10 laws that changed how trucking works

Sept. 2, 2022
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.

See also: Recruiting and retaining drivers in a post-pandemic world 

“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.

Keppler started his 29-year transportation career with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), where he served in various regulatory, research, and policy development positions. He also spent 15 years with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the last six of which he served as the group’s executive director. 

“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.

See also: Now is not the time to pull back on driver recruiting, retention

"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.

This gallery illustrates that labor issues in transportation are more important than ever—especially with the ongoing truck driver shortfall and technician shortages predicted to become worse over the next decade.

“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.”

About the Author

FleetOwner Staff

Our Editorial Team

Kevin Jones, Editorial Director, Commercial Vehicle Group

Josh Fisher, Editor-in-Chief

Jade Brasher, Senior Editor

Jeremy Wolfe, Editor

Jenna Hume, Digital Editor

Eric Van Egeren, Art Director

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of FleetOwner, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations

Leveraging telematics to get the most from insurance

Fleet owners are quickly adopting telematics as part of their risk mitigation strategy. Here’s why.

Reliable EV Charging Solution for Last-Mile Delivery Fleets

Selecting the right EV charging infrastructure and the right partner to best solve your needs are critical. Learn which solution PepsiCo is choosing to power their fleet and help...

Overcoming Common Roadblocks Associated with Fleet Electrification at Scale

Fleets in the United States, are increasingly transitioning from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles. While this shift presents challenges, there are strategies...

Report: The 2024 State of Heavy-Duty Repair

From capitalizing on the latest revenue trends to implementing strategic financial planning—this report serves as a roadmap for navigating the challenges and opportunities of ...