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America and Europe — Keep on Trucking

What do freight transport trends reveal about the differences between the United States and Europe?

June 15, 2005

What do freight transport trends reveal about the differences between the United States and Europe?

Perhaps it was just another sign of how Europe and the United States are moving apart, but in March 2005, when the U.S. Congress was considering the approval of longer shifts for U.S. truckers, the number of hours worked by European truckers actually decreased.

Current U.S. legislation limits truckers to 11 consecutive hours behind the wheel per day over the course of a 14-hour shift. It also limits the number of hours that truckers can work per week to 60 — at least in principle.

But loopholes in the legislation allow truckers to start a new workweek after a 34-hour rest period. This means that in practice, U.S. truckers can spend more hours on the road over a seven-day period.

Compare this to the situation in the EU. EU legislation limits European drivers to nine hours per day behind the wheel and they must take a 30-minute break every three hours.

While EU drivers may drive as much as 56 hours in one week, they cannot exceed 90 hours of driving time over the course of a two-week period. And European trucks are required to be equipped with onboard recorders to keep track of it all.

In addition to the EU legislation, individual member countries can place further restrictions on truck traffic. Many countries restrict driving on Sundays and public holidays — or in case of inclement weather conditions, high traffic density or smog.

So, what is the driving force (no pun intended) behind policies on either side of the Atlantic? At first glance, the differences seem to reflect different attitudes toward labor.

After all, the United States is known for its liberal labor laws, while Europe — with its tradition of social democracy — tends to be more restrictive.

But the variation in work-hour rules for truckers in the United States and Europe is more complicated than that, reflecting a variety of differences between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Among these differences are transportation infrastructure, geography and road safety.

For starters, one would think that transport by truck dominates in the individualistic, car-obsessed culture of the United States, while environmentally-conscious Europeans are more reliant on rail transport.

But it’s the other way around. Road freight transport is actually more important in Europe than it is in the United States.

There are also more trucks operating in Europe than there are in the United States, with 63 trucks per 1,000 people in the EU — compared to only 21 trucks per 1,000 people in the United States.

And in Europe, trucks make up 16.5% of total highway traffic, while they account for only 7.5% of U.S. highway traffic.
In contrast, railways are a central part of the U.S. freight transportation infrastructure. A striking 57.3% of all freight is shipped by rail in the United States, while only 16% of total freight is shipped by rail in Europe.

This may come as a surprise for anyone who has noticed how highly developed Europe’s passenger rail system is in comparison with that of the United States.

But Europe is more urban and more densely populated than the United States for the most part — and rail transport is highly ineffective for freight transport in urban areas.

As a matter of fact, in the densely populated urbanized coastal areas of the United States, truck traffic is nearly as heavy as it is in Europe.

But for coast-to-coast shipping, the United States benefits from the cheaper, safer, more efficient and environmentally-friendly rail system. In Europe, such heavy reliance on rail transport is impossible, due to incompatibilities in the rail systems between countries.

Then there is the issue of road safety. Accidents involving heavy trucks account for about 5,000 deaths yearly on each side of the Atlantic. But since Europe has a higher population and more trucks on the road, it actually compares favorably to the United States.

In what ways does EU legislation go farther to ensure that security is a priority? In Europe, heavy trucks are equipped with speed-monitoring devices to ensure drivers respect speed limits.

Tighter regulation of working hours — and fewer hours spent on the road — means that drivers are less likely to suffer from fatigue, one of the major causes of collisions.

Finally, a truck driver’s paycheck is not tied to the distance traveled or the amount of cargo carried in Europe, as it is in the United States. So truckers have less incentive to work long hours or break speed limits to get to their destination.

In the end, the market-based approach to trucking in the United States puts the priority on getting goods to destination as fast and cheaply as possible, with less regard for safety or working conditions.

All in all, an intriguing conclusion emerges: Believe it or not, but trucking offers a good opportunity to look at differences between the United States and Europe.

While the United States could learn from Europe on the issues of safety and work-life balance, the European Union could learn from the United States about decreasing dependence on trucks.

For now, the United States sets the example when it comes to using cheaper, less polluting rail freight to move goods long distances.

So, while the European Union tries to balance its freight transportation needs with its transportation infrastructure, the United States should perhaps reassess its market-based approach to freight and make safety a higher priority.