Hard trucking

Independent truckers say new safety rules threaten their livelihood

Independent truckers say new safety rules threaten their livelihood
Robert Harsell and his dog Blackie somewhere near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, April 1, 2015

7:00 a.m. The shipping warehouse in Madison, Mississippi

Robert Harsell, a 68-year-old independent truck driver, arrives right on time to pick up 8,000 pounds of cookies for Starbucks. They’re being sent to a warehouse in Henrietta, New York, 1,300 miles away. He has 51 hours to get there, and the clock is ticking.

“I like this load,” he says. “It’s light, and it pays good. But we don’t have much time. Hopefully, they’ll get us loaded up quick and we can start making miles.”

But the warehouse manager says the load isn’t ready. Harsell rubs his long, bushy beard and walks back to his 18-wheeler. The front unit, also called the “tractor,” is a square-nosed 1989 blue Freightliner that hasn’t been washed in years. It’s pulling an old Dorsey refrigerated trailer, or “reefer,” set to 65 degrees for the cookies.

The truck is also his home for most of the year, and he shares it with a 16-year-old mixed-breed rescue dog named Blackie. He picked her up on Christmas Day 15 years ago in Tucson, Arizona. At night, she curls up next to him in a small sleeping bunk behind the seats, among scattered wrenches, cables, oil containers, empty sardine cans, unwashed clothes and the other detritus of his hard-trucking nomadic life.

Harsell sets the temperature of the refrigeration engine on his trailer before taking on a new load outside Jackson, Mississippi. (Click to enlarge images)

9:15 a.m. No load, no estimate of when it will be ready

The warehouse workers are in no hurry. It doesn’t cost them a dime to keep a trucker waiting. “It’s going to be tough to deliver this load on time without breaking the hours-of-service regulations,” says Harsell. “I’m safe, I’m reliable, I do a good job, and they want to turn me into an outlaw.”

Harsell is one of 350,000 independent owner-operators hauling freight around the country in his own big rig. The other 90 percent of U.S. truckers — 3 million of them — lease their vehicles and driving services to a company or drive company trucks.

Like many independent truck drivers, Harsell feels like the deck is increasingly stacked against him. Unlike company drivers, independents have to pay for their own diesel, highway tolls, insurance, permits, repairs and maintenance, and these costs have been rising for decades, while the rates for transporting freight have remained relatively low. But nothing aggravates independent truckers more than the hours-of-service regulations imposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA.

“They’re squeezing us out of a living, and in the name of safety they’re making the highways more dangerous,” says Harsell, echoing a widely held view.

The regulations allow truckers to be on duty for 14 consecutive hours, with a mandatory half-hour break. Within those 14 hours, they’re permitted to drive for a maximum of 11. The other three hours allow for loading, unloading and eating. When the 11- or 14-hour limit is reached, they have to stop driving for 10 hours, and spend at least 8 hours in the sleeping berth. There are also limits on hours spent driving per week.

Trucking supplies such as logbook paper refills are sold at a gas station along Interstate 390 in rural New York state, left. Harsell’s 1989 Freightliner semi tractor has more than one million miles on the engine, right. (Click to enlarge images)

The federal hours-of-service regulations date back to 1938, apply to nearly all commercial vehicles and are intended to reduce accidents caused by driver fatigue. Highway-safety advocates attack them for being too lax and allowing truckers to drive when they’re dangerously exhausted. American Trucking Associations says the regulations are too restrictive and cause excessive burdens on productivity. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, or OOIDA, an organization with more than 150,000 members, including Harsell, strongly opposes the regulations.

“The biggest problem is the lack of flexibility,” he says. “I used to be able to pull off the road when I felt sleepy and drive when I felt good to drive. Now the feds are mandating when I have to sleep and for how long and when I have to drive and for how long. It’s got nothing to do with when I actually feel sleepy and need to get off the road.”

The regulations are pressuring truckers to make as many miles as possible in those 11 hours, says Harsell, especially the company drivers who get paid by the mile. “Drivers are out there racing the clock. They’re taking fewer breaks and driving faster, especially in industrial areas. They’re wagging those trailers around like a raccoon’s tail.”

10:05 a.m. Finally, the shippers are ready to load

Harsell slides back the tandem wheels on the trailer so it can better support the weight of the forklift and backs up to the loading dock. While the forklift driver stacks pallets of plastic-wrapped cookie boxes in his trailer, Harsell takes Blackie for a brief sniff-about in the cool spring sunshine.

10:30 a.m. Pulling away from the loading dock

Three and a half hours of his day are gone, wasted, irretrievable.

“Shipper delay is more common than weather or traffic delay, but since there’s no flexibility in your hours of service, you can’t make up the time,” he says. “Basically, you’ve got three options: You can be late, you can speed or you can drive it one way and write it another.”

Truckers are required to show up-to-date logbooks to Department of Transportation inspectors and police officers who ask for them. It’s no secret that truckers sometimes falsify their logbooks to show compliance with the hours-of-service regulations. Harsell outlines a few likely scenarios. If the delivery point is half an hour away, it’s a rare driver who will pull over and rest for 10 hours because his legal time has run out. Similarly, if a driver runs out of hours a few miles from home, there’s a strong temptation to go the extra distance and fudge the timeline in the logbook. Some company truckers, who get paid by the mile, make fictional logbook entries to earn more money, he says.

A driver might also falsify a logbook entry to disguise a breakdown, or a two-hour nap on the edge of a city during rush hour. The main reason why truckers falsify logs, however, is to get freight delivered on time. “You really don’t want to be late,” says Harsell. “They can penalize you or refuse to take delivery. If you’re late too often, the freight brokers stop giving you good loads.”

Todd Spencer, the executive vice president of OOIDA, has criticized the hours-of-service regulations in front of Congress. He serves as an industry adviser to the FMCSA and the National Transportation Safety Board. “What we’re seeing from the government is excessive regulatory zeal without the research data to back it up,” he says. “Now they’re mandating that every truck must have an electronic on-board logging device, or e-log, and that paper logbooks will no longer be accepted.”

A storage lot for semi trailers along Interstate 81 in Virginia streams past Harsell’s window. (Click to enlarge images)

OOIDA says it’s an unfair financial burden to make independent drivers responsible for paying for e-logs (also known as EODs or EOBRs) and paying the monthly fees to operate them, especially since there’s no proof that these devices reduce accidents. “Most of the big trucking companies already have e-logs in their trucks, ensuring that all their drivers are in compliance with the hours-of-service regulations,” says Spencer. “But they have the worst safety record of any commercial drivers on the roads. And independent owner-operators using paper logbooks have the best safety record.”

It comes down to experience more than anything, says Spencer. According to Harsell, the big companies tend to hire young, poorly trained, badly paid drivers and pressure them to get as far as possible in their electronically monitored 11-hour stints. Most independents are older and more experienced, having worked and saved their way toward owning a truck. They tend to drive more carefully because an accident could put them out of business. But if e-logs become mandatory, many skilled and experienced drivers will quit the industry, says Spencer, and the market dominance of the big trucking companies will increase. “We’re already seeing it. A lot of our members just don’t like the idea of being electronically monitored by the government and told when to sleep.”

Harsell has a quick bite at the Kewanee 1 Stop, a small rural truck stop on the border of Mississippi and Alabama, left. A hunting trophy and a soda machine at Kewanee 1, right. (Click to enlarge images)

11:30 a.m. Breakfast

Harsell pulls off Interstate 20 for a late breakfast sandwich and coffee to go, then continues driving east toward Alabama. The most direct route to Henrietta, New York, goes through Kentucky, but Harsell has a dispute there over his fuel-tax filing. He sent the paperwork by snail mail because he had trouble logging on to the website. The officials required e-filing, he says, so they ignored his paperwork and suspended his operating license. Now they want him to put up a $1,000 bond to reinstate it. “We’ll go around Kentucky,” he says. “To hell with those people.”

Ever since high school in New Jersey 50 years ago, he has had trouble with authority and resented its power over him. Fighting it doesn’t work, so instead he’s tried to avoid it and live on his own terms. He has been a commercial fisherman, a shrimper, an environmental activist and a drifter. Once he walked from New Jersey to the Florida Keys with no money, eating snakes and pigeons that he killed with a slingshot.

He started driving commercial trucks three decades ago, and since 2003 he’s been an independent owner-operator, a one-man trucking company hauling freight around the country. “I don’t have a boss, I pick my own loads, I go where I want to go,” he says. “I’ve got some land in Virginia with a trailer on it, but I’m hardly ever there. USA is my neighborhood, and I love that highway running under my tires. It gets to where I crave it.”

3:30 p.m. Sun on the I-59, northeast Alabama

Harsell used to have a CB radio, but he got tired of arguing with other truckers and listening to fights break out. He doesn’t listen to music or the radio. “When I’m driving, I’m not bored. I’m paying attention to everything around me,” he says. The afternoon sun is lighting up the mountains near the Tennessee border. He’s got a nice, light, well-paying load in the back, and traffic is flowing well on the interstate, aka “The Slab” or “The Big Road.”

For two days of hard trucking, he will make $3,200, which sounds great until you deduct $900 for fuel and consider all the time and money he has spent recently on repairs and maintenance. He had to replace 10 worn-out tires ($4,200) and a badly rusted cross-tube ($800). He put four new air bags ($560) into his suspension. He rebuilt the exhaust system ($200). He fixed various broken lights and housings and some other odds and ends. It took him a week, working in a cold rainy field in the mountains of Virginia. “I do all my own mechanical work,” he says. “Wrenches are the only reason I’m able to stay in business.”

Robert Harsell: ‘Big roads all the way’

Harsell’s one-man, two-truck transportation company is barely surviving. At the height of the financial bubble in 2005, he borrowed thousands of dollars on his credit cards to rebuild both his trucks and take some time off from driving while he did the work. Then came the crunch and the big recession. The banks cut off his credit and jacked up his interest rates. Fewer goods moved around America, and competition between desperate trucking companies drove down freight rates. When he could find a load, it paid barely enough to eat.

Over the last few years, with the economy slowly improving and more freight in circulation, Harsell has been working steadily and slowly clawing his way toward solvency, with frequent mechanical setbacks along the way. He lives extremely frugally, with one exception.

“Blackie’s my pal, and she eats good,” he says. “She gets fried chicken, rotisserie chicken, raw ham hocks, pigs’ feet, sardines, mackerel, pizza, Dinty Moore stew and ice cream. I might take a bite or two, but the rest is for her. Blackie don’t eat no dog food.”

Blackie gets a walk in the parking lot of a gas station along Interstate 59 in rural Alabama. (Click to enlarge images)

4:10 p.m. Break and refuel, I-24, southern Tennessee

The hours-of-service regulations require Harsell to take a half-hour break. “It’s more of a chore than anything,” he says. “I’m feeling good, but Blackie needs a bathroom break.” (Harsell, like most male truckers, pees into a plastic container while he’s driving). He stops at a gas station, puts $300 of diesel in his tanks, eats some canned sardines. Barefoot, he leads Blackie to a patch of weeds on an old piece of rope. Standing there with his big white beard, strong intelligent face and grimy torn clothes, he looks like a present-day King Lear.

Truck-driving is a notoriously unhealthy profession, but he’s in good shape for a man nearing 70 and he easily passed his recent bi-annual physical. He lives on canned fish, fresh fruit, whole milk and bacon-and-egg sandwiches, and he runs for short distances in truck stop and supermarket parking lots. On a time-crunch load like this one, he forgoes his running, and takes his sandwiches to go.

He never wastes money on a motel room. Very few truckers do. But even at home in Virginia, he sleeps in the bunk of his truck every night, on an unpadded sheet of plywood. “It’s good for the back,” he says.

4:40 p.m. Approaching Chattanooga

Motorists pass him all day long without a second glance at the grubby old truck in the slow lane. How many Starbucks customers, Harsell wonders, ever think about trucks and the drivers who deliver the coffee beans and baked goods? If trucks stopped running for a day, according to the American Trucking Associations, there would be severe fuel shortages in the nation’s gas stations. If they stopped running for three days, hospital patients would die for lack of medical supplies, and supermarkets would start running out of food. As the saying goes, “If you bought it, a truck brought it.”

The industry is moving toward corporate dominance, and the independents are getting left behind, says Harsell. The big trucking companies such as J.B. Hunt, Swift, C.R. England and their competitors have nationwide networks of tractors, trailers and drivers. Each company has logistics experts who monitor the progress of their trucks, and how many legal hours each driver has left. Increasingly, the big companies are using a technique known as “drop and hitch,” which the independents can’t compete against.

“When one guy runs out of hours, he unhitches the trailer, and another driver with fresh hours comes along and hitches it to his tractor,” explains Harsell. “So the load is always moving. And if any of those drivers get sleepy and pull over, their phone is going to ring, and some guy is going to yell at them to keep that load moving.”

If he could make one change to the hours-of-service regulations, Harsell would bring back the pre-2003 “split-sleeper berth provision.” It allowed drivers to split their rest time into two periods, so it was easier to pull over when you felt sleepy, and drive further later when you were rested. “It allowed me to use my best judgment, and drive safely without breaking the law,” he says.

Heavy fog obscures Harsell’s view of Interstate 390 in New York. (Click to enlarge images)

5:07 p.m. Near collision, I-24, Exit 178

Harsell has driven more than a million miles without an accident, but there have been some close calls over the years, and there’s a bad moment this afternoon on the edge of Chattanooga. A motorist suddenly slices in front of him to make an exit, giving him no chance to slow down his 65-foot, 40,000-pound truck. “That was close,” Harsell says afterwards. “I really wish they wouldn’t do that.”

The United States currently averages about 30,000 traffic fatalities a year. Of those, nearly 4,000 are killed in “truck-related accidents.” This number is often cited by safety groups such as Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT), whose founders have lost family members in fatigue-related truck accidents, as a reason for more restrictive hours-of-service regulations, and mandatory e-logs. But the majority of those fatal accidents were not caused by truck drivers, records show, fatigued or otherwise. Instead, in more than 80 percent of fatal crashes involving passenger vehicles and large trucks, it was the car driver who was at fault, according to three recent years of FMCSA records.

Of the roughly 700 traffic fatalities a year that are caused by truck drivers, brake failure is the most commonly cited reason. It’s difficult to measure the influence of fatigue, a subjective condition that is often under-reported by truckers. The Department of Transportation estimates that fatigue accounts for 13 percent of fatal accidents caused by truckers. The American Trucking Associations says 7 percent (PDF).

But the specter of truckers falling asleep at the wheel has dominated the controversy around safety regulations, partly because the results can be so devastating. The severe injuries suffered by comedian Tracy Morgan in June 2014 put the issue back in the headlines. He was critically injured, and a fellow passenger killed, when a Walmart tractor-trailer ploughed into their van on the New Jersey Turnpike and caused a six-vehicle pile-up. The Walmart driver hadn’t slept in 24 hours and dozed off at the wheel, according to investigators. Yet his vehicle was outfitted with an e-log, and he was in compliance with the hours-of-service regulations. Just because a driver is legally off-duty is no guarantee that he’s sleeping.

A highway patrol car with flashing lights along Interstate 75 in rural Tennessee, left. Harsell works on his laptop in the sleeping quarters of his cab near Mansfield, Pennsylvania, right. (Click to enlarge images)

7.20 p.m. 'Brake check' on I-75

This is trucker slang for a traffic jam, or a hold-up. The interstate outside Knoxville is a string of red brake lights as far as the eye can see. Harsell wonders if it’s construction or an accident. It takes him 55 minutes to find out. A wrecking truck is hauling a dented car from the median, and drivers are crawling past to take a good look. Another hour wasted.

Midnight Bull’s Gap, Tennessee

Harsell is off-duty, Blackie is asleep. The cardinal rule of truck-driving, he says, is to pull over when you start getting sleepy. But it’s often difficult to find somewhere legal where you can park an eighteen-wheeler and crawl into the bunk for the night. The interstate rest areas and truck stops are nearly always full, crime can be a problem and inexperienced drivers often clip parked trucks when they’re turning. Instead he looks for Walmart and Home Depot parking lots, empty lots by rivers and railroad tracks, certain supermarkets and truck-friendly cafés. Another good option is older, out-of-the-way truck stops a mile or two off the interstate, like the one he’s parked at tonight in eastern Tennessee.

Day 2 Bull’s Gap, Tennessee, to Mansfield, Pennsylvania

“Open road trucking is like being in another world,” Harsell says. “All you do is drive and sleep and think about the next load. It consumes you.”

Driving northeast on Interstate 81, he points to a mountain in Virginia that overlooks his 35-acre property, which houses his trailer without electricity, under which live a rhumba of rattlesnakes. “They’re as welcome as the bluebirds,” he says. “I like nature just the way it is.”

Sometimes he’ll spend a week or two at the trailer, but home is right here in the truck. Today he drives hard and stops as little as possible. He’s careful not to eat too much, because a full stomach can make you sleepy. At Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he gets off the interstate with relief and heads north along the Susquehanna River. A cold rain comes lashing against his windshield in the evening. When a traffic light turns red at the bottom of a steep hill, he brakes with extreme caution. That night, tired and lacking a better option, he pulls into a hotel parking lot and sleeps there without permission.

10:50 a.m. Delivery, Henrietta, New York

He arrives 10 minutes early. The warehouse isn’t ready to take delivery, but he doesn’t mind this in the slightest. He takes Blackie for a short walk, and enjoys the feeling of bipedal locomotion in fresh air. He fiddles with a minor battery problem. Then he calls his freight broker, asking for a load originating in upstate New York, going anywhere at all. The broker has nothing. Neither does truckstop.com. “I’m a man without a future,” says Harsell cheerfully. “I’ll rest up here until I get a load. Or maybe I’ll go home and let Blackie run in the mountains.”

He says he’ll keep on trucking until e-logs become mandatory. He still owes money to the banks, so he needs to keep earning. And there’s another reason why it’s hard to quit. “Bumping that loading dock, getting the bill of lading, heading out on the road again… I’m a trucker, man. It’s in my blood.”

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