No Rest For The Weary

Finding a parking space for every trucker remains an elusive and complex goal as parking shortages persist, studies conflict, rest area commercialization looms and hours reform mandates longer rests.

When trucker Jim Heaton drove all 48 states, he hated delivering in Virginia. Traffic was bad. Truck stops filled up quickly. And, if he was unlucky enough to run out of hours and stop at a state-owned rest area, he faced fines for overstaying the state’s two-hour truck parking limit.

“As far as Virginia goes, if I am unable to park in a truck stop, I keep driving until I am out of the state, even if this means violating hours-of-service rules,” Heaton says. “If I am picking up or delivering a load in that state and am short of hours for the day, I often seek permission to park on the shipper’s or receiver’s lot.”

Heaton is one of thousands of truckers who at night face a daunting task: finding a parking space before truck stops and rest areas fill up. Those who fail must risk parking on ramps and overpasses or continue to drive fatigued, sometimes out of hours. The problem is most serious around Northeastern cities, but truck drivers trying to make tight delivery schedules say parking shortages exist outside cities nationwide. Despite two major federal studies, scant progress has been made, and a proposal by the Bush Administration could make the problem much worse, according to truck stop owners.


Seven years ago, a federal study found a substantial shortage of parking spaces – 28,400 – along interstate highways. Truckers told surveyors that long-term and overnight parking was particularly hard to find. The study called for “creative resolution by both the public and private sectors” and concluded that “failure to solve the truck parking shortage could pose significant risks to the traveling public by forcing tired drivers to continue driving or park on inherently dangerous locations such as ramps and shoulders.”

The truck stop industry disputes the conclusions of the 1996 study, conducted by the Federal Highway Administration, even though some truck stop owners acknowledged parking shortages. NATSO, an association representing truck stops and travel plazas, found fault with the methodology as well as the conclusions, even though truckers insisted the problem was real.

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When the FHWA updated the 1996 study last year, its new findings lent support to NATSO’s position: There is an overall surplus of parking spaces at truck stops – as many as 18,000 spaces nationwide every night. But most of those vacancies are found in low-traffic areas away from the East Coast. The new study also found that the parking problems in high-demand areas are not due entirely to a shortage of spaces.

“Most places are too crowded,” says owner-operator and Plattville, La.-resident Cecil Eaves. “If you’re driving on the East Coast, you can forget it.” Eaves says he used to park on overpasses and ramps before he began pulling tankers for Landstar Ranger, which prohibits such parking practices.

The apparent contradiction in what truckers such as Eaves see on the road and what surveyors find at truck stops has to do in part with the same three things that sell houses: location, location, location. Much of this relates to trip planning and delivery schedules, says Lisa Mullings, vice president of public affairs for NATSO. “It’s a very complex issue,” Mullings says. “What shortages there are exist mostly around urban areas. Land is harder to get and more expensive, for obvious reasons. Then there’s the issue of just-in-time deliveries.”

JIT requirements and an increase in truck traffic indeed have worsened parking shortages. Truckers who have early morning pickups or deliveries like to stage within 50 miles of their destination, often in an urban area. That’s also where most of the truck stops are located and where most of the parking problems exist, say truck drivers and their carriers.

“The Northeast region is the worst region to find parking in,” says trucker Heaton. “In any large metro area, the parking situation is extremely poor within a 50- to 100-mile radius of the large city, especially after 6 or 7 p.m.”

But parking can be a problem even outside of large urban areas. For example, when the Virginia DOT studied Virginia’s I-81 corridor, which stretches from Bristol, Tenn. to Winchester, Va., last year, it found:

  • 95 percent of truckers thought the number of truck parking spaces along I-81 was inadequate for overnight parking.
  • 59 percent said there wasn’t enough parking during daytime hours, either.
  • 10 percent of truck drivers said they would park along the roadway if there were no parking available at a rest area or truck stop.
  • As truck stops fill up, truckers who are running out of service hours begin looking for space anywhere they can find it – often putting themselves and the companies they haul for in danger when they park on a ramp or shoulder. Courts and juries routinely side against trucking companies in wrecks where a motorist has hit a truck parked in an emergency lane; trucking lawyers say the motorist having an emergency has a right to the emergency lane, but not a trucker who parks there due to fatigue or an hours-of-service problem. Even drunk motorists have won such cases.


    When truck stops are full, rest areas are an option, though much more limited and overcrowded. Truck drivers generally prefer truck stops because of the convenience and services. Truckers tell surveyors they prefer rest areas for briefer stops, such as for bathroom breaks and quick naps.

    The FHWA study completed last year inventoried the 1,487 rest areas and found:

  • Half of the rest areas are full or overflowing during the day; 80 percent have no empty spaces at night.
  • Rest areas reach capacity before truck stops.
  • Recreational vehicles and cars park in truck spaces at rest areas, reducing availability.
  • Rest areas are often poorly designed.
  • 42 percent of public rest areas have a parking time limit.
  • The study failed to address the frequent state closings of rest areas; an informal Overdrive survey of states found rest area closings in Arkansas, Virginia, Wisconsin, California, Ohio and Minnesota, among others. California and Minnesota have flirted with closing their facilities because of budget woes.

    Some high-traffic states are moving in the opposite direction. Ohio, for example, reopened two rest areas along I-75 north of Cincinnati. The number of truck parking spaces at the rest areas doubled. Kentucky and other states are also adding truck parking at public rest areas.

    Meanwhile, NATSO says its members have added spaces even in a bad economy. Truck stop owners told FHWA last year they planned to add by 2005 as many as 15 percent more parking spaces – nearly 28,000, which is as much as the 1996 study found was needed at that time.

    Still, some studies have concluded that adding parking is not always the way for truck stops to deal with the problem. “Sometimes they need more spaces,” Mullings says. “Sometimes they need more signage or need reconfiguration.”

    In an investigation of shortages along I-95 in the Baltimore metropolitan area three years ago, government officials and trucking industry groups found plenty of available parking along much of the route where truckers were parking on road shoulders.

    “That threw us off,” recalls Jocelyn Jones, a planner with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Truck stop owners began tracking parking in their lots and the state’s police began tracking the problem along ramps and overpasses. The group agreed to improve I-95 signage to better direct truckers to truck stops. The state also distributed to truckers a map of truck stop locations.

    The efforts appear to be “ineffective,” says Walter Thompson, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. “The problem isn’t from a lack spaces,” he says. “For one reason or another, truckers don’t want to get off the interstate.”

    He blames owner-operators, mainly, saying that fleets understand the liability of parking on roadsides and owner-operators do not. This isn’t entirely borne out by government research. In the 1996 parking study, 80 percent of carrier executives said their drivers who can’t park at rest areas or truck stops will instead park at shipper locations, shopping center parking lots and “the entrance and exit ramps of interstates.”


    While leading truck drivers to parking doesn’t seem to be working, the Bush administration proposes to lead parking to the truckers. In its highway funding proposal, the administration is asking Congress to allow some state-owned rest areas to be commercialized. The proposal, part of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003, or SAFE-TEA, would set up an unspecified number of pilot programs turning rest areas into commercial “oases,” as they are sometimes called, similar to those found on European highways and some U.S. toll roads. The administration expects commercial entities would add services and parking spaces.

    Truck stop and convenience store operators say the measure could put many of them out of business and give an unfair advantage to the commercial entities that win government contracts. “Frankly, we’re scratching our heads over this bill,” NATSO’s Mullings says. “They says it’s going to increase parking, when we know it will have the opposite effect.” A NATSO-funded study, conducted by the University of Maryland and released this year, projects a 50 percent cut in revenues to existing interstate businesses if commercialization is allowed. The American Trucking Associations has partnered with NATSO to fight the proposal.

    A 1960 law banned commercial facilities on interstate right-of-ways, except where they already existed. The few that remain are mostly in Northeastern states, like Maryland and Pennsylvania, and are on toll roads and turnpikes. “We actually counted parking spaces where those commercialized rest areas are,” Mullings says. “The total number of parking spaces was 50 percent less on those routes (than on routes without commercialized rest areas).”

    NATSO maintains that such commercial stops, like the 21 located along the Pennsylvania turnpike, may have actually contributed to the parking shortage in the Northeast.

    Whether it’s commercializing rest areas or taking other action, some people still believe government needs to be part of the solution. Trucker Jim Heaton suggests that elected officials don’t recognize the parking problem. “There needs to be incentives offered for private companies to open truck stops in the areas where truck parking is a problem,” he says. “More areas also need to be developed for trucks to park in. In some states like Oklahoma, Wyoming and on the Indiana turnpike, there are simply large paved areas set aside for truck parking. They are more than adequate for the purpose of drivers having a safe place away from traffic to get some much-needed rest.”

    For many truckers, for the time being, finding that kind of space may continue to mean looking longer than they would care to.


    When drivers at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Raven Transport heard about changes in the 70-year-old hours-of-service rule, which go into effect Jan. 4, they began to wonder where they would park. The carrier’s 240 company drivers and 20 owner-operators deliver loads along the Eastern seaboard, where the parking shortage is greatest.

    “The thinking right now is that if you’re not into a truck stop by 3 p.m., you can forget parking there,” says Bill Wiese, director of safety. “With 10 hours of down time, truckers are going to be in those truck stops even longer now. The changes are good. They create a pattern of sleep. But we’ve got to find a place to park all of them.”

    Under the current hours rule, truckers can split their mandated eight-hour rest period, but the new rule forces drivers to take two more hours off and take all of them consecutively. For example, a driver who took six hours off at a truck stop and two more hours off at a rest area later will now have to take 10 hours off in one spot. Teams can use their sleeper berth to mitigate this somewhat, but individual drivers will have to stop for 10 hours.

    “With the 15 hours you can work now, you can stretch it,” Wiese says. But after Jan. 4, “Where are you going to park all these trucks?”

    Of the hundreds of letters truckers have sent to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration since the agency changed the rule, few have mentioned parking. Many drivers seem less concerned about where they will park than with what they will do while they are stopped or the loss of productivity caused by too much rest time.

    Trucker Bill Heaton believes that the hours impact will be small. “Contrary to popular belief, many drivers already spend nine or 10 hours in the truck stops due to showering, eating and waiting on loads,” he says. But driver Frances Peterson of Lambertville, Mich., told the FMCSA to expect a bigger impact.

    “Breaks will be 25 percent longer, increasing parking time, compounding the real, serious, parking problem,” Peterson says. “This increases the likelihood of accidents. If a driver has driven nine or 10 hours to a consignee, say a grocery warehouse, and is there for the typical five or more hours getting unloaded, the driver will now be past (his) 14 hours. The consignee says, ‘You are unloaded, you can leave now.'”

    Peterson and Wiese worry that shippers will force truckers to leave regardless of their hours status. “More and more shippers don’t want truckers parked at their facilities,” Wiese says.

    NATSO, the association of truck stop owners, says it hasn’t determined if the rule change is likely to cause a problem. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration spent very little time addressing parking in its analysis of the new rule’s impact, merely suggesting that truck stops might have to add spaces to accommodate truckers and that carriers might have to add parking at terminals.

    When drivers begin parking for at least 10 hours, the areas with existing parking shortages could have even bigger problems. In light of that, Wiese says a recent training session at his company focused on helping drivers plan better.

    “Truckers have to realize just how important time management is,” Wiese says. “They’ll say, ‘Forget it – I’ll stay here and play video games and run harder tomorrow.’ These guys are now going to have to make sure they use their time wisely.”