19.6.17

THE EVOLUTION OF COOPERATION.

Road and Track's Jack Baruth has been thinking systematically about a pet peeve of mine.
I'm in a pack of cars and at our head is a pair of semi-trucks having a little uphill and downhill race. They're both governed to 65 and not even making that kind of speed. As the truck in the left lane finally edges past on a downhill and moves over, my lane immediately jumps to 85 as everybody from the minivan mom to the Accord coupe dad floors the throttle in a release of pent-up helpless fury.
He's writing about going up and down hill in the Alleghenies and Appalachians, the same phenomenon manifests itself on the flatlands. And you can count on the roadhog governed to just above 60 to want to keep those r.p.m. up rather than stay behind the one governed just a little slower.
For a few glorious moments it looks like I'll zip by the 18-wheelers and make it to my destination on time, but then another semi takes advantage of a dubious-looking space in the left lane to swing out and start his passing maneuver on the truck ahead of him. Again we all jam on our brakes, again there's a ten-minute space where we fall to 45 mph or worse up the hills, then the truck race is over and we're free to go on our way. Welcome to American motoring, 2014 style.

I drive anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 miles a year, much of it on freeways and the bulk of it east of the Mississippi, and I can report with certainty that this dismal state of affairs is now the rule rather than the exception. On the way to an endurance race in New Jersey, I saw two-lane freeways blocked by dual trucks more often than they were not. Heading down I-77 to VIR, I saw trucks struggle to make 40 mph up the steep tollway hills, but by God if one of them thought he could do 41 then he was certain to pull out and make everybody behind him sit for five or ten minutes while he tried to force the pass.
Yes, and in the flatlands, it's easy enough to see such situations developing. You see the elephant creeping up behind another elephant, you know just before he's dangerously close, he's going to invoke the Law of Gross Tonnage, perhaps with a perfunctory blink of the left indicator (or not), and take possession of the passing lane, counting on the car coming up to have better brakes.

There's something in trucker compensation that influences this behavior.
The widespread introduction of so-called "SGLs", or governors, in commercial trucks has created a situation where truck drivers face a measurable financial impact for dawdling behind even a slightly slower vehicle. If the truck ahead is governed two MPH slower and they stay behind it, they'll take home $10 or $15 a day less as a consequence. Over the course of a month, it's real money to them. So I don't blame them too much for inconveniencing or even endangering the rest of us.
It's got to be more complicated than that: wouldn't the driver of the hobbled elephant compensate the master mechanic to make his rig go faster; wouldn't the company that hobbles its elephants in this way notice an exodus of drivers, there being, apparently, a shortage of truck drivers at the current bundle of compensation and working conditions?

The public roads might be safer, Mr Baruth argues, with a different allocation of property rights.
No, the solution to this has to be legislative. Many European countries require commercial trucks to stay in the right lane, with a maximum speed of 50 mph or so. I can find nothing that suggests that they suffer much economic hardship as a result. When you consider the sleep deprivation and drug use to which truckers often fall victim, the argument for keeping them out of the way and restricting them to a lower speed becomes nearly unassailable.
In Europe, by law, the trucks are restricted in these ways, and it works. But that requires a different set of norms.  The rent-seekers of the North American road object to such proposals, but, in the way of all rent-seeking, it's special pleading.
Many of our readers agreed with this, but I received a staggering amount of negative feedback from professional drivers (in the truck sense, not the Formula One sense) and other people working in America’s trucking industry. I was told that any rule that limited commercial trucks to the right lane would create a “wall of steel.” I was told that the cost of pretty much everything would rise dramatically if trucks were not permitted to pass each other on the way to the store. Last but not least, I was told that there would be no toilet paper any more, because trucks deliver toilet paper.

Well, I’m happy to report that I just spent a week overseas in Europe, traveling through countries that prevent trucks from leaving the slow lane, and that pretty much none of these dire predictions came true. There was plenty of toilet paper, for one thing. And although pretty much everything seems to cost a little more in Europe, that seems more connected to the tax policy than to the truck policy.
We could change the rules of the road to limit the range of 53 foot trailers, such that the toilet paper would move by rail from Kimberly Clark to the warehouse, and by box truck from warehouse to store, but I digress.

In Europe, it's a combination of enforcement of the rules (there are three-lane stretches of the Illinois Tollway and Ohio Turnpike posted "No Trucks in Left Lane" but when the elephant governed to 60 + 2ε comes up behind an elephant governed to 60 + ε going around an elephant governed to 60, you can depend on the supposed fast lane all of a sudden moving at 60 + 2ε, and even in Ohio there aren't enough smokies to issue the relevant citations) and an understanding of the social norms.  A motorist who wants to get into the right lane to exit can request a space by the proper use of a turn signal.  (I don't know what effect that has on the passing lane, there's another norm on the Autobahnen about keeping to the right except to pass and the latter-day Barney Oldfields in their BMWs enforce that with high beams) and the semi backs off a bit, to allow the motorist to get to the right and get out of the way.  Must be more than two lanes on these expressways, so as to keep the leftmost lane clear for overtaking.
I didn’t think it would work, but it works fine. That’s because the “professional drivers” in Europe actually act like professionals, not like jumped-up cowboys who view every attempt to merge in front of them as a grave injury to the narcissistic area. They let you in and then you return the respect by getting out of their way and letting them get back to work.

As you’d expect, this does wonders for making mildly congested traffic less miserable. The trucks stay in the right lane and do 50mph. The cars stay in the left lanes and move faster. When you reach a hill, the trucks slow down and the cars keep moving. The well-known American phenomenon of having a hundred cars stuck behind two tractor-trailers doing 48mph up both lanes of a steeply-graded rural Interstate simply doesn’t happen in Europe. Just as importantly, automotive traffic going back down that hill does not have to fear for their lives because the Kenworth in the left lane behind them is using the grade to run past its speed governor, consequences for safety be dammed.

But you expected all of that to be true. Not even the most ardent defender of the American trucking status quo can argue that it wouldn’t be a massive benefit to drivers if we got trucks out of the left lane. What surprised me was that the European arrangement also appears to be better for truckers. They move at a safe and reasonable speed. I didn’t see any of the unpleasant little interactions you often see between “semi” drivers in the United States. Everybody lined up nose to tail, drove at the same speed, and seemed to get along.

The aforementioned good humor was particularly interesting because all the truckers in Europe have to operate “cabover” tractors in which the driver sits directly above, not behind, the engines. Cabovers are despised by pro drivers here because they don’t ride or handle very well. They’re like minivans compared to the proper big rigs from Kenwood, Peterbilt, and Mack, which are like Corvettes. I can see why. American trucks have longer wheelbases and more power, which makes them ride better and deal with difficult conditions better.

So if American trucks are better and their drivers have free reign of the roads, why does there seem to be so much more “road rage” on the part of our tractor-trailer pros? Maybe it’s not the trucks or the roads. Maybe it’s the rules. From what I’ve read, the European Union has more stringent restrictions on how long the drivers can go without rest–and they are trying to make those rules more consistent across the market, in the name of improving safety and welfare for Euro truckers. Maybe we should try treating our truck drivers better, both in terms of safety and compensation, and see if they wouldn’t be willing to return the favor to motorists by leaving the left lane open. What’s the worst that could happen? Would the toilet paper really disappear?
The cab-over design by itself probably concentrates the mind. If you hit something, there's no engine compartment ahead of you to absorb the collision.  That noted, the Hours of Service laws matter, and compensation and working conditions matter -- indeed, dear reader, whenever you hear of a shortage of workers, that is the first place to look for a cause.  That the rules of the road have evolved on European expressways to deal with the constraints doesn't surprise, either.

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