The War of The Roads: Act Two

Augusta, Georgia

Truckers limited to banking hours.

It sounds like the punch line of a bad joke. But the eight-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week world is coming to trucking July 1. And it’s another nail in the coffin for America’s really small businesses.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration boss Anne Ferro is ushering in new Hours of Service rules that she says will “level the playing field” in trucking. If leveling the playing field means wiping out Owner Operators and small fleet owners by the staggering cost of complicated, and often nonsensical regulations that only the giant carriers can afford, she’s right.

The War of The Roads- Act Two

This cut sawed through the Rocky Mountains on Alberta’s Trans Canada Highway, just east of Kicking Horse Pass, is my metaphor for the world of small business. The goal, the road, the solution, it all seems simple, it’s just not easy.

Today, even big trucking — many large carriers augment company iron with Owner Operators — is acknowledging the economic genocide perpetrated on small trucking.

The avalanche of regulations in the past four years is “forcing the industry to consolidate,” says Mike Card, chairman of the American Trucking Association (ATA). Soon, he says, only the big fleets will be able to survive the high cost of regulation.

Despite months of thinking about what the changes will do to our business, I can make no projections. I fear the dramatic changes to the driving hours for commercial truck drivers that ignore the experience and reality of trucking today will eliminate the flexibility that helps us make safe decisions while we earn a living.

Motor carriers with large team operations are warning the stock markets and shareholders to expect financial repercussions from these changes. Has two-day delivery ended? Will they need twice as many drivers working for half the pay?

At the very least, the new daily and weekly schedule, added to the stringent rules introduced in 2010 for equipment, which I support because it makes carriers somewhat accountable, will increase stress and encourage unsafe driving habits.

Trip planning will be a feat.

Small business survives by using its flexibility to find niches that are difficult for big business to occupy. We are a Hazardous Material – tanker – doubles/triples endorsed team with the supposedly high-security Transportation Workers Identification Card, TWIC, (a government tax grab, via another big business, perpetrated on the working class and small business, but that is another post). We are Transportation Safety Administration, TSA, approved to pick up and deliver at airports. We handle high-value, high-risk loads. To bring all this together, we purchased a 51-foot drop-deck trailer in March.

We’ve done everything we can to specialize so we can remain profitable. But we don’t control the real service that we sell, our available hours to operate. And we only control a portion of our costs, such as fuel, but not the other big cost, government taxation.

Trucking is a 24/7/365 industry where drivers are meat on a conveyor belt, subject to the whim of convenience of motor carriers, shippers and consumers. But the new rules sound like the bureaucratic nine-to-five, living-in-the-suburbs world.

The new driving rules compress our work day and work week and will hit night and team drivers the hardest. We must, before the eighth hour of our 11-hour driving day, take a 30-minute break. The rule says that if we stop by the eighth consecutive hour of driving and take a half hour break we can drive another three keeping the total daily driving hours at 11, I think. Because there’s also a sub-rule that affects the master 14-hour clock that rules us each day.

It all sounds simple, but it’s not easy. We are already having difficulty accommodating this rule in our trial runs on the heavily populated east and west coasts. Every day, every run is a juggling act, miles against the clock. There’s the delivery and pickup time, the traffic, the weather and the big one, the availability of parking. Some of these are set in stone and others are maddeningly flexible, like how long a shipper can keep you at the dock, typically for free.

Anyone who has seen a truck stop at night knows it is difficult to find a place to park between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. More than 85 per cent of drivers are solar powered. They want to drive days and sleep nights. Last week on I-81 in Virginia, MacGyver drove almost two hours before finding parking. When this happened on I-5 a few weeks ago, we had to switch drivers. There was no place to park for a half hour and meet Landstar’s requirement of safe, off-the-road parking.

We already see trucks in heavily populated areas parked at fuel islands with the curtains drawn, the universal sign for “I’m asleep.” Searching for parking is already stressful. Soon, it will be more stressful.

Our big concern is the so-called 34-hour restart. It’s this one that comes up when teams talk. I am waiting to see if Schneider National has any guidance for their teams on how to plan their driving and working time.

Currently, a driver can get a full 70 hours to work in seven days after a 34-hour break from driving. The new 34-hour restart requires each driver spend two consecutive nights, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., shut down. A weekend, sort of, except for the long-haul drivers who are on the road for three, four and five weeks at a time, there’s no buddy to have a beer with and no kids to take to soccer. Depending when you stop, the restart could last more than 48 hours.

What Ms. Ferro expects night drivers to do in that time is a mystery to me. It won’t be sleeping because her strategy puts night team drivers off their schedule. Solo drivers will know to the last possible minute when they can shut down to keep the 34-hour restart to 34 hours, which likely means driving faster to avoid earning less money.

As a team, we try to keep our available hours high so that we can always be available for a cross-country team load, which is our moneymaker. Often, after 50 hours spent on our 70-hour clock, we shut down for a restart. In addition to the two consecutive nights shut down, we can only use one restart every 168 hours or seven days. It means, under the new rules we are being penalized for taking more rest.

Solo drivers are adopting the eight-and-nine-hour system trying to keep hours available to drive for the entire seven days. We may have to use the eight working hours one day, nine hours the next. On this schedule, drivers can continue indefinitely without a restart. This also encourages drivers to short logged working time, to keep driving hours available. The strategy depends on parking several hours each night when everyone needs or wants to park, which we already know is a problem.

The restart rule targets company-employed teams, typically two men, supporting two families, who put in 6,000 to 7,000 miles a week and do a rolling restart. Both drivers are stopped for 24 hours and each driver is in the sleeper for 10 hours before or after the 24 hours to meet the requirement of 34 hours not driving.

If a shipper wants a true team run that requires each driver to use 10-to-11 working hours each day for a three-day run, we could find our available hours burned up quickly, requiring us to sit even longer to get our restart and fresh hours. The money we make in that run will now need to pay for the entire week.

This may make driver detention at the shipper or receiver, finally, the huge issue that it should be. Under these new rules, when I start my clock for the day, I have a plan to maximize DRIVE time. If I am detained and waiting without pay, the hours are lost for the week. I can’t get back that working time with a restart.

Since these regulations fail to take into account that trucking is a business and a job, and the bills will keep coming, I expect to see greater stress translating into more drivers driving faster to make more miles. Driving too fast and following too close is a well documented cause of crashes.

There is a segment of Owner Operators that expects the Hours of Service changes will force rates up and will allow, maybe even, force drivers to stop absorbing work for free. I hope they do and that the regulatory changes weed out the less well-run Owner Operators the way they tell us happens in a healthy capitalist economy. But I am not optimistic.

Not only will the rates need to rise for Owner Operators to pay for the increased regulations and stay in business, company drivers, who are paid only by the mile, will also need a raise.

If the company team is not from one household, they will need enough money or miles to support two families. Otherwise, why bother with a life on the road? Owner operators with their own rigs can use efficiencies to increase net income by reducing fuel consumption, for example. Or, we can charge fees for our time and service and equipment, as well as raising rates.

Like Mr. Card says, the politicians have abdicated their responsibility to this industry, handing it over to bureaucrats. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is not a friend of trucking, and definitely not a friend of drivers, Owner Operators or small fleets.

Their plan seems to be to exterminate the small business trucker in favor of the large carrier because they believe a small playing field is easier to regulate.

As maddening as this attitude is, it has become the norm in the American economy. Everything is tilted to the big guys. The manufacturing class is gone, the clerical class is gone — both industries gutted of the middle-class jobs that paid for all of our lifestyle’s — the airline industry has consolidated to a handful of carriers, leaving employees working until they are 100 because their wages and pensions have been steadily eroded for almost 20 years. Small trucking is next on the chopping block.

In the next post, Act Three of The Ware of the Roads, I will talk about the decisions that we have made, including buying trailer, to remain in the game and profitable.

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