Does the way in which carriers pay truck drivers produce safer driving habits?
That's the question that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is asking carriers, but the answer may be difficult to uncover, according to those who have studied the issue.
Most economists agree that paying someone more for their work usually results in better performance. For truck drivers, this often translates to safer driving. The main reason is that higher compensation attracts better, more experienced and safer drivers. Higher pay also sends a message that the work is respected which also leads to drivers taking more pride in their job which often means safer work habits.
But what FMCSA is asking in their Request for Information published in the February 4, 2015 Federal Register is a bit more complicated.
The agency is trying to discover if paying drivers in different ways, by the hour instead of by the mile, for example, can lead to safer driving.
Michael Belzer, Associate Professor of Economics at Wayne State University in Detroit, has studied the issue of driver compensation and safety and says that such research surveys are difficult to construct and interpret because there are so many factors at play that the data can get muddled.
"[In one study] we found that the answers were all over the place. We couldn't have asked, for instance, how much do you pay for loading and unloading because the answers could be anywhere from zero to all kinds of things. It could be hourly. It could be a flat rate. It could be different rates for different stops - all of these different things."
Belzer understands driver issues not only from his position as Associate Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Trucking Industry Program, but also from his authorship of several books including Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation (Oxford University Press, 2000). His 1993 Ph.D. thesis at Cornell University in 1993, Collective Bargaining in the Trucking Industry: The Effects of Institutional and Economic Restructuring, also adds to his credibility.
The one thing that Belzer can say for sure is that his research shows a general rise in safety when drivers were paid something for their loading and unloading time, which for most drivers is usually unpaid time. Not being compensated for loading and unloading time is a hot button issue for drivers, says Belzer, because it speaks to a belief among drivers that their time is not being valued or respected. The same could be said for being stuck in traffic congestion which is also unpaid time on the job.
"The big takeaway is that it’s very likely that drivers being paid something for their non-driving labor time is a significant contributor to their safety performance," he says. Belzer adds that he can't say for certain if paying by the mile or by the hour will increase safety – although the latter likely will - but he is sure, based on his studies, that paying drivers for all of their on-duty time, including loading/unloading and traffic congestion, definitely will make a difference in safety.
It will also produce more accurate hours-of-service reporting. "We know that if you pay drivers for their time, they will log it."