Logging some windshield time alongside experienced owner-operator Leo Wilkins, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro says the trip has given her a clearer sense of the issues facing truckers on the highway and in the regulatory realm.

By David Tanner, associate editor

There’s nothing like a little windshield time to get a deeper understanding of what professional truck drivers go through to get the job done. Many truckers say they wish more regulators and lawmakers would take the time to see how it all works.

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro has ridden in trucks before, but for two days in November she logged some time in the jump seat alongside owner-operator and OOIDA Life Member Leo Wilkins of St. Charles, Mich.

This was not a routine trip around the D.C. Beltway, either. Arranged by OOIDA, the trip featured load deliveries, an overnight rest period, and a lot of time to talk about the issues on the road and in the regulatory world.

The take-aways were numerous, Ferro says, starting with a realization about the difficulty for a trucker to plan for the unexpected.

“The clearest take-aways were the recognition that my sense that a driver and a company can just schedule better and plan ahead more effectively for the unexpected was certainly set straight by the unpredictability for someone who is an over-the-road owner-operator or small carrier,” Ferro said.

“The other piece, the sense that a driver can stay healthy if he or she just follows certain practices, was also tempered by the ride-along. What I had not appreciated (before) is how much the pressures of getting to the next pickup or delivery curtail your ability to be healthy.”

The pressures, she says, are routinely made worse by uncompensated detention time at the shipping docks. While her agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, does not directly regulate shippers and receivers, Ferro says she is adamant that something needs to be done to correct the detention issue as it relates to highway safety and efficiency.

But the issue goes even deeper than that, she says.

“The biggest loss in scheduling seems to be over and over again the uncontrolled detention time that shippers and receivers put drivers through,” Ferro said.

“I would just say that that’s the elephant in the room, and whether hours of service is just another excuse to avoid the logistics industry seriously tackling that issue, seriously compensating the driver.”

Pickup and delivery
In his 2012 Peterbilt 389, Wilkins picked up Ferro on Sunday, Nov. 3, in Marlboro, Md., and made a delivery in Harrisburg, Pa. Then they headed toward Indianapolis.

Although traffic was light, Ferro was witness to some interactions with four-wheelers, including one incident that caught her off-guard.

“This morning we had, of all things, a police car come in on a ramp right into Leo’s blind spot. And that police car had no plans on slowing down, even though it was clear that if we would have had a car on the other side of Leo we would have been in real trouble,” she said during a phone conversation from the road. “But fortunately that was not the case. That’s just one example.”

Wilkins approached the end of his work hours as they hit Indianapolis. They pulled off with only minutes to spare on the time clock, in fact.

Wilkins got a hotel room while Ferro slept in the bunk, part of the arrangement to let the administrator experience time in the sleeper berth. Although she was comfortable in a spacious extended sleeper, Ferro said she could see how sleeping on the road could add to the stress level of truckers with less-accommodating quarters. Routine tasks like changing clothes, using the restroom, or getting a morning cup of coffee required effort that non-truckers would take for granted, she said.

The following day, they made a delivery to Reagan Traffic Control in Riverton, Ill., before Wilkins dropped Ferro off at the St. Louis International Airport to complete the journey.

Time to think and talk
As the miles passed, Wilkins and Ferro covered a lot of ground both literally and in the conversations they had.

Wilkins said the administrator took a lot of notes and did not hesitate to ask about something they’d seen or about over-arching issues within the trucking community.

“It’s really hard to get something done. She understands our problems,” Wilkins said. “She’s working very hard, I mean, coming along with me to get a firsthand look at things. I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart for doing that for me and for other truckers out there that are facing these problems.

“We’ve enjoyed it, I would say. I’ve learned a lot about her job and she’s learned a lot about ours.”

Ferro says she gets the reasons why truckers ask for flexibility in the hours-of-service regulations. There is no other way to put it except that one size does not fit all.

“That’s why I would like to press ahead with a pilot study that we’re finally getting some bites on,” Ferro said.

The pilot study, which has not been formally announced, would allow a selected group of truckers and carriers to test out split-sleeper time and other HOS exemptions if they agree to certain measures – one of which is the installment of electronic logs. Ferro said she hopes the agency can utilize existing data on split-sleeper time as part of the study.

Following the trip, Ferro had a chance to reflect on the overall experience.

She had a lot of good things to say about the trucker she shadowed, Leo Wilkins, who recently received a 21-year safe driving award from OOIDA. In fact, Ferro had presented the award to him and other safe drivers during OOIDA’s Heart of America Trucking show in October.

“The challenges the owner-operator faces are much more real to me as a result of this trip with Leo,” Ferro said. “It’s not that I wasn’t aware of that. I’ve certainly always known it in theory and in reality from conversations I’ve had, but experiencing it firsthand as a passenger gives me a much different and a much clearer view.”

“I can tell you that riding along with Leo Wilkins has absolutely energized me in some areas and opened my eyes to some others in terms of the real impact of some of the constraints that drivers operate under,” Ferro said. LL

“Land Line Now” News Anchor Reed Black and Senior Correspondent Terry Scruton contributed to this story.