The Trump administration is consistent about one thing—it’s against regulation. In early August, the Department of Transportation withdrew an Obama-era proposal that would have required truck drivers be tested for sleep apnea. Getting rid of such “pesky” regulations, the argument goes, will free the market and allow trucking firms to run more efficiently. But this ignores the fact that it was deregulation that created the conditions for the sleep apnea crisis in the first place.
Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes a person to periodically stop breathing during sleep—and if you stop breathing when you sleep, you aren’t getting very good rest. (Your body wakes up a bit to restart your breathing, though you don’t realize it.) Sleep apnea is particularly problematic for truck drivers—night after night of disrupted sleep leaves them feeling drowsy while driving, increasing the likelihood of fatal accidents. In extreme cases, it can result in narcolepsylike symptoms where drivers fall asleep at the wheel with little warning. The prevalence of sleep apnea in truck drivers is contested, but some studies suggest higher rates than the general population. One proposed reason for this is that sleep apnea can be exacerbated by obesity, and given the sedentary nature of truck driving, obesity rates are alarmingly high among drivers.
Truckers’ sleep apnea problem is not just about the nature of the work, however; there are clear economic factors at play as well. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Carter and Reagan administrations opened the trucking industry to increase competition. At the same time, trucking firms and activist groups engaged in both overt and covert actions to undermine trucking unions, which were once some of the strongest in the nation. As Michael Belzer describes in his now classic Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation, the result was a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog industry that made it difficult for small companies to survive and allowed a handful of large ones to dominate the market. Drivers, meanwhile, saw a steep drop in earnings, lost their bargaining power, and became more isolated from each other.
The combination of deregulation and deunionization has deeply degraded working conditions for truck drivers, as I and others have written about in great detail. Through a grueling pay-by-the-mile system, drivers are incentivized to push themselves harder and harder to maximize revenue from each shift. Of course, this means more time sitting behind the wheel and less time sleeping, exercising, or cooking healthy meals. When they do sleep, there is no consistent pattern. Drivers must be prepared to sleep at any time of day on any given day. If earnings are so tight and it doesn’t pay to sleep regularly or keep fit, is it any wonder truck drivers are at high risk for sleep and health problems?
An ironic aspect of the deregulation of the trucking industry has been an increase in regulations on truckers. While trucking firms have become freer, drivers have lost control over how they work on a daily basis. And because they lack strong unions to lobby on their behalf, drivers have little say over how these rules are designed and implemented. The proposed mandatory test for sleep apnea was just one example of this trend—it is a kind of desperate stopgap measure that is necessary only because trucking firms have allowed working conditions to degrade so severely. Beyond this test, drivers must already abide by increasingly tight regulations on their time, which tell them exactly when they must sleep and work.
This helps explain why drivers tend to be so against regulation. From their perspective, the industry has become more intensely regulated—because the regulations are hitting them directly, instead of forcing companies to create livable and fair conditions for employees. We should listen to drivers about this and realize that the deregulation of industries often results in the re-regulation of workers.
There is some room for compromise here. Whether truck driving increases the risk of sleep apnea or it is just more prevalent in truckers, the presence of sleep apnea is not only dangerous for truckers but dangerous for everyone on the road. Some regulation to address this issue would be good if it targets the industry- and firm-level structures that make conditions dangerous, such as financial incentives to drive while sleepy or the dire lack of truck parking in the country. (It’s currently difficult for truckers to find a safe place to sleep.) More regulation would be bad, though, if it simply punishes drivers individually for dangerous behaviors that are encouraged by market conditions. In short, “How much regulation?” is not the right question; we need to be asking about regulation of whom and to whose benefit. Unfortunately, given drivers’ relatively powerless position, more good regulation and less bad regulation will be difficult to achieve.
What drivers need now is a strong advocate. Instead, they have a president who is trying to score points with big trucking firms by getting rid of a regulation that is necessary only because those firms have made conditions so bad for drivers. If Trump is serious about his campaign promise to improve the lives of working-class people, stopping a “pesky” regulation like this one is a laughable distraction. The administration should help put drivers back in a position of power by supporting their efforts to collectively organize and fight for better conditions.