by Nick Fortuna
For many long-haul truck drivers, the last hour of the workday is consistently the most frustrating, and not just because they’re tired from being behind the wheel. According to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the average driver spends 56 minutes each day looking for a parking spot, an alarming figure that is driving down carrier productivity and driver morale.
To solve the problem, industry experts say government action is necessary at the local, state and national levels, including the creation of a dedicated funding mechanism for the construction of truck parking spaces as part of a broader infrastructure bill.
For an industry badly in need of drivers, a solution can’t come soon enough. The nearly one-hour search for parking each night costs the average driver about $5,000 annually in lost wages since drivers typically aren’t paid for out-of-route mileage, according to ATRI, the trucking industry’s not-for-profit research organization.
That sizeable financial hit, coupled with the lifestyle demands of the over-the-road sector, leads many drivers to seek another line of work. The industry currently needs 60,000 more drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations, and that shortfall is expected to reach 100,000 over the next five years.
“This is a major source of stress and frustration for drivers, and it’s one of the reasons why a lot of them just don’t want to do that over-the-road pass,” said Darrin Roth, ATA’s vice president for highway policy. “A lot of those drivers are either leaving the industry altogether or are going to short haul, where they can go home every night and they don’t have to deal with this problem.”
ATRI’s annual report “Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry” highlights how the lack of available parking impacts the industry as a whole. According to the 2020 edition, parking problems ranked as the most important industry issue for commercial drivers.
ATRI Senior Vice President Daniel Murray said increasing parking capacity is a key to driver retention, especially since over-the-road drivers already are dealing with the frustration of being away from home for long stretches.
In the 2019 report, compensation was the No. 1 issue for drivers, and truck parking is contributing to the frustration there, said Murray. “Oftentimes, parking frustration is the last straw, the nail in the coffin, for drivers. They face a lot of issues – quality of life, lack of respect, compensation – but the frustration of truck parking is what finally makes them leave the industry and find a different job.”
Roth said the lack of truck parking is especially acute in the densely packed Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, California, Texas and in the Southeast near big cities such as Atlanta, Tampa and Miami. “Basically, anywhere with a large population,” he said.
Parking issues lead to wasted fuel and more greenhouse gas emissions as drivers futilely search full lots for parking spaces and then move on to the next location, Roth said. Many drivers shut down for the night with about an hour left in their hours of service because they expect to have difficulty finding parking, so carriers aren’t getting full utilization of their employees or equipment, he said.
PARKING AS A SAFETY ISSUE
The lack of available parking creates a dangerous and costly dilemma for truck drivers, who often are forced to drive beyond allowable hours-of-service rules or park in unauthorized and unsafe locations, according to ATRI. When drivers can’t find parking at private truck stops or public rest stops, they often park on highway shoulders or ramps, in retail-store parking lots or in abandoned lots.
The results can be tragic. On March 4, 2009, driver Jason Rivenburg was murdered for the $7 in his wallet after stopping for the night at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina. He had stopped there because his delivery destination, some 12 miles away, wasn’t yet open to receive deliveries, and other truck drivers had said the gas station was a safe place to park.
The murder led to the passage of Jason’s Law, which makes truck parking a “national priority” and seeks “to improve the safety of motorized and non-motorized users and for commercial motor vehicle operators.”
Jason’s Law, part of the 2012 federal transportation bill, requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a survey and comparative assessment in consultation with relevant state motor carrier representatives. The goal is to evaluate the capability of each state to provide adequate parking and rest facilities for trucks, assess the volume of commercial motor vehicle traffic in each state and develop metrics to measure the adequacy of commercial motor vehicle parking facilities in each state.
Findings from the original Jason’s Law survey, published in 2013, included:
- For 39 percent of drivers, finding parking routinely takes an hour or longer.
- Drivers who couldn’t find parking at a rest area or private truck stop saw well-lit shopping areas as the next-best option due to safety concerns. However, drivers said they feared that law enforcement would either ask them to leave or give them a citation if they parked in these areas.
- Eighty-eight percent of drivers said they had felt unsafe while parked during mandatory rest periods or while waiting for pickup or delivery of a load over the prior 12 months.
The 2015 Jason’s Law report revealed other unnerving survey results. Ninety percent of drivers said the lack of available parking forced them to drive past the point where they felt safe and alert either “sometimes,” “often” or “on a regular basis.” Only 10 percent of drivers said they “never” or “rarely” drove beyond that point due to parking issues. Similarly, 74 percent of drivers said they had to park in an unauthorized or undesignated space at least once or twice a week.
Results from the most recent Jason’s Law survey were to be made public early this year, according to Jeff Purdy, a transportation specialist with the Federal Highway Administration’s Freight Management and Operations office. During a Jan. 15 presentation at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, Purdy said more than 8,000 truck drivers participated in the new survey.
“Truck parking is emerging as a very key safety issue,” Purdy said during his presentation. “We’re finding that nationwide, there’s a severe shortage of truck parking. Truck volumes continue to increase, and we have more and more commerce being moved by truck.”
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
Private truck stops would like to expand parking capacity wherever there is demand, but they face many obstacles, said Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman, vice president for public affairs at NATSO, formerly the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. Sometimes there isn’t suitable real estate available for purchase, or the land is too expensive, especially on the East Coast and in urban areas, she said.
“Our members constantly run into walls from state and local governments when they try to expand,” Wlazlowski Neuman said. “The industry often deals with conflicting public policies and messages concerning truck stops and truck parking. Federal and state governments, for example, recognize and emphasize the importance of adequate truck stops, but these facilities are often opposed by local governments and residents.
“Governments sometimes condition their approval of a new, expanded parking facility on the business owner’s agreement to fund improvements to an interchange. Furthermore, many municipal governments act to keep trucks outside their borders and even out of private facilities by way of truck route restrictions and other hindrances.”
A number of states, industry stakeholders and private companies are addressing the issue through technology aimed at informing drivers where parking is available. Thanks to a $25 million federal grant, eight states in the Midwest were able to develop a multistate truck parking information and management system. It disseminates parking information through electronic signs, traveler information websites and smartphone apps, focusing on parking facilities along Interstate 80.
As drivers near truck parking facilities, the smartphone app lets them know whether parking is available, without drivers having to take their eyes or hands off the wheel. They also can check on parking availability at more-distant facilities so they can plan their trips better.
“It’s about getting information about how much parking is available into the hands of the truck driver,” said Phil Mescher, transportation planner with Iowa DOT. “The driver can then make good choices about whether to go ahead and pick a parking spot now or risk going another 30 minutes. There are coalitions that are forming among certain states to address this issue, and there’s also coordination with private truck stops. This is a national problem, and it’s getting noticed.”
Similarly, the Truck Parking Leadership Initiative, which includes the NATSO, ATA and ATRI, have combined to launch the Park My Truck app, which offers information on parking availability at more than 4,500 truck stops and rest areas in the United States. Apps launched by private companies allow drivers to reserve parking spots for a fee, but most carriers don’t reimburse drivers for parking, and drivers are reluctant to pay, said Roth of the ATA.
“Truck stops have offered free parking to drivers for decades, so it would take a lot for truck stops that are competing with each other to make that change and then for drivers to accept it,” Roth said. “It’s a potential solution, but it’s going to take a significant cultural shift before that’s going to happen.”
There are some simple initiatives that could increase parking capacity, Roth said, including allowing trucks to park at closed weigh stations and in commuter lots that are only utilized during the daytime.
“There are a number of things that can be done, and some of them are fairly low-hanging fruit,” Roth said. “But it’s going to take a lot of different things. There’s no one single thing that will solve this problem.”