The parking plan

| February 03, 2008

Preparations for shutting down begin before you start the day.

Stepped-up enforcement of roadside no-parking zones, fewer public rest area spaces, imposed time limits in rest areas and on shoulders: these are but a few of the parking hassles drivers face routinely.

Ron Donnelly, owner-operator of Refrigerated American Delivery Services in Sacramento, Calif., says the rise in congestion can be held responsible. He’s been driving for more than 30 years and has seen it firsthand. “Twenty years ago there were many more parking places,” he says. “You could park just about anywhere you wanted to, on the roadside.”

More parking is needed in high-traffic lanes, for certain. The best study of the parking needs of truck drivers was a federal effort, the result of a driver survey and other info collected in the early part of this decade. It’s more than five years old, now, but it estimated an apparent shortage of spaces in both truckstops and rest areas in six states, and shortages in rest areas in the vast majority of states, particularly in high-traffic lanes. Over the same time period, a concurrent American Trucking Associations report noted, the feds made money available to states for the express purpose of expanding truck parking options. But ATA has said more recently that only one state had accepted any federal cash for this purpose.

Not-in-my-backyard sentiments have kept truck parking off state budget priorities lists nationwide. Truckstops may have taken up the slack – or not. It depends where you are. One thing is clear: the responsibility for finding parking before you’re out of hours is on you, and conscientious drivers know the score. Regardless of whether you’re on a regional dedicated haul or coast-to-coast irregular route, where you park should be one of your chief concerns. It could mean the difference between a good night’s sleep and an early wake-up call from Smokey.

Know where you’ll be
Largely, whether you can find a good parking space or not is a function of the time of day you shut down. “Nowadays if you’re not at the truckstop by 6 p.m. you might have a tough time getting in,” says San Antonio, Texas-based owner-operator Leonard Martin, who’s leased to Arnold Transportation. “We’ve got all these ‘solar-powered trucks’ today. As soon as the sun goes down they’ve got to park.”

Jokes aside, Martin says he doesn’t at all mind running nights, and if his delivery and load times will allow it, he’ll get on a night driving schedule to get that truckstop space, pulling in at 8 a.m or later, well after most drivers have left for the road.

Operational decisions like these can be the key to getting the space you want. Owner-operator Martin prefers the amenities a large truckstop offers to living exclusively out of the truck, as do many drivers. “I’m not a big fan of rest areas,” he says. “Sometimes you want to get out of the truck. If you’re in a big Flying J, you can go inside and stretch out and watch their TV for a while. People will surely look at you funny if you’re hanging around outside a rest area bathroom.”

Late-night driving also allows Martin to accurately pinpoint where he’ll be when he’s out of hours, not always a reliable option. “I never know where I’m going to be,” says owner-operator Buck Landry, dedicated to Premiere Chemical and leased to L&B Transport. The Pierre Part, La., native runs the southern portion of the country often, and “since Rita,” he says, “you might hit Houston and spend three hours getting through there. New Orleans is horrible since Katrina.”

Still, advance contingency planning is possible, and owner-operator Donnelly says this is a decisive element of any successful parking plan. “You need a back-up plan,” he says. “If the truckstops are full and the rest areas are full, you have to have an alternative place to park.”

Before you start your day, take the time to pinpoint where you expect to be and the ideal parking spot along that route. If you drive for or are leased to a larger carrier, know the location of its terminals. Online you can visit the searchable truckstop directory hosted by the National Association of Truckstop Operators to find alternate truckstops, and work with maps and state DOT websites for potential rest areas.

Special programs like ProMiles or PC Miler can help with planning as well, and the “Find Businesses” function in Google Maps is relatively reliable when you’re looking for large truckstops.

If you’ll be within range of a customer at the end of the day’s haul, call ahead to inquire about parking facilities on their site. But always be sure to locate potential alternates within a 50-mile radius, particularly if your route takes you around Atlanta or Chicago at rush hour – or if you’re scheduled to load or unload along the way. Landry says hold-ups at customer facilities in his niche business, bulk hazmat hauling, routinely eat into his driving time. “Unloading and loading is my biggest killer,” he says. “Logging all that time waiting on-duty, non-driving, almost always starts to cut into my driving time. That in itself makes parking hard to predict.”

The rigid 14-hour window of the revised hours-of-service regulations has created this chink in the parking plan, many drivers say. They argue that some shippers’ inability to adapt to the more stringent window of opportunity for driving has put a strain on the ability to find a parking space, leaving far too many drivers starting their days, arriving on-site and waiting for loads all at the same time. In this view, the new HOS might have added to the glut of “solar-powered trucks” Leonard Martin is seeing.

Use your head when you get there
John Vohl of St. Petersburg, Fla., company driver for Florida Eastern Express, has driven over-the-road for 23 years. He says there’s no substitute for intuition when you’re out of hours and running out of options for a parking space: “If I go to a truckstop and it’s closed, I can always find another place to park.” Having allowed for plenty of time, he’ll typically use his GPS device to locate a nearby grocery store or other large store and “eat right out of the truck.”

But at the next exit up the interstate the situation may be different, too. “I’ll get on the CB,” says owner-operator Landry, “and see what it’s like up the road.”

Some non-truckstop businesses might be friendly to truck parking, and talking to a busy truckstop’s manager might help in making room for you, Vohl says. “They want you to park there.”

Non-truckstop spaces aren’t really an option for Landry, who hauls bulk hazmat. “I have to find what is called a safe haven – the only place I can park is a big truckstop, pretty much,” he says. He can’t use rest areas because of the presence of children or pull over on the side of the road for fear of someone hitting him. “I can’t just stop in some little mom-and-pop store,” he says.

If you do find yourself in a rest area, mind the time limit signs and use your CB to talk to drivers who’ve been there before: they may save you from a ticket. Some states, like Virginia, says owner-operator Martin, have really come out in force to issue citations for exceeding codified parking time limits at their rest areas in recent years. “They’ve got a guy at the rest area putting hash marks on your tires marking the hours you’ve been sitting there,” Martin says. “Used to be if a guy’s just sitting there sleeping they’d leave you alone. There’s more to it than that, though – a lot of it’s the driver’s behavior. If you give them a reason to enforce it, they will.”

The federal government’s 2002 truck parking study noted that, among 25 states that have some parking time limits in rest areas, only six states routinely enforced them, but that number may be different today. The same 2002 study actually recommended an uptick in enforcement to ensure the ready availability of spaces for short breaks, most drivers’ preferred use of public rest areas.

But Martin adds that during the winter the paucity of RVers in rest areas makes them a relatively attractive option for longer breaks. “This time of year you’ve got less people traveling,” he says, “so there’s a lot of opportunity for the driver. During the summer everything’s so overpopulated with Winnebagos and everything else, you don’t even want to go in there.”

Suzanne Roquemore, team owner-operator with her husband John, is responsible for the CoopsAreOpen.com website, a nationwide directory of state scales. She has recently begun adding parking information to the site. “I know firsthand that Florida and Georgia have parking facilities at their scales,” Suzanne said in December, before she embarked on collecting the information. More recently she’s found California to be surprisingly accomodating.

It’s possible you’ll see as many trucks parked there involuntarily as the opposite, as Suzanne notes that many drivers stay away from these facilities due to fear of DOT inspection. But as Leonard Martin says, if you don’t give them cause to inspect you in the first place, you can likely rest easy. If the truckstops and rest areas are full, weigh stations might be a viable, safe long-term parking option.

In a pinch, RBX driver Bill Marcola, of Byron, Ga., says he’s slept on highway on- or off-ramps. If you have to do it, he says, for safety “park on an entrance ramp. Other vehicles aren’t at full-speed there, whereas on an exit ramp they’re coming at you at highway speeds.”

But he warns that, depending on your location, it might be illegal – signs should be posted, but they aren’t always. “Once a state trooper came and told me I had to leave,” says Marcola. “He said it was a $1,000 fine if I stayed. He didn’t give me a ticket. He just told me I had to go someplace else. He was an older state trooper, and he just wanted to be friendly.”

Next time, that trooper might not want any such thing.
- Andy Haraldson contributed to this report.


For more information:
NATSO Truckstop Directory, www.natso.com, click “For Drivers,” then “Truckstop Directory”
Google Maps, maps.google.com
ProMiles, (800) 324-8588, www.promiles.com
PC Miler, www.axonsoftware.com
Coops Are Open, www.coopsareopen.com

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