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There’s pressure in the industry to monitor truck drivers—and drivers aren’t happy

May 26, 2015, 3:26 PM UTC
Red truck on the road at sunset
Photograph by Jetta Productions/Getty Images

Swift Transportation, one of the nation’s largest freight trucking companies, this month began equipping its trucks with Lytx DriveCam systems including both a front-facing and driver-facing camera. Though it’s not the first truck operator to install driver cams, Swift is by far the largest to date, and pressures on the industry point towards broader adoption.

In addition to their human cost, the financial costs of crashes for carriers are substantial. In a 2012 report, the FMCSA estimated the average cost of an injury crash at $195,258, and of a fatal crash at over $3.5 million. Recent years have seen over 4,000 truck accident fatalities in the U.S. annually, and settlements to victims routinely exceed carriers’ federally-mandated $750,000 per-incident insurance coverage. 2014’s largest truck accident settlement was for over $34 million.

But driver-facing cameras could help reduce the number of accidents that happen in the first place. Truck drivers, of course, are used to being alone in their cabs. However, observationeven the illusion of observationcan yield dramatic improvements in people’s behavior. A 2011 study by researchers at Newcastle University showed that just hanging posters depicting observant eyes in public spaces reduced undesirable behavior by as much as 50%.

Truckers, however, have taken to industry forums to express outrage over the driver-facing cameras, saying that they represent both excessive oversight and an invasion of privacy. Swift seemed to anticipate resistance, and in April issued an internal video urging drivers to withhold judgment. Land Line reported that in the video, Swift President and COO Richard Stocking reassured drivers that “we are not watching the driver; we are watching out for the driver.”

Though fatal truck crashes per mile traveled declined by 77% between 1975 and 2009, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has shown them rising again recentlyby 3 percent per mile per traveled between 2011 and 2012.

But the U.S. Federal Highway Administration concluded in a 2004 study that in car-truck collisions, the car driver was solely responsible for the accident 70 percent of the time. Though front-facing cameras are already common on freight trucks, evidence from driver cams may go further to limit drivers and carriers’ liability in fatal crashes.

Driver resistance represents a risk for Swift. The trucking industry is experiencing a mounting labor shortage, and drivers’ responses to the new program so far indicate it may be an obstacle to hiring. But the risk of alienating drivers may be outweighed by the benefits of the cameras, which early indications show will both reduce accidents and limit carriers’ financial liability when they occur.

Swift operates over 18,000 trucks, but cameras will be installed, at least at first, only in the more than 6,000 trucks owned directly by the company. Swift insists that truck feeds will not be monitored live, saying that the Lytx system will only archive footage for the ten-second window on either side of a swerve, hard brake, or other unusual event. Video will then be uploaded wirelessly to a database for analysis, first by Lytx, then, if an event is deemed significant, by Swift.

But drivers remain skeptical. “Having a driver-cam recording what a driver does would be the same as installing cameras in all the Swift executives’ homes,” observed driver Nancy L. Nyman in a comment on the Land Line website. “A truck is our home, so they should treat it like one.”

Most long-haul truckers sleep, eat, and even shower in their cabs, and thousands of comments on Facebook and trucking forums reflected similar privacy concerns.

But the benefits of driver-facing cameras have been borne out by smaller operators with driver-cam programs. As reported by the Commercial Carrier Journal, the northeastern food distributor Bozzuto’s experienced a 22 percent drop in accidents and a dramatic improvement in safety metrics in its first two years with driver cams installed.

Other large carriers have already explored the possibilities of driver-facing cameras, with CR England running a pilot program in 2013. With Swift leading the way to full-scale implementation, its competitors may not be far behind.