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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

There Is Plenty To Haul, But Regulations And Parking Deter Drivers

The driver shortage ranked first among industry concerns in the American Transportation Research Institute’s annual survey, released last October.

The strong economy means more work for drivers, even as increasing numbers of them retire. Forecasts of massive job losses from autonomous trucks don’t help. Few people want to join a dying profession when there are other options.

At least pay is up. The median salary for drivers who haul a variety of goods nationally is about $53,000, according to an ATA survey published in March. That’s a $7,000 increase since the previous survey five years ago, or about $4,000 when corrected for inflation. For drivers who work for private fleets serving individual companies, such as PepsiCo Inc. or Walmart Inc., median pay is $86,000, up from $73,000.

But a shortfall remains. Recent regulatory changes and a parking shortage exacerbate the problem.

Federal regulations require truckers to track four different timers: working 70 hours in an eight-day period, a workday of 14 consecutive hours, a driving maximum of 11 hours within that 14, and a 30-minute break at least every eight hours. Also, many drivers report the electronic logging device has cut their take-home pay.

In a recent article, Theodore Prince, the chief operating officer of Tiger Cool Express LLC, laid out the math. Under the old regime, a driver making 40 cents a mile might drive 750 miles in 15 hours, averaging 50 miles an hour and making $300. His paperwork would claim 11 hours at 68 mph. Now, however, his time is electronically tracked and the 11-hour limit is strictly enforced. At 50 mph, he makes only $220. To keep even, his pay would have to rise to 55 cents a mile. That’s too high for many routes, Prince argues, making a mix of rail and trucking more efficient.

Drivers also need somewhere safe to stop their trucks. The more trucks on the road, the harder it is to find.

The problem is particularly bad in the Northeast, where open land is expensive and lots of freight, including fresh produce, needs to move into major urban areas. After evening deliveries in northern New Jersey, says Miller, “I have to drive all the way back out to Pennsylvania,” about 80 miles. 

That means more than an hour of driving — time deducted from the 11-hour day — that isn’t progress toward a delivery. It also wastes the fuel that constitutes a third of operating costs.

Interstate rest stops could expand to accommodate more truckers. 

Currently, though, “Public rest areas on express highways contribute little to the truck driver rest location system because of factors such as small size, poor condition, or not being located on a key long-distance corridor,” Bill Kuttner, a senior transportation analyst with the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, said in a recent webinar.

They stay lousy because truck-stop operators, fast-food chains and gas stations don’t want the competition. Because of their lobbying, federal law forbids commercializing interstate rest areas. “But the situation trucking faces today is a desperate need for expansion of safe overnight truck parking and the amenities that should go with it,” writes Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “Rethinking America’s Highways.” 

Instead of blocking commercialization, he argues, the big truck-stop chains should work with state transportation departments, perhaps raising private investment as well, “to convert nearly useless ‘rest areas’ into oases for truckers.”