I wonder if the recent Greyhound bus crash near Highland, Illinois, will bring our nationwide truck parking problem into sharper focus? I wonder too, if an incident like this might finally prompt the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to look at building some flexibility into the hours-of-service regulations.
Earlier this month, a passenger bus struck three tractor-trailers parked along an exit ramp leading into a rest area on Interstate 70 east of St. Louis. Three bus passengers died. Others sustained serious injuries.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating this incident. Board member Tom Chapman said during a press briefing the agency has an interest in rest area safety. He didn’t get into specifics, save to say they are already investigating a previous incident that occurred in Oregon in May.
While not much is publicly known about the Highland incident at this point, it troubles me that the trucks are being scapegoated in this incident. The trucks did not cause the crash; they were incidental. I’ll go so far as to say if it wasn’t for those trucks, the outcome might have been worse.
What We Don’t Know About the Crash
Before we start throwing blame around, we need consider a few questions:
What was the bus doing on the off-ramp leading into the rest area? The collision took place about a hundred yards beyond the point where the right travel lane of the highway and the rest area entrance ramp diverge. The trucks were not parked on the traveled portion of the highway itself.
Was the bus driver asleep at the wheel? We don’t yet know if the bus driver was navigating the off-ramp lane with the intention of making a stop at the rest area, or if he drifted off the highway following roughly the path of the off-ramp.
Was the off-ramp obstructed by the parked trucks? Drone photography gathered by local television news crews the morning after the crash clearly shows two of the three trucks were parked well off the traveled portion of the rest area off-ramp. It’s impossible to determine the original position of the third truck, the rear-most truck, from the morning-after footage.
Drone photos show the truck jackknifed up against the forward parked truck, with the back of the trailer broken open, apparently by the impact of the bus. That truck was clearly the initial point of impact and was no longer in its original position. Investigators may have to rely on tire marks on the pavement to determine where it was parked. One witness account I read suggests the off-ramp lane was not obstructed by the parked trucks just prior to the crash.
Various commentators have vilified the three truckers for parking on the off-ramp, suggesting their presence there contributed to three fatalities. Before I address that, consider:
- If the bus driver was asleep at the wheel and was drifting right, had the trucks not been there the bus might have continued veering right and wound up running down a berm, which might have caused it to roll over.
- The trucks were a presence on the roadway, like any other vehicle, moving or parked. Or like a deer, or piece of debris on the roadway. An alert bus driver should reasonably have been expected to be able to avoid the obstruction — unless there were extenuating circumstances.
Trucks that park on freeway off-ramps remain a concern. It’s an unsafe practice, illustrated precisely by what happened at the Highland rest area. Vehicles exiting the highway, sometimes at high speed, run the risk of colliding with vehicles parked along the off-ramp.
In the best-case scenario, if all the parked trucks are well off the traveled portion of the road, they should pose no risk at all. But we’ve all seen trucks parked haphazardly, with noses and tails sticking out on the road. Since we can’t guard against that, the practice should be banned and vigorously enforced.
In my opinion, the exits from the rest area leading back to the highway are significantly safer. Vehicles leaving the rest area are not traveling at high speed until they reach the merge with the freeway.
A scan of this rest area with Google Maps reveals 21 truck parking spaces in the westbound Silver Lake rest area. The ramp leading back to the highway from the parking area could probably accommodate about 20-25 trucks. It has a shoulder on the left side of the ramp, and further along, and shoulder on the right-hand side.
The shoulder is narrow, and split pavement/gravel, but if the on-ramp was widened and paved, the theoretical capacity of that site could be almost doubled.
Officials could even go a step further and paint lines designating the shoulder area as parking sites and installing signage to that effect. That would be much less expensive than building another entire rest area. And let’s be honest: Trucks already park there. Why don’t we do all we can to make that practice as safe as possible?
Drivers have been parking on highway and rest area on- and off-ramps as long as I can remember. I started driving back in 1978. That’s 45 years, and I’m quite sure the practice started long before I came along. We have been stewing over how to solve the problems for decades. Maybe it’s time we got over it and started think about ways to make it work.
My suggestions would be to widen those shoulders so they can safely accommodate trucks, set the pave shoulder back at least a few feet from the road, paint lines on the ground to outline a parking stall, and finally, prohibit parking on the inbound lanes to the rest area, while encouraging drivers to park on the on-ramps.
I think a lot could be done in terms of making the best use of the available real estate in many rest areas across the nation. As I illustrated here, the capacity could be doubled at a fraction of the cost of a new facility. And it sure would take years of political wrangling to get those additional spaces built.
ELDs Need Some Flexibility
The need for flexibility with electronic logging devices has been one of my major objections to mandating ELDs. I have no issues with electronic recording of drivers’ hours of service, but hard wiring the end of the driving shift is an incredibly short-sighted and frankly, dumb, idea. And this scenario plays out thousands of times every single night in this country.
Faced with a certain and indelible violation for exceeding the daily and possibly weekly driving limits, drivers must weigh the consequences of parking at potentially unsafe locations, or possibly giving up available driving time by stopping early to secure an available parking spot.
Figures published in various reports suggest drivers give up an average of 56 minutes of driving time per day, or up to $5,500 in potential earnings per year. That comes with a commensurate loss in truck productivity, too. That serves nobody well.
Delivering that flexibility wouldn’t be terribly difficult, technically, but I suspect the safety advocates would have no part of this.
The way I see it, if a driver had to exceed the daily limit by up to, say, 30 minutes, he or she would have to give up that same amount of time the following driving shift, ending it 30 minutes early. It would be easy enough to track electronically, and it would be of no particular advantage from a productivity perspective. It would simply allow a bit more time to find a safe place to park without putting the driver in violation.
The safety advocates were not at all happy when drivers’ workdays were extended to 11 hours of driving. They predicted all sorts of calamities, which haven’t come to pass. They seem to believe that drivers turn into pumpkins at the stroke of 11, but that of course is ridiculous.
Borrowing 30 minutes from the next driving shift could provide drivers a little more flexibility, but even that won’t be enough in many cases. There are simply too few places in strategic areas around the nation for trucks to park.
Figures from the Federal Highway Administration revealed a few years ago there were about 313,000 parking spaces for some 3.5 million trucks. Not all those trucks require overnight parking away from their terminals, but it’s still a frightening ratio.
Last fall, telematics and dash-cam supplier Lytx compiled a list of 20 of the most dangerous interstate and on/off ramp locations frequented by parked drivers. Pulled from nearly 50,000 truck parking events reported/tracked by Lytx in a two-week period, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and New Jersey ranked in the top five.
"The data helps to identify locations that need to be looked at and investigated for the problems that are leading drivers to park there," said Amir Sultan, the company’s lead product manager. "There could be many reasons for it, such as a lack of parking spaces, emergency situations, better tracking of empty parking spots, and more. Further investigations of these types of reasons could help in solving these problems in an optimal way."
Those locations would obviously be a great place to start developing more parking spaces, but there’s probably not a lot vacant real estate in those areas. Expropriating land is never popular, and the NIMBY crowds will do all in their power to oppose such development. Still, we know where the problem areas are. Let’s get to work fixing the problems.
Drifting to the Light
And I’ll leave you with curiosity. I’m not sure if there is any research to back this up, but I’m convinced there’s something going on in a half-asleep driver’s brain that actually cause them to steer toward lights or objects on an otherwise featureless horizon.
Consider how many crashes involve a single vehicle parked along a roadway, or even signs. The odds against hitting that lone parked vehicle randomly are impossibly high. There can be miles of open interstate, yet a sleepy driver will often strike a parked car or truck. Conventional wisdom says the parked vehicle should leave its lights on so other drivers can see it. What if leaving the lights on actually causes inattentive drivers to absentmindedly steer toward a light source?
In this case, the stretch of roadway leading to the rest area is straight and featureless for a couple of miles. The road curves gently to the right, and the exit ramp to the rest area nicely meshes with the curve in the road. Did the “bright lights” of the rest area somehow attract a possibly sleepy bus driver (if the driver was asleep; we still don’t know that)?
Reporters at the Journal-Times of Racine, Wisconsin, compiled some crash statistics that reveal an interesting picture. They note, “Last year, the California Department of Transportation released a study showing that from 2014 to 2018, 1,626 crashes in the state involved parked trucks, resulting in 131 deaths. A 2020 study by the Texas Department of Transportation found that from 2013 to 2017, 2,315 accidents involving parked trucks were blamed for 138 deaths.”
It has taken a huge amount of time, but Congress recently pledged nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars to help with the trucking industry’s parking problem. That public money funding what is really a commercial interest. We all pay to park out cars at airports and sporting events, and often right at home where we live. Yet somehow trucking thinks its parking problems should be paid for with the public purse, something I’ve written about before.
If the industry really want to solve the parking problem, it needs to get used to paying for parking. That’s why there’s a shortage in the first place. Once the private sector figures out it can make a little money from parking, we’ll have all the parking spaces we could ever need.