How would overtime pay affect trucking safety?

Andrew Balthrop Headshot
Updated Apr 27, 2022

Also contributing to this analysis: Travis Tokar and Ron Gordon.

employment law reg booksRead Part 1 of this two-part analysis, about potential market benefits and drawbacks of removing the motor carrier exception to fair-labor overtime-pay laws, via the link.

As illustrated in Part 1 of this two-part series, the Department of Transportation recently advised Congress to eliminate the Fair Labor Standards Act’s motor carrier exemption that allows many carriers to avoid paying company drivers overtime. As Congress has begun to attempt action on the advice, the change could yield benefits for all drivers including higher earnings and shorter wait times at loading docks.

Yet well-intentioned policy changes can produce unforeseen safety outcomes. For example, the FMCSA’s 2017 electronic logging device mandate was expressly meant to make trucking safer by increasing hours of service compliance. Hours of service compliance improved considerably, but the mandate also seemed to incentivize many drivers to engage in unsafe practices like speeding, frequent lane changes, and following too closely to try to make the most of their closely monitored hours. The smallest carriers (one-truck independent owner-operators), according to this analysis, accrued 26% more driving violations after the mandate, and crash rates increased 11.6%.

[Related: Study finds trucking accidents increased after ELD mandate]

Eliminating the motor carrier exemption would almost certainly affect safety to some extent. But would the impact be positive or negative? There is no way to know for sure. However, researchers have identified several factors that could shape the outcome.

More exposure behind the wheel might yield more crashes?

Those who want to eliminate the FLSA’s motor carrier exemption often claim that doing so would force shippers and receivers to become more efficient, allowing truckers to spend more time driving. But that could be a double-edged sword. While the hours of service rules permit over-the-road truckers to drive a maximum of 11 daily hours, the real world intrudes. Many fall short of that limit as non-driving tasks eat away at on-duty hours.

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One study’s participants averaged 7.58 hours of actual driving time -- well below the 9.5-hour threshold where the risk of fatigue-related crashes increases significantly, according to this analysis. If overtime pay caused shippers and receivers to become more efficient, fatigue-related crash rates could rise.

Overtime pay could also increase unsafe driving-related crashes by incentivizing some truckers to drive more aggressively (traveling too fast for conditions, following too closely, or making illegal maneuvers) in an effort to cover more miles and maximize their earnings. While many drivers would be unable to speed because their trucks are governed, overtime’s promise of significantly higher per-mile earnings could lead some to take risks they would not otherwise take.

More optimistically, there are many reasons to believe that ending the motor carrier exemption in the FLSA would improve trucking safety. Several studies find that better-paid drivers are in fact safer drivers. For example, researchers who analyzed data from J.B. Hunt found that raising a driver’s pay a single cent per mile reduced their expected crash count by 8.15%.

Research also shows that drivers who do less uncompensated work are safer. For example, in 2013, Australian researchers found that long-haul drivers who were paid while waiting at loading docks spent less time waiting, had shorter workweeks, and experienced less fatigue. That study may lend credence to arguments that paying company drivers overtime would force shippers and receivers to become more efficient. It could also suggest that company drivers would become safer if the motor carrier exemption were eliminated, since they would be compensated for more of their work.

Some researchers contend that many over-the-road drivers’ 60+ hour workweeks stem from their desire to reach earnings targets, rather than a need to earn as much money as possible. Overtime pay thus might help haulers hit those targets earlier and spend more time at home, thereby reducing fatigue-related crash rates.

The elimination of the FLSA’s motor carrier exemption could improve drivers’ lives in various ways, including making their work safer. But, ultimately, it’s also possible that mandatory overtime pay for company drivers could yield an increase in crashes, leading to more regulation of an already highly-regulated industry.

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