Why do long distance truck drivers work extremely long hours?

Michael H Belzer, Stanley A Sedo
  • The Economic and Labour Relations Review, September 2017, SAGE Publications
  • DOI: 10.1177/1035304617728440

Why do long distance truck drivers work extremely long hours? They work for the money.

What is it about?

Long-distance truck and bus drivers cannot earn the money they need to pay their bills unless they work such long hours that they become hazardous to themselves and others. This paper therefore links worker compensation to hours of work and both highway safety and worker health. It uses a novel twist on standard economic theory to explain why these drivers choose between short-haul work (which may pay more by the hour) and long-haul work (which pays less by the hour but due to lax regulation, allows them to work between 80 and 100 hours per week). The paper tests the hypothesis that drivers choose between these two work regimes in order to earn enough money to pay their bills ("target earnings" in economic theory). Fitting survey data using econometric models that estimate the mileage rate and weekly hours, the authors estimate a backward-bending labor supply curve. The labor supply curve shows that drivers at the lowest mileage rate will work more hours as compensation increases, but only up to an estimated maximum of 70 hours per week. As pay rates rise, drivers will reduce hours steadily, with estimated mean hours returning to the legal limit of 60 hours per week at a mileage rate of 60 cents per mile in 2017 US dollars, which is about 50% higher than the average driver's pay rate.

Why is it important?

Many explanations have been advanced over the years for why truck drivers work such long hours. Some have argued that drivers are greedy and will drive as many miles and work as many hours as they can. Others have argued that truck drivers are outlaws and have a "taste" for speed and recklessness. This paper shows that the wages truckers earn are so low that the only way they can earn a living is to exceed reasonable working time standards. Using survey data, the authors show empirically that truck drivers' working hours are directly related to their pay rates: raise the pay rates and drivers will work fewer hours, making them safer healthier.


Michael Belzer
Wayne State University

Survey and anecdotal data regularly show that truck drivers work unsafe hours. This paper provides a foundation for the concept of Safe Rates. Long haul truck and motorcoach bus drivers commonly work long and often irregular hours, damaging their health and risking the safety of the public. Record-keeping mechanisms, including electronic log books, allow drivers to log their on-duty not-driving labor as off duty, extending their weekly work load easily to between 80 and 100 hours. While this is a Faustian bargain, it is one that low-wage workers will make to feed their families.

Read Publication


The following have contributed to this page: Michael Belzer and Stanley Sedo