Relaxing drivers’ hours is a bad idea

A picture of the front of a blue Mercedes-Benz Atego truck in a parking bay. Next to it is a red Cartwright drawbar trailer without its leading vehicle.

Last week the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced that the government were going to be temporarily relaxing the maximum daily driving hours for truck drivers in the UK by an hour. Normally the daily maximum is nine hours, which can be extended to ten hours twice a week; the announcement was that it would be increased to ten and eleven hours, respectively. This announcement drew condemnation from across the board, including unions that represent (some) truck drivers as well as industry bodies. Much of the commentary was about the risk to road safety of having more tired drivers on the road. While this was an understandable fear, some of the commentary was misinformed.

For example, some people seemed to be under the impression that people might be driving solidly for ten or eleven hours. In fact, drivers have to have a 45 minute break after a maximum of 4.5 hours of driving, and in practice we would normally take a stop before then. If someone drives for 10 (or, under the new rules, 11) hours in a day, they would need to have two 45 minute breaks. In my experience, the majority of journeys take considerably less than that, and drivers then have to help load or unload (in many premises, such as retail distribution centres, that is done by the staff while we wait, and we take that time for a break). Working time (this means the time from the start of the working day to the end, including breaks) is 13 hours maximum, extensible to 15 hours twice a week, and this has not changed. Even if someone can drive for an hour longer, they cannot work any longer.

The main pretext for extending the hours was to compensate for a driver shortage. This shortage was caused by shutting off our access to European drivers last year when we left the EU, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and quarantine laws across Europe which serve as an additional deterrent to European drivers to come here. The government’s ham-fisted approach to allowing European citizens to remain settled here has probably driven a lot of foreign drivers out, given that there are 27 other countries they can move to including Germany, the Netherlands and France as well as their home countries in eastern Europe. Many British drivers are put off by poor conditions; cabs are often dirty, catering is lacking at depots, toilets are the luck of the draw as to whether they will be clean, in good condition etc., and pay is often poor even in parts of the country where the cost of living is high. A lot of work is through agencies and there is no job security; if you are never in a job for more than a week or two at a time, if that, you can be sacked for any reason or none. (If you approach a company for permanent work after having been working for agencies, you know when they say “I don’t know what the agency have been paying you, but …” that their hourly rate will be miserly, and if people are earning anything substantial, the reason will be long hours.)

The magazine Truck & Driver, through their Twitter account, raised the issue of the nature of fleet trucks that often reflect the management’s contempt for the drivers and how they are also a disincentive to people to stay in the industry: “locking out all gear shifting, permanent (sluggish) economy modes, overzealous use of telematic monitoring, low top speeds”, resulting in “unhappy drivers, low morale”. Drivers replied that they had had calls from the office because they were not keeping the revs in the green band (i.e. the ‘normal’ band), or that their economy scores were not high enough (in my experience, it takes a long time to get a low score up). I added that companies were already artificially extending the working day by restricting top speeds to 50 or 52mph when by law they only have to be restricted to 56mph (90km/h as per EU law, although the British national speed limit for trucks is 60mph). We suggested that they should remove these settings rather than ask drivers to drive an extra hour.

We shouldn’t forget that truck drivers already work hours that are not only long but unnatural: a 7am start is regarded as easy, and many shifts start much earlier. If someone is doing a 12-hour shift, they will probably have not had as much sleep as someone who, say, works in an office. A break between shifts need not be longer than 11 hours and, twice a week, a 9-hour break is permitted, which does not leave much time for sleep in between commuting, cooking, eating and washing. A driver can refuse a shift, of course, but an employer can choose to dismiss him (or an agency refuse to hire him again) for refusing a perfectly legal shift. Even with current hours limits, drivers will already be tired by the end of their shifts or even earlier. For this reason alone, we should not even consider lengthening driving hours that are already quite long enough against the backdrop of working hours that are often overlong.

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