Breaking Free

Todd Dills | September 01, 2011

In the intervening years, the rise of computing and communications technology eased accounting and registration procedures. Load information became available online by the end of the century. By the early ’90s, nearly every state was a part of both the International Registration Plan and the International Fuel Tax Agreement, eliminating much paperwork. Prior to IFTA, Margeson says, “we had to send in a quarterly report for each state we ran. If we ran 32 states in a quarter, we had to make out 32 quarterly reports.”

As the industry changed, so, too, did Overdrive. When Parkhurst sold the magazine in the mid-’80s to Randall Publishing Co., the company refocused the content toward helping readers refine their business practices.

2000 – Present: The ‘enforcement industry’ arises

When historians look back on the first decade of the 21st century in trucking, no doubt the fuel-price shocks and the 2008 economic meltdown will play large. But some owner-operators and leasing carriers were prepared for both, having experienced variations on those themes for years.

What might figure more largely is an “industry,” as Spencer calls it, surrounding safety enforcement. Since the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program emerged in the early ’80s, throwing trucking enforcement money at states – “well over $300 million a year right now,” he says – intrusions into owner-operators’ businesses in the name of safety have increased.

That extends to truckers’ day-to-day relationships with law enforcement. In spite of the long-held outlaw image of the independent trucker of the ’60s and ’70s, Spencer says, “at night, the best friends a cop could have were the truck drivers. The truckers would be the first people to stop and help” in an emergency.

Margeson says the relationship “went sour from about 1985 on up to the present date. About the only thing you could get stopped for back in the day was speeding. If you got stopped for that, they might ask you for a log book. Other than that, your DOT checks – then called ICC checks – came in the fall of the year,” and again in the spring. Today, Margeson adds, it’s not unusual to get checked two or three times on a short run. “They do it in the name of safety, but now it’s more of a money deal for the states.”

Safety ratings based on compliance reviews became the norm for carriers when the SafeStat program emerged with the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2000. The events of 9/11 increased scrutiny of all drivers, whether hauling sensitive freight or applying for a general-freight lease. SafeStat’s successor, the recently instituted Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, takes safety rating to an unprecedented level, providing monthly updates to a carrier’s safety rankings based on inspection and crash data.

If the FMCSA gets its way, individual drivers, too, will come under a similar public ranking system in the future. True independents could receive dual numerical rankings as both carrier and driver.

The current decade could bring more of what the last one did. Challenges abound, both regulatory and otherwise: hours-of-service revision, onboard recorder mandates, tighter health restrictions for CDL holders, increasing congestion, long wait times at shippers and receivers, fraud among fly-by-night brokerages.

Partly for some of those reasons Marion, Ind.-based owner-operator Mike Long traded his independent business model for the safety net of leasing to a carrier, he says. In 2008, he leased to Landstar.

Long echoes many operators when he says he wouldn’t trade a business he calls “his life” for anything. “My dad made money in his day,” he says. “But you can still make money today, taking everything into consideration. There’s no way I’d want to run a single-rear-axle gas-engine truck on springs, no power steering, no A/C on U.S. 40” across the country.

“Certainly trucking can be a hard life,” says Spencer, “but some of the most wonderful people in the world are attracted to this business – it attracts people who want to work hard” and succeed. For that, the owner-operator career remains a prime example of the nation’s opportunities for self-employment.

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