We have all read the surveys and have heard the many complaints from the trucking industry about the parking shortage in this country. The solution is always the same -- build more and bigger rest areas. However, such a simplistic solution ignores the real problem behind the so-called "parking shortage" and the much larger issue of driver fatigue: the economic pressures placed upon drivers to keep their wheels turning.
The manner in which drivers are compensated, coupled with demands placed upon them by shippers, requires drivers to keep going until the very end of their legal driving day (or in the case of those who violate the rules, until they reach the point of fatigue). Taking their trucks out of service a bit early to take advantage of safe parking is not an option for most of today's drivers, because every hour a truck sits idle translates into about 40-50 miles' worth of lost wages for the driver and lost profits for the trucking company.
Is it these economic pressures or a lack of parking that cause some drivers and companies to violate hours of service regulations and falsify logbooks?
Changing hours of service regulations or building new parking places will not make anyone safer until the trucking industry's corporate culture properly aligns safety interests with its economic interests. Today, trucking companies instruct drivers where to go to buy the cheapest fuel. Unfortunately, these same companies do not use any of their logistical capabilities to tell drivers where they can park their truck to rest safely, securely and legally.
There are exceptions, however, as detailed in an article appearing in the February 14 issue of Transport Topics. The captain of America's Road Team was quoted as saying that on a two-week trip from Vermont to the West Coast and back, he was able to find parking with careful planning. He said, "Less experienced drivers, or drivers who work for carriers that put a lot of pressure on them, tend to have trouble finding places to park."
The principles of supply and demand reveal, in fact, that no systemic parking shortage exists. Providing free parking for the trucking industry is expensive - a typical truckstop must spend approximately $100,000 to convert one acre of land into parking for approximately 20 trucks. That same operator will spend another $7,500 to $10,000 to maintain and secure that acre over the course of a year. Despite this high cost, more than 90 percent of truck stop parking is free. How many other products or services are expensive to provide, yet are given away even though in high demand? None. If a shortage truly existed, truckstop entrepreneurs would be charging fees to park.
For those who continue to insist more parking is needed, rest areas are the last place additional spaces should be constructed. Rest areas are not secure, and many provide breeding grounds for violent crime and theft. Furthermore, only 7 percent of drivers reported they prefer rest area parking for long-term sleep, according to a 1999 survey by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. Likewise, the 1996 American Trucking Associations rest area study found most truckers preferred to stop at truckstops for long-term rest. A survey released last year by the NATSO Foundation reported that while most drivers feel safe at truckstops, few shared that sentiment about rest areas.
The push for more rest area parking could actually threaten both the trucking and truck stop industries. A recently released National Transportation Safety Board report suggested that states could fund more parking by commercializing rest areas. There is no question that the truckstop industry would be devastated. Interchange businesses could not compete against an entity selected by the state to offer services on a convenient highway shoulder. Most of these businesses would close down.
Truckstops would not be the only ones to suffer. Fewer interchange businesses would create a severe parking drought. The rest area monopolies would be selected solely because they are willing to pay the state the highest fee. As a result, trucking companies and truck drivers would pay higher costs for products and services.
Those who demand more rest area parking should consider whether they really would like to replace the current truckstop industry with the commercialized facilities such as those found on this nation's toll roads. Very few of these facilities cater to the professional driver. In fact, a few years ago Maryland even attempted to ban trucks altogether from its two commercialized facilities on I-95.
It is unrealistic to expect that the government or the private sector will be able to guarantee that a safe, legal parking place will be available for drivers the minute they reach the end of their legal driving day. A more realistic approach is to stop pressuring or financially penalizing a driver from bypassing safe parking opportunities, just so he or she can go a little further down the road before calling it a night.
NATSO, Alexandria, Va., is a professional association representing the nation's travel plazas and truckstops, which provide more than 250,000 parking spaces nationwide. The preceding views are those of NATSO and do not necessarily represent those of Newport Communications