The waiting game

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“He stopped to capture a wagon train. And what was a wagon train compared to the tremendous issues we had at stake?” -General Robert E. Lee


The above quote comes from comments the famous general made about his cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, before the battle of Gettysburg - the moment most historians recognize as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy during the Civil War.


Stuart had gone off on a dashing raid behind Union lines, forgetting that his cavalry served as Lee‘s eyes and ears. Deprived of badly needed intelligence, Lee found himself forced to fight at Gettysburg, sacrificing the high ground and much of the battle‘s initiative to the Union forces under General George Meade. Though Stuart rejoined Lee as the first day of that deadly battle drew to a close (with his captured wagons in tow) the die, as they say, had been cast - and Stuart's oversight, compounded with other mistakes, would cost the Confederacy dearly.


I‘m reminded of this as the debate over hours of service (HOS) regulations heats up yet again, battling on well worn turf over how many hours per day a trucker can drive. From my perspective, at least, that seems almost incidental to the real problem: how many hours per day a trucker must wait. The long lines spent awaiting the chance to load or unload, followed by the time spent physically loading or unloading the trailers themselves.


Frankly, that wait time is what blows HOS all to hell. Sure, under the current rules, a driver gets three hours per day (out of a 14 hour on-duty schedule) that can be used for loading and unloading purposes. Problem is, three hours doesn‘t even come close to covering how much time drivers actually spend on those tasks.


A 1999 dry van driver survey found truckload drivers on average typically waited 2.3 hours JUST to load their trailers: Loading itself consumed another 1.1 hours of their time. On the back end, again, waiting to unload took up the most time - 2.4 hours on average - with unloading taking 1.2 hours. I know this survey is almost 10 years old, but it‘s the only one I know of that looked this issue square in the face.


The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) contends that shippers and receivers make drivers wait anywhere from two hours to two DAYS to load and unload their trailers - time that drivers don‘t get compensated for. Many drivers I‘ve talked to say that‘s the main reason why so much logbook fudging goes on - they need to put miles on the road to earn something back to cover all that unpaid time.


A March 2003 report by ICF Consulting for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) addressed this issue in pretty damning terms. The report - saddled with the unwieldy title of “Evaluation of U.S. Commercial Motor Carrier Industry Challenges and Opportunities” - had this to say about waiting time and its impact on trucking operations:


“While a portion of driver wait time may be attributable to carriers building buffers into their schedules to ensure on-time pickup and delivery, the biggest contributing factor is that shippers and receivers do not directly bear the cost of keeping driver and equipment waiting,” it said.


“Shippers are typically charged by the mile and do not incur any immediate costs for making drivers wait: Drivers and carriers bear the costs of waiting in lost wages and revenue. Carriers may recoup some of these costs by charging higher rates. [But] the fact that private carriers delivering to owned facilities rarely have to wait tells us that the cost of long wait times in for-hire carriage are not being internalized in the rate structure. That is, when a single entity bears both the cost and benefit of waiting, it rarely chooses to make its drivers wait. If shippers had to bear the cost of waiting, they would behave differently.”


The report also touched on an even thornier issue: lumpers. “While loading and unloading is often done by the truck driver or by the shipper/receiver, independent employees sometimes perform these activities. One carrier noted the related problem of being forced to use these individuals - known as ‘lumpers‘ - at a high cost, or else waiting one to two days to load or unload. This problem is reportedly most serious in the refrigerated foods business.”


“If drivers were compensated for all of the work they do, drivers‘ time would become valuable and shippers would be forced to streamline their operations to minimize loading and unloading time,” contended OOIDA member Walter Krupski in testimony before the U.S. Congress this week. “A new approach is needed if Congress and the agency truly wish to make significant improvements in driver fatigue.”


Some receivers, Krupski noted, even require drivers to perform warehouse work such as restacking pallets. Not only is such work unpaid, it also essentially steals the time that drivers have under the HOS rules to do the work they are actually paid for: driving the truck. It‘s OOIDA‘s belief that if drivers were compensated for both their driving and non-driving on-duty work, they would have every incentive to record all of their on-duty time, and problems with the accuracy of logbooks would disappear.


I really think there‘s a lot of truth to this - and that if waiting time abuses aren‘t addressed, then HOS reforms aren‘t going to amount to a hill of beans. They‘ll end up being as worthless as Stuart‘s wagon train.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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