The truck stops ... where

by Paul Spillenger

The "trucking industry" has always been some- thing of a contradiction in terms, a constellation of factions, segments and special interests whose divergent perspectives make it well-nigh impossible to speak of anything as unified as a single, monolithic industry.

Truckload vs. LTL; union vs. nonunion; independents and three-truck operations vs. megacarriers like Schneider National and Yellow Freight; drivers vs. management; government regulators vs. the private sector; shippers and receivers vs. carriers; private vs. for-hire fleets. The list goes on and on.

But there is one issue on which this multifarious group of trucking interests seem to have lined up firmly on the same side, and that is the issue of truck parking.

Whether you're a driver or an owner, the American Trucking Associations or the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the National Transportation Safety Board or Parents Against Tired Truckers - whatever spot you occupy on the broad spectrum of commercial activity known as the trucking industry, chances are you believe there is a dearth of adequate parking for the ever-increasing number of commercial trucks on this nation's highways, a shortage that threatens to become a business and safety nightmare of Elm St. proportions.

Only one player - a big one - stands apart from the crowd.

It says there is no national shortage, that the perception of one is simply a mirage.

It says that no connection has been demonstrated between truck parking availability and highway safety.

It opposes efforts to have the government funnel tax dollars into expansion of interstate rest areas.

And it opposes privatization of rest areas.

This "voice crying in the wilderness" is the association representing the $35 billion, 1,100-member travel plaza and truckstop industry, Natso Inc., owner of the popular trucker magazine Truckers News and the voice in Washington, DC, for thousands of businesses whose major customer is the over-the-road truckdriver.

"No credible research exists which accurately suggests there is a nationwide truck parking shortage," Natso says.

The 40-year-old trade group, which is based in Alexandria, VA, says the real problem lies, not with the availability of spaces, but with the inability of truckers and their companies to plan their itineraries properly.

"Trucking companies are logistical masters - they can make guarantees to shippers and receivers about deliveries on the other side of the country," Natso says. "They know the exact price Natso members pay for fuel by the hour, yet they neglect to use any of this expertise to help their drivers find safe, legal parking spaces at the end of the day."

Natso is well aware this position has made it no friends in the rest of the industry. It appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place, the rock being its chief customer pool and the hard place its members' own immediate economic benefit. An association spokesperson, however, says Natso has not abandoned its traditional customer base.

"Our industry's priority has always been and will continue to be the professional trucker," says Lisa Mullings. "Some of our members have tried to branch out and attract other types of clients, but their bread and butter is with the trucking industry." So, why alienate your best customers?

"We have done surveys with our members," Mullings says, "and they don't hear from their customers that they need more parking - that's the biggest indicator that there's no need for more parking. Trucking fleets are interested in fuel prices, not places to park. When they start making demands for more parking from our members, our members will respond by building more."

Natso has consistently said that while there may be some parking problems outside major urban areas, the problem is not nationwide. Natso's critics say that if there are problems near the country's largest consumer markets, there is by definition a national problem.

OOIDA, which represents independent and small business truckers, calls Natso's position "self-serving."

"The tighter economics get in trucking, the more small operations get squeezed out," says OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. "To the extent that economic hardships for [truckstops'] customers ultimately shrink their customer base, it will also shrink their profits. Because, realistically, profit margins are going to be slim or nonexistent with large fleets."

Not surprisingly, many long-haul truckdrivers have little patience with Natso's positions on the issue.

"Bull--," says Dick Gossard to Natso's claim that there is no systemic parking space shortage. Gossard has been a trucker on and off since 1959, and he says, "Natso doesn't know diddly about any of the conditions facing today's interstate trucker."

"As an experienced driver, I can tell you that there are not enough places to park a tractor-trailer truck," adds trucker Dave Gilbert. "In some places, truckstops charge for parking and oftentimes this parking fee is money out of a driver's own pocket."

"Part of Natso's argument is their concern over trucks parking somewhere besides their lots," says Tom Thompson. Thompson has worked in the trucking industry since 1976. "They have a vested interest in catching a driver before he lays down and after he wakes up in order to make money off of him. I understand they are in business to make money, but many drivers are pushed hard to make a living for their families after road expenses."

Problem or no problem?

Natso's assertions notwithstanding, it would seem from a recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study that the nation's infrastructure is becoming less and less able to handle the growing number of commercial vehicles on the road. And infrastructure includes truck parking spots.

In May of this year, the NTSB came out with a report on truck parking areas. It noted that in 1996 there were about 7 million large trucks on the highways. By 2005 that number is projected to increase roughly 19 percent, to 8.25 million.

"The volume of trucks is so great on the interstate highways now that they are almost running over each other," Gossard says.

The Safety Board also pointed out that credible research has linked highway safety to truckdriver fatigue and that the availability of parking can, in turn, have an effect on driver fatigue.

"Of course there's a correlation," says Daphne Izer of Parents Against Tired Truckers. "If a truckdriver is fatigued and unable to stop, he's driving tired. Drivers are calling us and saying, 'You want us off the road, but we have no place to park.'"

A 1996 Federal Highway Administration/ATA study, "Commercial Driver Rest and Parking Requirements: Making Space for Safety," also found a significant shortfall of truck parking spaces throughout the United States. Natso says this study is flawed because it didn't take into account private truck parking facilities.

And a 1999 OOIDA membership survey found that 90 percent of its members had a hard time finding parking spaces at least once a week.

"We can 1000 percent guarantee that there is definitely a shortage of public rest stop spaces for truckdrivers," says Mike Russell, an ATA spokesman. "Drivers can't always go to truck stops. Truckstops are generally full. When they need to meet federal regulations they just need a good safe place to sleep. If the general public wants truck drivers to be rested and thus safer drivers, then there is an obligation to provide places for them to rest."

Russell says there's probably a 35,000 truck parking space shortfall nationwide.

Natso counters that its members would be happy to build more parking spaces, if their customers said they wanted them and if zoningĀ 

laws permitted them. Even expansion in public rest areas is OK by Natso - with one proviso.

"If the industry needs more parking, someone's going to have to find a way to pay for that," Mullings says. "The public can't afford to pay for more rest area parking."

"We don't care if they build hundreds of truck stops," counters PATT's Izer. "They can't build enough to take care of the problem."

As for bringing in the private sector to do the job of running safe rest area facilities, Natso is not shy about saying its position is what it has to be to serve its members' best interest.

"Commercialization of interstate rest areas would threaten both the trucking and the truckstop industries," Mullings says. "There's no question our industry would be devastated by it. We could never compete against an entity that has been selected by the state to offer services on the convenient highway shoulder."

But just because Natso opposes commercialization doesn't mean the issue is going to go away. Even the NTSB wants the federal law that bars private businesses from managing rest areas to be reconsidered.

"The prohibition against private development of rest area facilities may be an impediment to the construction of adequate truck parking," the board writes in its May study. And there has been at least one attempt in Congress - stopped dead in its tracks - to allow commercialization on interstate rights of way.

Increasing pressure will soon come to bear on the difficulties drivers face in finding a place to rest from the hours-of-service rules revision currently underway at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. More limitations on when and for how long a trucker must lay down his or her weary head mean more logistical headaches in finding a place to park the truck.

Ultimately, suggest some observers, the issue is really about the pressure on drivers to respond to shippers' and receivers demands in a just-in-time supply chain economy. With maddening delays at the docks coupled with "get it there yesterday" delivery schedules and a pay-by-the-mile compensation structure, truckers literally can't afford to stop early enough to be sure of a space at a private truck stop.

This, say truckers, is what they wish Natso and their members would understand.

Sooner or later, says OOIDA's Spencer, the chickens are going to come home to roost.

"If your positions are such that they come at the expense of your best customers, don't count on your customers remaining uninformed forever," he says.