Cover Story
We The Truckers

By Mark Schremmer, Greg Grisolano and Tyson Fisher

Few truck drivers will ever have the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the president of the United States, with the leaders of the U.S. Department of Transportation, or even with one of their representatives in Congress.

But, for a minute, let’s pretend that you did land that meeting.

What would you say?

From a trucker’s perspective, what do the decision makers need to understand about trucking? What are the biggest obstacles preventing you from doing your job in a safe and efficient manner? What aspects of the job encourage experienced and safe drivers to leave the industry?

Members of the Land Line staff posed these questions to nearly a dozen members of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. The answers varied, but the overall message was the same: They want to be heard.

Electronic logs don’t improve safety

Tim Bauman, a 36-year-old OOIDA member from New Paris, Ind., would tell his lawmaker that electronic logging devices aren’t doing what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration thinks they do.

Instead of improving safety by forcing drivers to follow their hours of service, Bauman said the logs serve as a reminder of the ticking clock and don’t allow for any flexibility.

While OOIDA continues to fight the action, the electronic log mandate is set to take effect in December 2017. However, all trucks that are older than model year 2000 will be exempt from the mandate.

“I see more accidents from people who are running electronic logs and aren’t able to take a nap when they need to,” Bauman said. “I see guys who lost a lot of their time at a shipper or receiver during the day, and now they have to truck all night. They need to change the hours of service to where people are able to lie down and go to bed when they need to. These guys have to run, and they only have a certain amount of time to do it in. Then they get tired, and start driving everywhere but on the road.”

Del Sanchez, a 40-year-old OOIDA member from Haysville, Kan., agreed that mandating electronic logs could actually lead to a decrease in safety on the highways.

“With a lot of the new kids out there driving, a lot of them won’t go to sleep when they’re supposed to, or they can’t sleep when the clock starts telling them that they have to,” Sanchez said.

“What ends up happening is that they stay up for the next three, four or even five or six hours sometimes, and they finally fall asleep two-and-a-half hours into their sleeper time. What’s the first thing they do? They hop behind the wheel knowing that the clock is ticking and they don’t have a choice other than to start moving. That’s creating its own hazard. The problem is that it hasn’t run its course yet for people to start realizing how dangerous it can be.”

Sanchez said the exemption could also impede safety by encouraging drivers, who want to avoid the mandate, to find older trucks.

“Intentionally bringing back old, ratty trucks because they don’t want to have a device that can track them is a problem in and of itself,” he said.

Robert Johnson, a 55-year-old OOIDA member from Kaufman, Texas, said he wishes the regulations would include some common sense that would allow drivers to take breaks when they’re tired.

“They need to take this electronic logging and just throw it in the garbage,” Johnson said. “If you start on Monday and you have a driver who likes to run at night – and he starts at 2 p.m., and he runs his hours out a little later … By Friday, his sleep schedule is all messed up because of how the computer is putting him off duty.

“I started 30 years ago when we could break up our time. If I ran down the road four or five hours and I felt like it was one of them days where I could just not get awake and I decided to take a nap, I could stop my time, take that hour to three-hour nap and get back up and continue my day. Because of the 14-hour rule and the clock doesn’t stop, you have drivers who are tired, but they can’t stop.”

Robert Schwartz, a 57-year-old OOIDA member from Keota, Iowa, said that regulations like ELDs and speed limiters have more to do with making fleets and owner-operators work under the same limitations than it does about increasing safety.

“Trucking is not a one-size-fits-all industry when it comes to regulations,” Schwartz said. “They’re trying to pass laws like speed limiters and electronic logs. … That just doesn’t work for owner-operators. It feels like they’re trying to weed out the owner-operators and let the big corporate companies take over. When they’re trying to regulate us, it’s not about safety.”

In addition to ELDs being dangerous, Gretchen Darmetko, a 48-year-old OOIDA senior member from Hammond, La., said the devices are a costly and needless burden for owner-operators.

“I would request a deletion of the upcoming electronic onboard recording requirement,” said Darmetko, who started her career as a truck driver in 1996. “Since the electronic logs have been forced into the tractors, I see more aggressive driving and more speeding within truck stops. (They’re) also going to be a financial burden for some operators as there is an initial cost of several hundred dollars and monthly fees nearing $30.”

Darmetko added that the hours of service take safety decisions out of the drivers’ hands.

“The obvious overwhelming complaint is the hours-of-service rules that have been completely altered and have forced us to work our entire shift without the opportunity for an afternoon nap, a bout of illness, or maybe a long dinner with some friends.”

Ahmad Rashid, a 60-year-old OOIDA member from Carrollton, Texas, echoed Darmetko’s sentiment.

“Safety is the most important issue,” Rashid said. “I think when the logbook was 10 hours driving within 16 hours and an eight-hour break with a split, it was much safer. Before, anytime we were getting sleepy we were pulling over to take a couple-hour nap.”

Drivers need more safe places to park

A lack of safe parking has been a hot topic among truck drivers for some time. Jason Rivenburg, a truck driver from Fultonham, N.Y., was fatally shot in 2009 while parked at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina. In December 2015, OOIDA Life Member Jerry Matson was shot while parked near I-880 in Oakland after being denied a secure spot at the Oakland Coliseum.

Rivenburg’s story sparked the creation of “Jason’s Law,” which is an effort to give truckers better access to safe rest areas, in 2013. Matson, who had to undergo multiple surgeries after being shot in the lower right abdomen by a

.45 caliber firearm, filed a lawsuit in January in the Oakland-Alameda County Superior Court.

In spite of the effort to make such stories a thing of the past, many truck drivers say a lack of safe parking remains one of the top issues confronting the industry.

“The parking issue is just insane out here,” said Don Wolford, a 50-year-old OOIDA senior member from Greencastle, Pa. “I spend a lot of my time running east of the Mississippi … the Interstate 81 corridor in Virginia. I dread driving it, because I just don’t know where I’m going to be able to park. I typically run later in the evening, so by that time there’s usually no place left.”

Angela Surette, a 45-year-old OOIDA senior member from Hammond, La., also said she wants the decision makers to acknowledge the desperate need for safe parking.

“I would talk to them about parking,” said Surette, who works as a team driver with Darmetko. “They have closed parking areas and rest areas all over the country. Many of the truck stops have now started charging to park, which is making matters even worse. In the last few years, parking has become a huge problem.”

The strict nature of the hours of service, along with the looming mandate for ELDs, further complicates the parking issue. Some drivers referenced how the hours of service cause many drivers to need parking at the same time. Others mentioned that one miscalculation in planning could force a driver to run out of hours before reaching his or her destination, forcing the trucker to park in an unsafe location like the shoulder of the highway.

Operating a heavy-duty truck safely is a skill

Russell Short, a 56-year-old OOIDA life member from Brook Park, Ohio, has been an owner-operator for more than 30 years. And he knows exactly what he would tell his lawmaker if given the opportunity.

“The main thing, which I think would carry over and help fix so many of the other problems in the industry, is getting people to understand that driving a truck is a skilled profession,” Short said. “It’s obvious that they don’t see it as a skill when they call it a commercial driver’s license instead of a professional driver’s license. I think the perception of many of the decision makers is that there is no skill involved.”

Short said he believes a simple change in perception could fix many of the problems currently facing the industry, including insufficient pay, retention of quality drivers, inconsiderate treatment from shippers and receivers, and the need for safe parking.

“Not thinking it’s a skill is what drives the lack of quality wages,” Short said. “If the industry started to treat us as professionals, the wages would probably go up. We’d be treated better by the shippers and receivers. Right now, truck drivers are treated as second-class citizens.”

Short also said that the lack of respect for drivers can be shown in that there are no commercial driver’s license holders in a high-up position with the FMCSA, while pilots often occupy key positions in the Federal Aviation Administration.

“If we treated it as a skilled trade, so many other things would change,” Short said. “Right now, the big companies don’t care who they put behind the wheel. A lot of companies would put a gorilla in the driver’s seat and pay him in bananas if they could get away with it.”

Glenn Thompson, a 44-year-old owner-operator from Huffman, Texas, said he would tell lawmakers and the new administration to get rid of NAFTA.

“It’s killing the industry,” said Thompson, a disabled veteran of the U.S. Navy, and a trucker since the early 2000s. “One of the worst things that happened to trucking and the U.S. economy as a whole was NAFTA. … If you come to this country, how are these guys able to drive subpar equipment over here, come in and make money. But us Americans, every time I drive five miles I get stopped and inspected?”

Del Sanchez said a lack of pay is the No. 1 issue.

“For some reason, companies have been able to set the wages wherever they want,” he said. “The pay is the same as it was 20 years ago. But the cost of mechanics and service to your truck has tripled. With the amount of hours we have to put in to get the job done, some drivers aren’t even making minimum wage. Some aren’t even making what a waitress makes with tips.”

Thompson echoed Sanchez’s concerns about wages.

“We’re running freight for pennies on the dollar, and I can’t afford to keep up,” he said.

Sanchez said that the lack of pay leads to safety concerns as unskilled drivers are filling the spots vacated by experienced truckers.

“Some of these companies just want a warm body in the truck,” he said. “A lot of new drivers on the road haven’t been taught how to drive on the ice. Companies that are willing to put drivers like this on the road and put public safety at risk should be held accountable.”

OOIDA has long pushed for making behind-the-wheel training a requirement before someone can obtain a CDL. While the FMCSA moved forward with the first driver training regulation in December 2016, it did not include any set time behind the wheel.

Sheila Fortunato, a 54-year-old OOIDA senior member from Grand Prairie, Texas, said the lack of training is evident on the highways and at truck stop parking lots.

“The way they’re training people, what a nightmare,” Fortunato said. “I noticed a newbie trying to back into a space for an hour-and-a-half. Someone who can’t perform the most basic of tasks should not have been cleared for a CDL.”

The end shot

There is an overarching message woven throughout the issues and positions that lawmakers cannot ignore: Laws and regulations directly affect the men and women behind the wheel. The points these professional truck drivers make is that until there is a deeper understanding of the life and demands of being a truck driver, there will likely be a downside. Legislating and regulating cannot not be done in a vacuum fueled by raw statistics with dollars and cents as the measuring stick. LL