AS they haul freight across the country, truck drivers track their hours in logbooks. But truckers have another name for them: ''joke books.''
Behind the ''jokes'' - falsified records - is a decades-old tradition of paying truckers by the mile instead of by the hour.
The punch line, critics say, isn't so funny. This compensation system, they argue, creates an incentive for truckers to drive too long or too fast. As a result, critics argue, highway safety is compromised. Fatal accidents, though down significantly over the last decade, occur 42 percent more often with heavy trucks than cars.
''There isn't going to be any substantive change [in the number of truck accidents] until we change how a driver is paid,'' says Quentin Lewton, a former truck driver who is leading a crusade against the current system.
In 1990, Mr. Lewton drove for J.B. Hunt and Swift Transportation, a trucking company based in Lowell, Ark. He earned about $25,000. If he drove according to the legal federal limits, he says he would have made only $12,000 to $15,000.
''This industry enjoys a unique situation of not paying a driver for his work,'' Lewton says. ''Why would [companies] want to do anything about it? It's a gift.''
The trucking industry contends that states should enforce the regulations already on the books rather than change the way drivers are paid. But critics say enforcement alone isn't enough. In the long run, trucking companies too could benefit from paying drivers hourly - in reduced turnover, lower insurance rates, and better-maintained vehicles.
The issue relates to long-haul truckers driving rigs that are 10,000 pounds or more, not the local delivery truck.
Most truckers are paid by the mile or by the load, receiving a percentage (usually 20 to 23 percent) of what the trucking company gets to haul the load. Under this system, truckers aren't paid for the work they do on duty while not driving. That includes making repairs and counting freight as well as loading and unloading the truck.
Under federal law, truckers can work and drive only a total of 70 hours in eight days or 60 hours in seven days. The law also requires that they log their ''on duty not driving'' time. But because a trucker earns money only when the wheels are rolling, time consumed in work other than driving erodes weekly earnings.
''I've waited as long as four hours in line to get my paperwork back after my truck has been unloaded,'' Lewton says, ''and it comes out of a driver's hide.''
Those who drive according to the rules, truckers say, risk getting fired, waiting days or weeks for another load, or getting fewer loads in the future.
''Everybody drives illegally, because if you drove legally, you would not make enough money to survive,'' says Dean Beggs of Auburn, Maine, who has been driving heavy trucks since 1984.
While fines for driving illegally are low, the courts are starting to get tougher. Last month, Gunther Leasing Transport Inc., in Hanover, Md., became the first trucking firm in the nation to be convicted criminally for altering log books.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) based in Alexandria, Va., which represents trucking companies and has 34,000 members, says the current pay system creates an incentive to be more productive.
But Mr. Lewton and others disagree. In his grass-roots effort to get truckers paid by the hour, Lewton has been working for San Francisco-based Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH). The group wants to see truckers included in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The 1938 law, which regulates most workers' wages and hours of work in the United States, does not cover truck drivers. Truckers were left out of the law because of a dispute over who had jurisdiction over the industry.
Some truckers are paid hourly. Unionized truck drivers, who represent less than 10 percent of the 7.3 million truckers, are paid by the hour and have a significantly better driving record than nonunion workers. But industry analysts say that's because most are not long-haul drivers, who put in more miles on the road.
''Nothing is consistent in trucking,'' says Mr. Beggs, who has worked for at least six trucking companies. ''You could deliver at 7 in the morning and you could have a load [to pick up] at 9 in the morning. Or you could sit there all day long,'' waiting for a call from the dispatcher. And during that time, drivers aren't getting paid. Often they aren't getting sleep either because they have to call their dispatcher every half hour.
''The public says we drive too fast,'' Beggs says. ''Yeah, we do. We're out to make a living.''
The ATA denies that truckers are driving over the legal limits. ''Most of the drivers we know are driving within the speed limit [and] are driving within the legal hours of operation and no more,'' says James Lewis, an ATA spokesman.
The industry group also denies any correlation between pay and accidents. ''There is no documented connection between the way in which drivers are paid and the accident rate,'' Mr. Lewis says.
But a 1989 study of long-haul truckers driving from Washington State to Minnesota by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found that 58 percent violated hours-of-service rules.
As for the issue of fatigue, highway groups say it is difficult to measure. A 1994 study by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) estimates that driver fatigue is a factor in 30 to 40 percent of all heavy-truck accidents.
Both the ATA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) say the NTSB survey is not based on a true random sample. The NHTSA contends that fatigue plays a part in only 3 to 4 percent of all car-truck accidents.
Changing the pay system, Lewis asserts, ''probably ... will not have much of an effect on fatigue.''
The fatal-accident rate involving heavy trucks has declined from five accidents per 100 vehicle miles in 1980 to 2.7 in 1994, according to NHTSA. Reasons include less drunk driving and improvements in highways and vehicles. Still, the rate remains much higher for trucks than for cars.
Industry watchers say a period of intense competition started when the trucking industry was deregulated in 1980. The shift allowed new firms to enter markets of their choice and eliminated government-set rates. Shippers and receivers gained control of scheduling.
Today, many truckers complain that schedules are too tight. ''Dispatchers have a 100-mile-an-hour pencil for a 60 mile-an-hour truck,'' Lewton says.
Truckers say compensation is the key to reducing truck-related accidents. ''If you want drivers to stop running over their log books or driving illegally, pay them more money,'' Beggs says.
He now works for a local firm in Maine hauling heavy equipment. Though it's a nonunion job, he's paid hourly. He works nine to 10 hours a day, five days a week, and is home every night. He says he makes the same amount as he did when he was on the road away from home for a week at a time being paid per mile.
Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT) in Lisbon Falls, Maine, which was started in 1994 to help families of people killed in car-truck accidents, at first was against truckers. ''At the time, the worst thing on this earth, was a truck driver,'' says Russell Swift of PATT, whose son was killed in a car-truck accident in 1993. But now Mr. Swift sees things differently: ''If we continue to put the truck driver in a position where he or she has to make a decision to take a chance or not to support his family, that's immoral and unfair.''