The investigation, which is being done at the request of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, targets a problem that has been plaguing the industry for years.
According to a 2009 study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the trucking industry considers time spent waiting at the dock to be the biggest inefficiency in the business. The agency put the cost to the industry at more than $3 billion a year, and the cost to society in general at more than $6.5 billion a year.
The problem is widespread, but owner-operators feel the burden particularly because as small businesses they often do not have a great deal of bargaining power with shippers and receivers. According to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, drivers spend from 30 to 40 hours per week waiting at docks for shippers or receivers to load or unload.
GAO's aim is to learn the extent of the problem and recommend steps to improve it. It is interviewing industry organizations, asking for input on the extent and causes of the problem.
One of the questions GAO is asking indicates concern about the safety implications of excessive waiting time: "To what extent does detention time affect commercial vehicle drivers' ability to adhere to the hours of service requirements?" If detention time cuts into driving time, it creates an incentive to violate the hours of service rules, the agency said.
* To what extent does detention time have an effect on driver compensation based on the category of commercial motor vehicle?
* Would uniform federal guidelines for compensation of drivers' detention time reduce inefficiencies or enhance safety?
* Could you provide examples of best practices within the industry that mitigate detention times?
"It's an issue that's been around for a long time and it's one that seems to elude any kind of reasonable fix," said Todd Spencer, executive vice President at OOIDA. "I doubt there's a lawmaker in Washington who hasn't received letters from truckers about problems with loading and unloading."
Spencer said the issue may be getting more attention as a result of regulatory initiatives under way at FMCSA, citing the ongoing rewrite of the hours of service rule, the pending tightening of enforcement under CSA 2010 and the imminent publication of a new requirement for electronic onboard recorders.
He said GAO investigators told him it will take a year to finish the report.