As Whose Crow Flies?

Q: I read something recently about a lawsuit by truck drivers who are complaining carriers underpay them based on something to do with how many miles they drive.

Apparently, these drivers are being paid by the mile. That seems pretty straightforward to me; you drive 50 miles, you get paid for 50 miles, right? And if the carrier shorts you, you’ve got a signed agreement to back you up.

But there seems to be something more complicated about this, based on the article I read. It said something about some kind of software mileage guide that understates mileages, and drivers are being paid based on that and not the actual miles they drive. I don’t see how they can get away with this. I mean, it’s so many miles from here to there no matter how you figure it, isn’t it? That’s a geographic reality, not some kind of guesswork.

Can you clarify this for me? Also, I’m a shipper; if the carriers have to pay their drivers more, how will affect my rates?

A: Well, it’s “so many miles from here to there” as “a geographic reality” as the crow flies. Crows, however, haul little freight; trucks haul it, and trucks have to follow the roads. And, roads being roads, they don’t always run in straight lines.

Years upon years ago, in the era of economic regulation by the old Interstate Commerce Commission, the ICC addressed this issue when mileage rates came into vogue. It said the rating distance between any two points should be the shortest possible route; if the carrier took another, longer route for its own operating convenience, the shipper shouldn’t have to pay more.

Thus was developed the so-called Household Goods Mileage Guide, a set of detailed maps allowing anyone to work out those short-line mileages between any two points in the United States. It used to be done manually (which could be really tedious) but nowadays the HHG Guide is computerized, and many carriers instead use a parallel piece of software, PC*MILER, to figure rating distances.

And what’s sauce for the goose, the carriers figured, is sauce for the gander; if they must charge shippers based on the shortest highway distance from A to B, they’d pay drivers on the same basis. That’s where the lawsuit — Garza v. Swift Transportation, to be tried in Maricopa County, Ariz. — comes in.

The thing is, nobody in his or her right mind actually uses those short-line routes. They hop on the Interstate Highway System or other limited-access roads where they can make decent time and avoid stoplights and traffic congestion, just as you and I do.

Sometimes there’s no difference in the distance, or not much. Lacking convenient access to either the guide or PC*MILER, I used the MapQuest Web site to check, and the difference between the shortest route from Washington, D.C., to New York City and the “practical” route (the one people really drive) is less than half a mile out of 225 total, so who cares?

But the least-distance route from Charleston, S.C., where I live, to Atlanta is 285 miles; if I get off the back roads and travel sensibly, it’s 321. It’s also half an hour shorter, avoids local traffic, etc.

Still, at 82 cents a mile, which is what the lawsuit says Garza was being paid by Swift (I’m sure it’s more now), the difference works out to $29.52. Garza noticed, and didn’t like leaving that money on the table; neither do lots of other drivers, which is why the lawsuit is now a class action.

So the case is about drivers getting paid for the miles they actually drive, not some figment of electronic imagination. The other part of your question is, will it affect you as a shipper, and the answer is it sure would if the drivers win.

That business about sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander cuts both ways. If courts tell carriers they have to pay drivers for those “practical” routes, not the short-line ones, what do you think they’re going to do about calculating mileage rates? Count on it, if short-line mileages go out the window, for one thing they’ll go all the way out.

Don’t mourn yet; short-line mileages (also called “HHG mileages” in reference to the guide) have a pretty long history in the industry. But, especially with fuel costs through the roof — which drivers pay themselves — they have an arguable case. As the famous Chinese malediction warns, we do live in “interesting times.”

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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