A look back at some of the top labor issues in the freight-hauling industry since deregulation in the 1980s—and even before—as well as the notable impacts of ongoing worker and driver challenges.
Although the federal government doesn’t regulate labor in trucking per se, the impact regulations have on commercial drivers can’t be ignored.
The Labor Day weekend gives us here at FleetOwner an opportunity to look back at some of the top labor issues in the industry since deregulation in the 1980s and the effects of some notable and ongoing worker and driver challenges.
Deregulation was all about lowering economic barriers—such as higher insurance rates and higher registration costs—for motor carriers entering the industry. In turn, the government started raising safety barriers.
“All of these laws started getting passed to raise the safety bar,” Dave Osiecki, an industry veteran since the mid-1980s and a senior consultant at Scopelitis Transportation Consulting (STC), told FleetOwner. “Safety-based rules are directed at labor and the drivers largely. When you think about safety, it’s operational safety, vehicle, and truck safety, but if you really want to improve safety in trucking, it’s really about the person–the human–because that’s who makes the mistakes, unfortunately. That’s why a lot of the safety regulations are really aimed at labor, if you will.”
More than 40 years ago, that shift in deregulation ended up leading to an increased number of new companies coming into the business, Steve Keppler, who is co-director at STC, pointed out. “It depressed rates, but it also created efficiencies and opened up competition in the capital market,” he explained.
“At the end of the day, the ultimate goal in transportation is to be safe,” Keppler said. “The response to deregulation in many respects was a slew of laws and regulations to try to get to that point. Since we’re not regulating you economically anymore, we have a responsibility to ensure safety on the highways. We are going to shift our focus to safety, so things like the electronic logging device mandate, hours-of-service changes, medical changes, drug testing, and the creation of the CDL under the Commercial Motor Vehicle Act of 1986—that was a big deal.”
In April 1992, the CDL went into effect. According to trucking radio icon Dave Nemo, who has been an in-cab companion for over-the-road truckers for the last 50 years or so, when the CDL law took effect, motor carriers and drivers expressed the same fear and trepidation that permeated the industry leading up to ELD mandate compliance in 2017.
“People didn’t know what it was all about,” Nemo said. “The hope among the drivers was: ‘Finally, we are like airplane pilots. We can drive across country with one license, and it’s a federal license.’ But we found out it was the same thing, only different, but now the federal government has a hand in the states that they didn’t have before. So, the FMCSA is born and then all of the subsequent things that FMCSA has brought about.”
At the end of the day, carriers will remain concerned with anything that disrupts daily business, particularly for companies with smaller operating margins, Keppler pointed out. And even though many of the safety rules that have been implemented since deregulation created a higher standard for those entering the business, drivers are often dealt a bad hand.
“It’s always a balancing act,” Keppler said. “You need to evaluate things on their totality. Yes, safety is important and critical, but we also want to make sure that we have a healthy, productive, and committed driver workforce. If you look at it from a safety and risk perspective, for drivers that have medical issues and who are not happy, there is research to show that those drivers are riskier.”
“It’s incumbent upon the government and carriers to make it as best of an environment as they can for those drivers because of that,” he added. “We see a lot of carriers creating new benefits programs, raising driver pay, and doing a lot of things to help retain drivers by making them as safe, healthy, and productive as possible.”
Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984
The Motor Carrier Safety Assistance program was authorized in 1982 shortly after deregulation. What that did was establish a program for the federal government to get states involved in oversight, explained Steve Keppler, co-director at Scopelitis Transportation Consulting. It set up a grant program and gave states money to help oversee drivers and motor carriers. Related to that, in 1984, the Motor Carrier Safety Act was established. It basically required the federal government to make sure states had compatible and consistent regulations to not impede interstate commerce, Keppler added. The Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984 established rules, regulations, standards, and orders to assure that commercial motor vehicles are safely maintained, equipped, loaded, and operated; the responsibilities imposed upon commercial drivers do not impair drivers’ ability to operate safely; the physical condition of drivers is adequate to enable them to drive safely; and the operation of commercial motor vehicles does not create deleterious effects on the physical condition of drivers.
Commercial Motor Vehicle Act of 1986: Creation of the CDL
To improve safety, in 1986, Congress enacted the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act (CMVSA), which standardized the minimum requirements for obtaining and retaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and prohibited drivers from holding more than one CDL. The law was intended to improve highway safety by removing unsafe commercial vehicles and unqualified and unsafe drivers from the roads. The CDL took effect in April 1992 and has been a gateway for many of the regulations the industry sees today.
The first HOS rules were established in 1937 by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). They allowed 10 hours of driving time and eight hours of off-duty time within a 24-hour day as well as 60- to 70-hour limits for seven- and eight-day time frames, and time in the sleeper berth needed to total eight hours over two undefined periods. These regulations changed little until the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s 2003 final rule (effective in 2004). The ICC had been abolished in 1995, leaving rulemaking to the FMCSA. Under the 2003 final rule, drivers had 11 hours of driving time and 10 hours of off-duty time, and sleeper berth time totaled 10 or more hours over two periods, each with a minimum of two hours. The 2005 final rule changed the sleeper berth provisions to provide one of the sleeper berth periods to be at least eight consecutive hours, in addition to another two-hour period in the sleeper or off-duty, totaling 10 hours off-duty. Some critics said requiring eight-hour chunks of time in a sleeper berth was overly restrictive to drivers who wanted to utilize naps or team drivers who want to switch between each other with more flexible shifts. Critics also said that the mandatory two-hour break shouldn’t cut into drivers’ 14-hour shift, impeding their ability to work and discouraging them from taking the break. In 2017, a 34-hour restart rule was enacted that allowed drivers to reset their workweek (60/70 hours in 7/8 days) after 34 hours of consecutive rest. FMCSA studies found 34 hours is the optimal amount of time to reduce fatigue-related incidents. The 2020 changes also included the option of a 7/3 sleep/break split for increased flexibility and a 30-minute break requirement after eight cumulative hours of driving. HOS regulations continue to be a contentious topic to this day in the industry.
Electronic Logging Device (ELD) mandate
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) enacted the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate in February 2016, and carriers had to comply by the end of 2017. The mandate required drivers to use ELDs to track their schedules to ensure hours-of-service (HOS) compliance. It also established standardized technical specifications for ELDs. Drivers previously logged their hours on paper, which critics said allowed carriers to abuse their drivers by encouraging them to fudge numbers, pushing them past their HOS limits. ELD rule exceptions exist for drivers of vehicles manufactured before model year 2000, driveaway-towaway drivers where the vehicle being driven is the commodity being delivered, and drivers who use paper logs no more than eight days during any 30-day period. The FMCSA estimates that ELDs reduce crashes and save lives.
Medical certification requirements
Medical certification requirements have quite a long history of evolution in the trucking industry—and they have not been developed without controversy. But if you don’t have a valid certification or don’t keep it current, you don’t have a job driving a truck. There are stiff penalties if a driver falsifies a certification. Myriad medical certification rules took effect in 2014. By law, every CDL/CLP holder must have a U.S. Department of Transportation-mandated physical exam annually (or every other year if you’re younger and healthy) and have a medical certificate on file with their state’s department of motor vehicles. The certificate confirms the driver is healthy enough to safely perform the demanding job of driving a commercial vehicle. The exam must be performed by a medical examiner who is listed in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) National Registry. Regulations allow states to revoke the CDL privileges of drivers who don’t have valid medical examiner certificates (MEC). With this all comes advice from FMCSA on related issues such as proper use of prescription medications, fitness, nutrition, and control of health issues common among truckers such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Obtaining and keeping a medical certification takes more effort than simply showing up for a physical exam. Diet and exercise are important, but passing the DOT physical (and keeping your driving privileges intact) begins with the right attitude about your health. Medical issues such as hearing and vision impairments and diabetes have FMCSA restrictions attached to the medical certificate process. After seven years, FMCSA also recently released a draft of its Medical Examiners Handbook that offers revised guidance to help examiners ensure that drivers are healthy and is seeking comment right now on the handbook.
Driver drug testing and the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse
It’s taken some time for the dust to settle on truck driver drug-and-alcohol testing and the reporting of those results to the more than 2-year-old federal Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, which is a secure online database that employers, state licensing agencies, and law enforcement can use to retrieve information about a CDL/CLP holder’s status. The clearinghouse has had a profound impact on safety but also on the trucking industry workforce and, indirectly, job satisfaction. Every CDL/CLP holder by law must be registered with the clearinghouse. For testing positive at least once, more than 135,000 drivers have been sidelined and placed into “return-to-duty” status for counseling and mandatory testing since the start of 2020. The safety benefits of the clearinghouse—and its role in helping to keep drivers impaired by substances off the road—is nearly universally acknowledged by the industry. Statistically, however, testing and the clearinghouse system have kept tens of thousands of truckers from driving. More than 100,000 of the 135,000 since 2020 are in prohibited status with the clearinghouse, meaning they can’t get back behind the wheel and make a living in the industry, at least not as drivers. The industry is short around 80,000 drivers and might be down about 160,000 by decade’s end, according to an American Trucking Associations estimate. Squabbles since before 2020 have erupted over the testing methods sanctioned by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the clearinghouse. The only testing method currently approved is urinalysis, which most often flags marijuana-using truckers (81,492 since 2020). But some stakeholders who use it during pre-screening of applicants are still pushing for hair-follicle testing because of its ability to detect use of harder drugs farther back in time—and the U.S. Department of Transportation has approved the addition of oral fluid testing to the clearinghouse-sanctioned testing methods, though this is still under review.
Employee Misclassification/Independent Contractor Status | California’s AB5
In 2019, California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) was passed. It set forth a legal test for independent contractors that, if failed, would require employers to hire these contractors as employees. There are many professions exempted from the law, but truck driving is not among them. The owner-operator model as it has existed for decades does not meet the legal test. Many carriers preemptively hired their contractors as employees. Many owner-operators were left scratching their heads as how to comply with the law. The law offers little to no guidance on how drivers can comply, as it is not specific to trucking. There are also questions regarding interstate commerce, on how the law affects owner-operators from outside the state operating in California. There is also concern that copycat laws will arise in other states, such as Senate Bill 863 in New Jersey. A preliminary injunction was issued by the U.S. Southern District Court of California to allow truck drivers to act as independent contractors during ensuing litigation from the California Trucking Association (CTA). However, with the Supreme Court opting to decline an appeal from the 9th Circuit, the district court had to repeal the injunction, formally lifting it Aug. 29. CTA intends to file a new motion for preliminary injunction via an argument based on the Federal Aviation and Administration Authorization Act of 1994. Briefing on the new motion will take place this fall. Additionally, the court will consider a motion from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), according to Scopelitis law firm.
Entry-level driver training requirements
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) on Feb. 7, 2022, enacted a federal standard to obtain a commercial driver’s license. The regulation applies to people obtaining a Class A or Class B CDL for the first time after Feb. 7. It does not apply to any applicant who obtained a new CDL or commercial learner’s permit before Feb. 7, but it does apply to anybody upgrading an existing Class A or B CDL, or getting a hazardous materials (H), passenger (P), or school bus (S) endorsement for the first time. Driving schools are required to register with FMCSA. The entry-level driver training (ELDT) standards do not require a minimum number of hours, but they do require that applicants pass a theory instruction assessment and behind the wheel training. The federal regulations do not supersede state ELDT requirements that exceed the FMCSA’s minimum standards. For example, if a state has minimum hour requirements, drivers in that state must still meet the requirements. At the time of the regulation’s enactment, American Trucking Associations estimated that 85% of entry-level drivers were already trained with curricula that met the ELDT standards. “The entry-level driver training rule is a big deal and has been a long time coming,” STC’s Keppler said. “It was a difficult road. The process took over 20 years to get that done. It’s rules like that and ELDs, and driver medical certification—some view them as a negative, but they are also professionalizing the driver. It’s creating a higher standard for people entering the business.”
Exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) established overtime pay requirements for U.S. workers. However, these overtime pay regulations do not apply to motor carrier employees. Section 13(b)(1) of the FLSA provides an exemption for employees within the authority of the Secretary of Transportation pursuant to Section 204 of the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. This covers employees of motor carriers or private motor carriers. It also affects drivers, driver’s helpers, loaders, or mechanics whose duties affect the operational safety of vehicles on public highways in interstate or foreign commerce. There is a small vehicle exception, where employees who work with vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less are not exempt from overtime pay requirements.
Implementation of the CSA scoring system
From FMCSA: “CSA is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s data-driven safety compliance and enforcement program designed to improve safety and prevent commercial motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities.” It took quite a bit—and quite a lot of debate—to get there starting in 2010. The regulator’s safety scoring system is controversial to say the least—it’s still being challenged and tweaked to this day—and it has broad implications for trucking as a business, insurance, and liability. CSA stands for Compliance, Safety, Accountability and consists of three core components: the Safety Measurement System (SMS), interventions, and a Safety Fitness Determination (SFD) rating system to determine the safety fitness of motor carriers. It’s all about whether a carrier is judged to be safe to operate on the nation’s highways and byways. The SMS uses data from roadside inspections and crash reports from the last two years, and data from investigations to identify carriers with safety performance and compliance problems for interventions. FMCSA investigators are equipped with a variety of interventions to contact and work with motor carriers that have safety performance and compliance problems. The SFD assesses the safety fitness of motor carriers to help FMCSA stand down carriers that are unfit. CSA is among carriers’ biggest concerns, Steve Keppler, co-director at Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, observed. “FMCSA has been silent on that for a while,” Keppler said. “Liability is a big issue right now with a lot of trucking companies and their insurance rates. A carrier concern is not knowing what the outcome of CSA will be and what [FMCSA] will do with that.”
The science is simple—the air pressure in a tire is what carries the load, explained John Ramaika, regional fleet manager at Double Coin. Therefore, an underinflated tire requires more energy, meaning more fuel to roll. “The simplest and most neglected maintenance item which will impact tire performance and fuel economy is proper inflation,” he said.
The math is simple as well—there is a rule of thumb that 10% underinflation will cost about 1% in fuel economy, related Jim Garrett, long haul product category manager at Michelin North America. “Tires are designed for a specific amount of deformation for traction and stability and underinflated tires have more deformation,” he said. “The energy used to deform the tire comes from somewhere– ultimately it comes from the fuel tank.”
It’s easy to see how effective tire pressure management can help lower fuel costs.
“Tire maintenance and good policies and procedures contribute greatly to fuel economy because proper air pressure allows tires to perform at their maximum design levels,” said Tom Clauer, Yokohama Tire’s senior manager of commercial product planning. “Air pressure is the single most important component of any fleet maintenance practice as underinflated tires have a direct correlation to increased fuel consumption.
“Every fleet should set, maintain and enforce a strict policy concerning air pressure and it should be checked cold and daily,” Clauer added. “Drivers are the point of the spear for this and each time that equipment is in the shop for any service or maintenance, air pressure should be checked and adjusted. They should also take note of any irregular wear, which is usually an indication of a deeper issue, including the possibility of improper air pressure.”
Greg Kidd, application engineer at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, U.S. and Canada, said the manufacturer encourages drivers and fleet managers to be proactive about tire management.
“As a routine part of a pre-trip inspection, fleets should check all tire inflation pressures,” Kidd advised. “During normal operating conditions, tire inflation pressure can increase 15% to 20%. Therefore, it is recommended to evaluate tire pressures before driving begins when the tire is cold to ensure a more accurate pressure check. Bridgestone also recommends replacing the valve stem seal, core and steel threaded flow-through cap every time a tire is mounted.
“There is no significant difference in proper maintenance practices between the steer, drive and trailer tires,” Kidd continued. “ However, it is important to keep the tractor and the trailer axles aligned. That will ensure the tires are rolling straight down the road, which will maximize tire life as well as fuel efficiency.”
Michelin’s Jim Garrett said fleets should invest in new valve stems every time a tire is replaced, digital tire gauges for maintenance personnel, pressure stickers on the vehicle for each wheel position, and driver and maintenance personnel training, which the company offers on request.
“Training is also available through your trucking association, your local tire dealer and suppliers of any specialty equipment you might purchase,” Garrett added. “We also recommend becoming familiar with the service manual provided by the tire manufacturer.”
At Yokohama, according to Tom Clauer, classroom training can be accessed through associations and onsite training can be conducted by a tire manufacturer representative and/or engineering staff. The company also offers a commercial video training series.
ATA’s Technology and Maintenance Council is an excellent resource for fleets, noted John Ramaika at Double Coin. For example, he pointed to the TMC Radial Tire Conditions Analysis Guide for a comprehensive review of tire conditions covering probable causes and recommended actions.
Bridgestone’s Greg Kidd went on to point out that there are several options available for tire maintenance training, including on-site courses for fleets or sessions at the Bridgestone Texas Proving Grounds facility. TMC, he added, offers manuals such as Tire and Wheel Maintenance Basics for Drivers.
“While it would be difficult to quantify exact fuel savings from proper inspection and service procedures,” Kidd said, “one of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by working closely with a tire manufacturer to create a comprehensive tire management program.”
“Many of today’s trucks have sophisticated on-board monitoring systems that can be used to measure fuel economy,” said Jim Garrett at Michelin. “The data can provide an understanding of variables such as routes and drivers and can take time to collect, but many fleets are getting good at this and clearly recognize the quick payback in improved tire maintenance.”
A group of researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Arkansas issued a report this February “Did Electronic Logging Device Mandate Reduce Accidents?” which analyses the effects of the electronic logging device mandate, and they reached two main conclusions:
The use of ELDs has not reduced the rate of truck crashes
The frequency of speeding violations, particularly among the small carrier segment, has increased since the mandate took effect
The report mostly focuses on smaller carriers and owner-operators who were considered the most impacted by the mandate, since larger carriers were likely already using ELDs or AOBRDs.
Although there were fewer hours of service violations, crash numbers saw little impact by the enforcement of the ELD mandate.
The report studied drivers between January 1, 2017 and September 1, 2018, which included:
Nearly a year’s worth of data prior to the December 18, 2017, enforcement deadline of the ELD mandate, and
Roughly three-month light enforcement period ahead of the April 1, 2018, hard enforcement date
For the pre-enforcement period, researchers said there was an average of 1,717 truck crashes a week. That number spiked during the soft enforcement period (December 17, 2017, to April 1, 2018) to 1,912 crashes a week. After April 1, the number dropped to an average of 1,703 crashes per week.
Independent owner-operators averaged 154 crashes a week prior to the ELD mandate December 2017 deadline and 160 crashes after hard enforcement began in April 2018.
Drivers at carriers with between 101 and 1,000 truck averaged 374 crashes a week before the mandate and 361 crashes a week after hard enforcement began.
Carriers with 1,001 or more trucks saw their crash rates dip slightly, from 244 a week to 240 a week.
Based on this data, the researchers conclude that these numbers do not point to any obvious reduction in accidents due to the ELD mandate.
While accident rates appear unchanged, the report says, unsafe driving behaviors such as speeding appear to have increased over the same period of time. These unsafe driving behaviors were found to be in response to productivity losses caused by the mandate.
According to the report, unsafe driving violations:
By owner-operators increased by as much as 33.3%, and speeding increased by as much as 31%
Carriers with between 101 and 1,000 trucks saw only a 6% increase in the number of unsafe driving violations per week after hard enforcement of the mandate began
Carriers with more than 1,000 trucks saw a 12% increase in unsafe driving violations after ELD enforcement began
“We find that the ELD mandate unequivocally enhanced HOS compliance,” the researchers write. “However, the ELD mandate did not noticeably improve safety, and we are able to produce no statistically significant evidence that ELD adoption by the smaller firms corresponded to any reduction in accident rates.”
The Biden Administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress have the opportunity to reshape trucking regulations this year. Looking at what the Obama and Trump administrations left unfinished can show a potential roadmap to changes on the horizon.
From driver classification laws to hours of service changes to safety technologies and insurance minimums, the Biden administration and Democrat-controlled Congress have the potential to reshape trucking regulations over the next few years.
With the slimmest majority possible in the U.S. Senate and just a 10-vote advantage in the House, there could be pressure on the Democrats to push through new regulations and revisit Obama-era changes that the Trump Administration put off or canceled. The Biden Administration has already put a hold on some late-2020 trucking proposals’ by Trump’s DOT — including a pilot program to look at allowing drivers to pause their on-duty driving period.
Other Democrat-led ideas, such as increasing the minimum insurance for trucking companies, could get rolled into an infrastructure bill that Democrats expect to push for this spring.
Based on interviews with industry experts and past coverage of the FMCSA and DOT, FleetOwner has highlighted 10 pending or potential changes to the trucking industry worth keeping an eye on in 2021.
Driver classification laws: On hold
The Trump administration’s Department of Labor-proposed rule that aimed to clarify the difference between an employee and an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act has been put on hold by the Biden administration. Democrats have argued that this law would make it easier for employers to classify workers, such as truck drivers, as contractors to avoid paying benefits and employment taxes.
Insurance liability increase: Likely
The minimum insurance requirement for heavy-duty vehicles hauling non-hazardous freight stands at $750,000. In 2020, the U.S. House’s $494 billion highway bill included an amendment that would increase the insurance minimum to $2 million. With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, expect this proposal to be part of any future infrastructure bill and $2 million could be the floor — not the ceiling — of proposed requirements.
Speed limiters: Likely
The Trump administration shelved the Obama administration’s proposal to require speed limiters on large trucks. Democrats pushed for this to be part of the 2020 infrastructure bill that passed the House. This is expected to be part of the 2021 proposal or return as a proposed rule from Biden’s DOT.
Automatic emergency braking: Likely
During the Obama administration, passenger vehicle manufacturers agreed to include automatic emergency braking (AEB) on all new cars and light trucks by 2022. AEB could be mandated for new medium- and heavy-duty trucks as part of an infrastructure bill out of Congress or by the DOT.
Sleep apnea screening: Likely
Another Obama-era rule proposal eschewed by Trump’s DOT would require obese drivers to be screened for sleep apnea, which some studies have shown affect about a third of commercial drivers. In the old proposal, drivers with a body mass index of 40 or higher would be flagged for screening and others with a BMI of 33 or higher could be subject to screening if they meet other criteria. Expect this to be a Biden-era priority.
Trailer underride side guards: Possible
Expect the new DOT to take a serious look at strengthening rear-underride guards for trailers and considering adding a requirement for guards on the sides of trailers. The trucking industry and safety advocacy groups have been at odds over underride guards for years. Bipartisan legislation to add the requirements was last proposed in 2019 and saw pushback from trucking groups that said it would cost the industry billions of dollars. This could be part of an infrastructure bill or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) could propose a rule.
2020 HOS changes: Here to stay, but…
The new hours of service (HOS) rules that went into effect in September 2020 are likely to stick around in some form. The significant HOS changes expanded the short-haul exception to 150 air miles and a 14-hour work shift; expanded the adverse driving conditions exception by up to two hours; redefined the 30-minute break requirement; and modified the sleeper berth exception to allow a driver to combine at least seven hours in the sleeper with off-duty time. In December, Congress directed FMCSA to analyze how the new rules impact highway safety compared to the old rules. Scopelitis Transportation Consulting (STC) anticipates the Biden Administration to want even more analysis. David J. Osiecki, president of STC, told FleetOwner that he doesn’t expect rolling back the 2020 rules to be high on the new DOT’s priority list.
Pause the HOS clock pilot: On hold
A proposal that didn’t make it into last year’s new HOS rules, which would allow drivers to pause their on-duty driving period with one off-duty period up to three hours, was introduced late in the summer. FMCSA proposed a pilot program to study the proposal. That is among the midnight regulations put on hold by the new administration.
Under-21 interstate drivers pilot: On hold
The American Trucking Associations-backed pilot program to evaluate allowing commercial drivers younger than 21 years old to operate CMVs in interstate commerce is back under review since Biden was sworn in. Younger commercial drivers are currently allowed to work in intrastate operations. It now appears their opportunity to join the interstate commerce workforce will have to wait as the pilot program is reviewed.
CSA: Expect refinement
The Trump administration tried to put its stamp on the Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scoring system but did not get a rule published in time. FMCSA worked with the National Academy of Sciences to look at some statistical challenges within that system and recommended the Item Response Theory in 2017 as an alternative to the CSA Safety Measurement System scoring method. Expect the new DOT to continue to look at refining CSA, which has now entered its second decade — and third presidential administration. Changes could come in an infrastructure bill, or FMCSA could look at other ways to refine the program.
This article should not be interpreted to mean that human perception-reaction time is 1.5 seconds. There is no such thing as the human perception-reaction time. Time to respond varies greatly across different tasks and even within the same task under different conditions. It can range from .15 second to many seconds. It is also highly variable. In many cases, the very concept of perception-reaction time simply doesn’t apply2.
1. A “standard” or “generally accepted” PRT cannot and does not exist;
2. Exact PRT values are almost always impossible to determine due to lack of data, to the impossibility of knowing when to start timing and to the general difficulty of going from the simplified research world to the real-world;
3. A PRT cannot be determined by cookbook methods such as “Olson”, AASHTO or a computer program;
4. Specifying PRT without specifying deceleration holds little value, since stopping depends on both. Drivers often trade them off. Braking at maximum possible deceleration cannot be assumed; and
5. PRT generally does not explain why a collision occurred. It is not a cause, but rather a symptom to be explained. The real cause lies in the answer to the question, “Why was the PRT insufficient?” By example, imagine that your car stops. Why? The gas gauge points to empty. Is that why the car stopped? No. Your car does not stop because the gas gauge needle points to empty. The guage is only an overt symptom and indicator, of being out of gas. The car stopped because it was out of gas, not because the gas gauge’s needle position. PRT is like the gas gauge. The empty tank is like low visibility, misplaced action boundary, response conflict, violated expectation, driver impairment, etc.
In many cases, the speed with which a person can respond, “reaction time,” is the key to assigning liability. It is common practice for accident reconstructionists simply to use a standard reaction time number, such as 1.5 seconds, when analyzing a case. In fact, reaction time is a complicated behavior and is affected by a large number of variables. There can be no single number that applies universally.
Reaction time is a surprisingly complex topic. Unfortunately, most “experts” used canned numbers without a good appreciation for where the numbers originate, how they were obtained or the variables that affect them. Moreover, there are several distinct classes of reaction time, each with somewhat different properties. In this article, I briefly describe some keys issues. The discussion focuses primarily on driver reaction time.
Reaction Time Components
When a person responds to something s/he hears, sees or feels, the total reaction time can be decomposed into a sequence of components.
1 Mental Processing Time
This is the time it takes for the responder to perceive that a signal has occurred and to decide upon a response. For example, it is the time required for a driver to detect that a pedestrian is walking across the roadway directly ahead and to decide that the brakes should be applied. Mental processing time is itself a composite of four substages:
Sensation: the time it takes to detect the sensory input from an object. (“There is a shape in the road.”) All things being equal, reaction time decreases with greater signal intensity (brightness, contrast, size, loudness, etc.), foveal viewing, and better visibility conditions. Best reaction times are also faster for auditory signals than for visual ones. This stage likely does not result in conscious awareness.
Perception/recognition: the time needed to recognize the meaning of the sensation. (“The shape is a person.”) This requires the application of information from memory to interpret the sensory input. In some cases, “automatic response,” this stage is very fast. In others, “controlled response,” it may take considerable time. In general, novel input slows response, as does low signal probability, uncertainty (signal location, time or form), and surprise.
Situational awareness: the time needed to recognize and interpret the scene, extract its meaning and possibly extrapolate into the future. For example, once a driver recognizes a pedestrian in the road, and combines that percept with knowledge of his own speed and distance, then he realizes what is happening and what will happen next – the car is heading toward the pedestrian and will possibly result in a collision unless action is taken. As with perception/recognition, novelty slows this mental processing stage. Selection of the wrong memory schema may result in misinterpretation.
Response selection and programming: the time necessary to decide which if any response to make and to mentally program the movement. (“I should steer left instead of braking.”) Response selection slows under choice reaction time when there are multiple possible signals. Conversely, practice decreases the required time. Lastly, electrophysiological studies show that most people exhibit preparatory muscle potentials prior to the actual movement. In other words, the decision to respond occurs appreciably faster than any recordable response can be observed or measured.
These four stages are usually lumped together as “perception time,” a misnomer since response selection and some aspects of situational awareness are decision, not perception.
2. Movement Time
Once a response is selected, the responder must perform the required muscle movement. For example, it takes time to lift the foot off the accelerator pedal, move it laterally to the brake and then to depress the pedal.
Several factors affect movement times. In general, more complex movements require longer movement times while practice lowers movement times. Finally the Yerkes-Dodson Law says that high emotional arousal, which may be created by an emergency, speeds gross motor movements but impairs fine detailed movements.
3 Device Response Time
Mechanical devices take time to engage, even after the responder has acted. For example, a driver stepping on the brake pedal does not stop the car immediately. Instead, the stopping is a function of physical forces, gravity and friction.
Here’s a simple example. Suppose a person is driving a car at 55 mph (80.67 feet/sec) during the day on a dry, level road. He sees a pedestrian and applies the brakes. What is the shortest stopping distance that can reasonably be expected? Total stopping distance consists of three components:
Reaction Distance. First. Suppose the reaction time is 1.5 seconds. This means that the car will travel 1.5 x80.67 or 120.9 feet before the brakes are even applied.
Brake Engagement Distance. Most reaction time studies consider the response completed at the moment the foot touches the brake pedal. However, brakes do not engage instantaneously. There is an additional time required for the pedal to depress and for the brakes to engage. This is variable and difficult to summarize in a single number because it depends on urgency and braking style. In an emergency, a reasonable estimate is .3 second, adding another 24.2 feet3.
Physical Force Distance. Once the brakes engage, the stopping distance is determined by physical forces (D=S²/(30*f) where S is mph) as 134.4 feet.
Total Stopping Distance = 120.9 ft + 24.2 ft + 134.4 ft = 279.5 ft
Almost half the distance is created by driver reaction time. This is one reason that it is vital to have a good estimate of speed of human response. Below, I give some values which I have derived from my own experience and from an extensive review of research results.
Response speed depends on several factors so there can be no single, universal reaction time value. Here is a list of factors which affect reaction time. In all cases, the times assume daylight and good visibility conditions.
Reaction times are greatly affected by whether the driver is alert to the need to brake. I’ve found it useful to divide alertness into three classes:
Expected: the driver is alert and aware of the good possibility that braking will be necessary. This is the absolute best reaction time possible. The best estimate is 0.7 second. Of this, 0.5 is perception and 0.2 is movement, the time required to release the accelerator and to depress the brake pedal.
Unexpected: the driver detects a common road signal such as a brake from the car ahead or from a traffic signal. Reaction time is somewhat slower, about 1.25 seconds. This is due to the increase in perception time to over a second with movement time still about 0.2 second.
Surprise: the drive encounters a very unusual circumstance, such as a pedestrian or another car crossing the road in the near distance. There is extra time needed to interpret the event and to decide upon response. Reaction time depends to some extent on the distance to the obstacle and whether it is approaching from the side and is first seen in peripheral vision. The best estimate is 1.5 seconds for side incursions and perhaps a few tenths of a second faster for straight-ahead obstacles. Perception time is 1.2 seconds while movement time lengthens to 0.3 second.
The increased reaction time is due to several factors, including the need to interpret the novel situation and possibly to decide whether there is time to brake or whether steering is a better response. Moreover, drivers encountering another vehicle or pedestrian that violates traffic regulations tend to hesitate, expecting the vehicle/pedestrian to eventually halt. Lastly, there can be response conflict that lengthens reaction time. For example, if a driver’s only possible response requires steering into an oncoming traffic lane (to the left) there may be a hesitation.
People brake faster when there is great urgency, when the time to collision is briefer. The driver is travelling faster and/or the obstacle is near when first seen. While brake times generally fall with greater urgency, there are circumstances where reaction time becomes very long when time-to-collision is very short. The most common situation is that the driver has the option of steering into the oncoming lane into order to avoid the obstacle. The driver then must consider alternative responses, braking vs. steering, weigh the dangers of each response, check the left lane for traffic, etc.
When other driving or nondriving matters consume the driver’s attention, then brake time becomes longer. For example, on a winding road, the driver must attend more to steering the car through the turns. Another major load on attention is the use of in-car displays and cell phones. There is no doubt that both cause delays in reaction times, with estimates ranging from 0.3 to as high a second or more, depending on the circumstances.
Humans have some highly built-in connections between percepts and responses. Pairings with high “stimulus-response compatibility” tend to be made very fast, with little need for thinking and with low error. Low stimulus-response incompatibility usually means slow response and high likelihood of error.
One source of many accidents is the human tendency to respond in the direction away from a negative stimulus, such as an obstacle on a collision course. If a driver sees a car approach from the right, for example, the overwhelming tendency will be to steer left, often resulting in the driver steering right into the path of the oncoming vehicle. The stimulus-response capability overrides and the driver simply cannot take the time to observe the oncoming car’s trajectory and to mentally calculate itsimple, reflexive uture position. In short, the driver must respond to where the car is now, not where it will be at some point in the future.
Most people have experienced this phenomenon when going into a skid. The correct response is to turn the wheel in the direction of the skid, but it takes practice and mental concentration to avoid turning the wheel away from the skid, which is the high compatibility response.
Psychological Refractory Period
Following a response, people exhibit a “psychological refractory period.” During this period, new responses are made more slowly than if there had been no previous behavior. For example, suppose a driver suddenly steers left and then right. The steer-right response will occur more slowly because it immediately followed the steer-left.
Although most basic research finds that older people respond slower than younger ones, the data on older drivers’ braking times are not entirely clear. One problem is that different studies have used different definitions of older; that is, sometimes “older means 50, sometimes it could mean 70. Moreover, some studies find no slowing of reaction time with age. Instead, they conclude that the older driver’s greater experience and tendency to drive slower compensate all or in part for the decline in motor skills. [Note Added. Aging effects in PRT depend heavily on the task. For simple,reflexive responses, healthy older people show little slowing. For complex and/or low visibility tasks, however, they can be much slower.]
Although the data are not clear, it seems likely that females respond slightly slower than males.
Nature of the Signal
In the examples cited above, the driver detected a distinct signal such as a brake light, the appearance of a clear obstacle in the path, etc. Some braking cues are subtler and more difficult to detect, causing slower braking times.
One of the most difficult situations occurs when a driver must detect motion of the car immediately ahead, its acceleration or deceleration. Accidents frequently occur because the driver fails to notice that the car ahead has stopped and does not apply brakes until it is too late.
The general problem involves estimating time-to-collision (TTC. It is a tough problem for several reasons. One is that it is much more difficult to judge motion toward or away from you than it is to judge motion of something which cuts across your path. It’s simply a matter of optics. Humans, in part, sense motion by registering the movement of an object image projected on the retina, the light-sensing portion of the eye. The movement of the object’s image is much smaller with motion toward/away than with motion cutting across the frontal plane.
Second, it is more difficult to judge motion of the object ahead if we are moving as well. The visual system must then disentangle the retinal image motion caused by the movement of the object ahead from the retinal image motion caused by our own “egomotion.” This is far more complex a problem than judging motion of an object when we are stationary.
Third, the normal expectation is that cars do not stop in the middle of the road. Reaction time, as explained above, is much slower when people encounter a low probability or unexpected event.
Reaction time increases in poor visibility. Low contrast, peripheral viewing, bad weather, etc. slow response. Moreover, virtually all reaction time studies have been performed in high light, photopic visibility conditions. At night in urban areas, vision operates in the mesopic range, so there is mixed rod-cone activation. The few existing data suggest that reaction time sharply increases as the rods become the primary photoreceptor.
On the other hand, there are some situations in which response is faster in low light. For example, light emitting sources, such as rail-highway crossing signals or brake lights, produce better reaction times at night. With no sun or skylight to reflect off the fixture and with a darker background, the signal has higher contrast and greater visibility.
More complex muscular responses take longer. For example, braking requires lifting the foot from the accelerator, moving laterally to the brake pedal and then depressing. This is far more complex than turning the steering wheel. While there have been relatively few studies of steering reaction time, they find steering to be 0.15 to 0.3 second faster. Perception times are presumably the same, but assuming the hands are on the steering wheel, the movement required to turn a wheel is performed much faster than that required to move the foot from accelerator to brake pedal.
Reaction Time At Night
The same factors affecting reaction in daylight conditions operate at night. Light level per se, has little effect on reaction time. For example, one study found that under scotopic vision, decreasing light levels by a factor of ten only slowed reaction time by 20-25 msec (1/40 to 1/50 second.)
However, there are new variables at work. For example, a light which might have low contrast and low conspicuity during the day because the background is bright could become highly conspicuous at night and produce faster reaction times. Always remember that contrast is what matters: people see contrast, not light.
Complex Reaction Times
In his classic “On The Speed Of Mental Processes,” Donders (1868) proposed a classification scheme that experts still use to distinguish among three different types of reaction time, simple (Type A) and more complex situations, choice (Type B) and recognition (Type C). While most of the variables affect simple and complex types in the same way, choice and recognition reaction times each add new factors that must also be considered.
Choice reaction time (Type B) occurs when there are multiple possible signals, each requiring a different response. The responder must choose which signal was present, and then make the response appropriate for that light. This requires two processes not present in simple reaction time: 1) signal discrimination – decide which signal occurred and 2) response selection – choose the response based on which signal occurred. In the classic laboratory procedure, a person sits with his/her fingers on 2 different telegraph keys and waits for one of 2 different lights to flash. When a signal occurs, s/he releases the telegraph key assigned to that signal. Reaction time is again the time between light onset (signal) and release of the key (response.)
With multiple signals, the responder cannot simply detect the signal but must also recognize which signal occurred and then mentally program the correct response. These extra mental operations slow reaction. Choice reaction times slow as the number of possible signals increases according to the equation,
RT = a + b log2N
where a and b are constants and N is the number of alternatives. The equation has two terms. The “a” constant is simply the “irreducible minimum” reaction time in the situation. (The variable part is called “the reducible margin.”) The relationship between RT and the number of alternatives is nonlinear – doubling the number of alternatives does not increase RT by a factor of 2 but rather by the log of the number of possible signals.
In Type C, or “recognition,” reaction time, there are multiple possible signals but only one response. In this case, the responder makes the response when one stimulus occurs but withholds response when the other(s) appears. The standard lab version of this paradigm has a subject with his/her fingers on 1 telegraph key and waits for one of x different lights to flash. When the signal light occurs, s/he releases the telegraph. If one of the nonsignal lights occurs, then the subject should make no response. This is sometimes called the “go, no-go” paradigm. Reaction times are invariably longer than for simple reaction time. A good example would occur when a police officer confronts a “suspect.” The officer sees something in the suspect’s hand and must make a go (shoot) or no-go (don’t shoot) decision.
This article has focused on driver reaction times. While the basic principles generalize to estimating other reaction times, the exact numbers do not. Each type of reaction time has its own peculiarities that must be examined. For example, reaction time for a shooter who is tracking a target might be 0.3 second. but even this would be a function of trigger pull weight.
1This is a brief summary/elaboration of the article, “‘How Long Does It Take To Stop?’ Methodological Analysis of Driver Perception-Brake Times” Transportation Human Factors, 2, pp 195-216, 2000.
2See Green, M. (2017). Roadway Human Factors: From Science To Application. Tucson: Lawyers & Judges Publishig.
3I have made some simplifications here. First, some braking occurs during during the brake engagement period. This is best calculated by assuming that braking is half the maximum during the period. Recent data, however, suggests that the period is longer than than the 0.3 second described. Second, drivers do not always depress the brake pedal to maximum or brake in a single continuous movement, so full brake engagement may never occur. Third, vehicles with air brakes require an additional component, “brake lag”. Depending on the setting, air brakes have a .03 to .08 second lag before they engage. Most calculations use a nominal lag value of 0.5 seconds, adding another 40 feet to stopping distance.
Application by Certain Mexico-Domiciled Motor Carriers to Operate Beyond U.S. Municipalities and Commercial Zones on the U.S.-Mexico Border
The international agreement would change regulations that govern applications and would require additional information on the applicant’s business and operating practices.
Undetermined. Delays attributed to unanticipated issues requiring further analysis.
MAP-21 Enhancements and Other Updates to the Unified Registration System
Would implement several provisions of MAP-21 as they relate to the Unified Registration System. Would update and codify the agency’s procedures for granting, suspending, and revoking registration. The intent is to allow for greater uniformity, transparency, efficiency and predictability in those processes, according to the FMCSA.
Undetermined. An NPRM was published on September 20, with comments accepted through November 22.
Consumer Complaint Information
Would require carriers of household goods to submit quarterly reports of complaints received.
Undetermined. Delays attributed to lack of resources and lack of staffing.
Financial Responsibility for Motor Carriers, Freight Forwarders, and Brokers
Would increase minimum insurance requirements for freight and passenger motor carriers.
ANPRM. The FMCSA accepted comments through last fall on several key regulatory issues related to this rule.
New Entrant Safety Assurance Process
Would improve methods to ensure new applicant carriers are knowledgeable about safety requirements.
Undetermined. Delays attributed to additional coordination needs.
Safety Monitoring System and Compliance Initiative for Mexico-Domiciled Motor Carriers Operating in the United States
This international agreement would implement a system to evaluate the safety fitness of Mexico-domiciled carriers within 18 months of being granted authority to operate in the U.S. Would also establish suspension and revocation procedures.
Undetermined. Delays attributed to unanticipated issues requiring further analysis.
Heavy Vehicle Speed Limiters
This rule would require the installation of speed limiting devices on heavy trucks.
NPRM was published on 9/7/16 and ended on 11/7/16.
Amendments to Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program
Proposes amendments to address changes in the Agency’s grant programs resulting from Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
NPRM. This rule has seen delays because it’s awaiting the development of additional data.
Safe Integration of Automated Driving Systems-Equipped Commercial Motor Vehicles
The FMCSA has requested public comment about the current Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) and whether they’ll need to be updated, modified or eliminated to make the safe introduction of automated driving systems on our nation’s roadways easier.
ANPRM was published in late May with comments accepted through the end of August.
Hours of Service of Drivers of Commercial Motor Vehicles; Transportation of Agricultural Commodities
In an effort to create a clearer definition of the term “Agricultural commodity,” the FMCSA is seeking public comment and data on the issue.
ANPRM. Comments were open through September 27.
Controlled Substances and Alcohol Testing: State Driver’s Licensing Agency Downgrade of CDL
The FMCSA is proposing that all State Driver’s Licensing Agencies remove commercial driving privileges from anyone who violates the current drug or alcohol regulations. Privileges would not be reinstated until the return-to-duty process is complete.