemaking on hours, he believes, and “given the situation that we’re in” there, he says, “I don’t know that [a shutdown] is the right move, if FMCSA is doing what they’re claiming.” He likens shutting down at this point to “spitting in the FMCSA’s face.” Reed, who dispatches for several independents, notes he’ll be leaving the question of shutting down or not in April to those operators. But “if they want to work,” he notes, he’ll be there working for them.

Though the association declined to comment on support of or opposition to the protest actions, OOIDA pointed to a 2008 article written by the late Jim Johnston, a founder and longtime CEO and president of OOIDA. The piece was written in response to calls for a shutdown in 2008 over surging diesel prices.

“Some are suggesting that we call for and promote a nationwide truck shutdown,” Johnston wrote. “It’s important to recognize that a shutdown, even one that gains widespread support, would not solve the problem of high fuel prices and low freight rates. The short-term benefits would go to the fleets, who wouldn’t shut down, and to those small-business truckers who are currently operating at a profit. There would be further damage and no gain to those already at the brink.”

An OOIDA spokesperson also said the group is forbidden by anti-trust law from organizing a work stoppage.

The TruckerNation organization, which grew out of the ELD or Me Facebook group, has also made headway building relationships necessary to influence those in power over time and feels that pressure-cooker tactics like shutdowns and street demonstrations are increasingly unnecessary and ineffective. “TruckerNation has worked very hard to try and develop relationships with government, both on the legislative and regulatory side,” notes TruckerNation’s Andrea Marks. “We believe that two-way professional and collaborative communication is the key” to seeing good driver-centric outcomes.

Marks notes that issues deemed “shutdown-worthy” in the “Truckers Declaration” – a desire for repeal of the ELD mandate as an unconstitutional unfunded mandate creating real cybersecurity issues, hours of service reform, parking, driver training and more – have either been addressed in some fashion or are “in the process of being addressed by regulators,” including ongoing hours reform efforts and the very study proposal the declaration quotes around cybersecurity.

She also points to ongoing high levels of attention to the parking issue — a lot of which has been covered in Overdrive — likewise new pre-CDL training regulations that are “set to be enforced in February 2020.”

Those training regulations, however, did not include a set minimum of behind-the-wheel training, which owner-operator Hutchens singles out as evidence of just what truckers are up against in the scrum of regulatory influence battles with monied interests. Most of the negotiated rulemaking committee wanted a minimum number of hours of behind-the-wheel training, Hutchens contends, but the big-trucking lobby cut against such a requirement. “We can’t compete with the war chest of the ATA,” he says. All “we have is people.”

The American Trucking Associations declined to comment for this article.

New driver-centric organizations are “growing and people are starting to join,” Hutchens notes, specifically pointing to Landis and company’s USTA and their monthly trips to D.C. to meet with officials, “but it takes time. It’s hard to compete against money” in the influence game.

Owner-operator Mike Landis and the USTA are indeed singing a tune somewhat different from Reed or Marks. The young organization, now incorporated as a nonprofit, realizes it runs some risks to its tax-exempt status by its planned involvement in the Feb. 21 media blitz effort in Indianapolis and the associated April 12 shutdown call. As an individual, Landis says, he sees both actions as of a piece with the fruitful efforts that have occurred to date in some respects, as further demonstration of professional sincerity to hopefully “keep [FMCSA] at the table” hearing owner-operator and driver concerns.

As for media attention, announcement of these latest moves to more drastic action with the declaration prompted some immediate coverage, first from some trucking-centric online properties and then at the mainstream news site. The previously relatively small online “Black Smoke Matters” group has now more than doubled in size as a result of the flood of curiosity seekers and truckers. Some division over the tactic of blocking roads attendant to the April shutdown was highlighted in that early press, and similar divisions have been well evident reporting this story. Some among the original leaders of the Indianapolis event, too, bowed out mere hours after being spoken to by Overdrive, citing acrimonious disputes with “Black Smoke Matters” administrators.

Hutchens tamps down worries over road blocking attendant to the February 21 event. “We made it 100 percent clear that we’re not going to shut down any highways or roads on media blitz day,” he says.

As far as April is concerned, he notes the principal action will be to “turn off the keys” and stay out of the stream of commerce that day and perhaps longer, though “what people do” otherwise, he says, is out of the group’s control. “We don’t even want April to happen – we’d love for FMCSA to take some action and start helping fix the issues in our industry.”

Reed believes, “If the hours of service” proposal “comes out before April, it may deter people” from taking things too far with a shutdown, and show plenty drivers the agency is clearly attempting to do at least part of what drivers want.

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