Oh boy, down time!

| April 01, 2006

Because dropped trailers can pose a security risk these days, it’s harder to leave a truckstop and find outside entertainment.

It’s all about attitude.

Downtime far from the house just doesn’t seem fair. But it is inevitable. It is as much a part of the trucking life as loading, route planning, driving and pulling into scales.

There is a pop psychology refrain that goes something like this: If you think something is going to be unpleasant, it probably will be. So the way you look at your downtime on the road may just be the single biggest factor in determining whether that time is “good” time or “bad” time marked by rising frustration, discomfort, boredom, tension and the like.

Truckers mostly don’t like downtime because they’d rather be home or making money. But a bad attitude about it can cost even more when it causes your blood pressure to climb. Trucking companies don’t like downtime because sitting trucks hurt the bottom line. But hours of service regulations say no. And even the most meticulously managed freight logistics system will have gaps that spell downtime for drivers.

“Sitting is a bummer. It’s something every driver doesn’t want,” says Ohio Northern Transit driver Harold Allen of Cleveland, Ohio, while spending his Sunday at a truckstop in South Florida. “It can’t be avoided: not over the weekends when it’s tough to get loads out of some places.”

Handling downtime is a hot issue among drivers. It’s not always easy to stay comfortable, relaxed and upbeat in a situation that will feed on the first signs of a bad attitude. After seeing constantly changing scenery for days, staring at the same old things – especially the inside of a cab or a truckstop – for even a few days can present a challenge, especially far from home.

But downtime is part of the job description. Handling it effectively and professionally is the best approach. A wise driver will try to see the bright side and make the best of it. If you see it as time and money lost, you’re bound to feel frustrated and trapped. But if you anticipate it, prepare for it and think of it as a natural part of the job, you’ll be free to relax and maybe even have fun.

A layover of a few hours or even 34 hours can give you time to catch up on sleep or paperwork, unwind from the stress of the road, chat on the phone with your family without interruption, read your favorite magazines, watch a movie you’ve been wanting to see, or clean the truck.

Relaxation is not a natural asset, such as breathing or eating. It’s not something we do automatically, without thinking. Many people find it hard to relax, and some never manage to do it. Waiting at a truckstop doing nothing is not the same as relaxing. But waiting at a truckstop with the right attitude can bring relaxation. And with it comes a lowering of your levels of stress, anxiety, frustration and anger.

In other words, your downtime – the same downtime as the unrelaxed driver in the truck parked next to you with the black smoke of frustration pouring out of his ears – is beneficial, not destructive, to your physical and emotional health.

Like Allen, Dave and Rachel Brown are spending their weekend more than 1,000 miles from their home in Denver. The Browns accept downtime as a job-related task and handle it the best they can.

“Driving is more than a job,” says Dave, who’s been driving “off and on all my life” and now hauls for Western Distributing Transportation in Denver. “It’s a lifestyle. A lot of guys want to be home on the weekends, but truckers can’t be home on weekends.”

He knows what he and Rachel want. “We’d rather be running down the road,” Dave says.

Most trucking companies give drivers layover pay. It’s not much, and it’s not supposed to be. “Otherwise drivers would be laying over all the time,” Dave says.

He appreciates the layover pay Western Distributing gives him. “At least it’s something,” he says. “It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. It’ll pay for groceries and a little entertainment.”

Dave is a seasoned pro at handling downtime confined to a truckstop.

“In my truck I have a flat-screen television, a DVD player, a VCR, satellite television and radio, a refrigerator, a microwave and a coffee maker, plus a few other toys, too,” he says.

His wife Rachel, who rides along, does the best she can with downtime. “Sometimes I don’t handle it very well, especially if it’s been raining like it has around here. You can’t even get out of the truck and walk around or anything,” she says. “The satellite television helps a lot.”

Rachel puts her restless energy to work, too. “We clean the truck,” she says. “During downtime is when the truck gets good and clean.”

Another way to eat up downtime is surfing the Internet. Among his other toys, Dave keeps a laptop computer in the truck. It runs on batteries and has a wireless Internet plug-in about the size of a matchbox car sticking out the side: no wires to worry about.

“About all the cell phone companies have a little wireless card you can plug in, and it’s like being on the cell phone,” Dave says. “We can get online anywhere there’s cell phone coverage.” Dave says his wireless provider charged a service start-up fee, and now he pays about $80 a month for unlimited wireless Internet access.

“Do you know how much time a laptop computer will eat up?” he says. “If there’s anything in the world you want to know, it’s on the Internet. All you need is the time and the patience to look it up.”

When the Browns can’t run down the big roads, they substitute with the information superhighway. “You can find something you enjoy or something you’re interested in,” Dave says. “She spends so much time on the computer it’s not even funny.”

The Browns have learned to consider each other during downtime.

“It takes a very unique couple to get along in tight quarters,” Dave says. “You’re bound to get on each other’s nerves. You have to find ways to get away from each other just to give each other their own space and privacy.”

“Sometimes we have to get away from each other so we don’t kill each other,” Rachel says. “I came in here last night and played video games while he was sleeping. Then he got up early this morning and went out for a smoke.”

Truckstops offer some relief for boredom – television, books, audiobooks, video games. Still, all of that can get old with regular downtime.

“You can only watch television so long, read so many books and play so many video games,” Dave says. “That’s kind of a problem because not many places are trucker friendly anymore.”

Getting out of the truckstop to do something fun isn’t easy, says Rachel. “There’s never anything close to the truckstops where you can do something,” she says. “You can bobtail, but if you want to drop your trailer, you have to get permission.”

“It’s a security issue to drop the trailers in the truckstops now,” Dave says.

One way to keep a good attitude during downtime is to remember there’s always somebody worse off than you.

“We saw some people in a truck parked near us yesterday,” Rachel says. “There were two parents and five kids in there. It’s rough enough on an adult. I can’t imagine having five kids along. Who knows what they did with their downtime?”

The most important thing to remember is that downtime is not time off. Truckers are on call 24/7 during downtime. That means no partying or straying far from the truck without clearing it with headquarters and probably handing over the keys.

If a co-worker’s spouse gets sick and you’re the closest available re-power, but you have a belly full of beer and are 20 miles away from the truck, you’ll likely be fired, and it will be hard to get another job. It’s that simple. During downtime, stay sober and near the truck, and be ready to go.

That means take care of business before turning the television dial to the NASCAR channel or putting an epic movie in the DVD player.

“I get fuel and shower if I need to, maybe get something to eat, catch up on my logs or wash clothes,” Allen says. “When I get my chores done, I watch television, or I like to play the PGA Tour Guide video game.”

Less experienced drivers would be smart to heed these tips for handling downtime.

“This is my first trip out over the road from driving locally for three years, and I forgot all about the downtime,” says Alltrans Logistics company driver Henry Neufeld of Port Burwell, Ontario, Canada. “If I could, I’d be fishing or golfing,” Neufeld says. “But I haven’t been out here in a long time, and I don’t know what to do. The food is too expensive, so you can’t sit and relax in the restaurant.”

But Neufeld has his own suggestion for downtime well spent. “I’d like it if they had a weight room or an exercise room where you can burn off some this sitting-behind-the-wheel fat,” he says. “Ninety percent of truckers are overweight because they don’t get any exercise, so the best thing they could do is get on a treadmill or something like that.”

Many truckstops are offering more entertainment options all the time, so look for more ways to ease downtime (like exercise equipment) in the future. In this age of simple, easy, affordable access to the information superhighway, cell phones, movies, television, video games, plus the many tasks that a trucker needs to handle during downtime, it’s looking more and more like an opportunity for serious professionals to put their lives and trucks in order and then have a little fun.

So think of your downtime like a glass of water. If you consider it half full rather than half empty, you’ll be doing yourself, your mind, your body and eventually your paycheck a favor.

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