Strong Medicine

The trucking industry suffers from a grave illness called lost productivity. To date there has been no cure, but carriers have used truckers’ uncompensated time as a placebo against inefficiencies in the system. Count up the non-wage-earning hours truckers spend waiting at docks, loading and unloading freight, and assisting with loads – and the wages those hours represent – and you could pay to pave a path from here to the moon.

But after years of suffering by owner-operators and company drivers, a cure may finally have been discovered: the new hours-of-service rule. Not a popular remedy, by any means. And it’s a tough one for us anti-big government types to swallow. But it may be just what the doctor ordered.

For years, carriers have followed the path of least resistance by having drivers stop the clock to make up for delays at the docks, admits Dan Cushman of Werner Enterprises. “We can’t take that path anymore,” he told attendees at the Hours of Service Productivity Summit Oct. 30 in Atlanta.

Consequently, the industry has no choice but to make some serious – and long overdue – changes. Carriers at the Atlanta meeting said that they will have to raise rates to discourage multi-stop loads, live load and unload, and other forms of driver assistance. They also recognized the need to encourage 24-hour pickup and delivery schedules and to find other ways to improve flexibility.

Under no circumstances could driver pay suffer, the executives said. “Any kind of degradation of their pay will be totally unacceptable,” said Kirk Thompson, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt Transport Services. Officials from Schneider, Swift and Werner echoed Thompson’s sentiments.

Many truckers worry that carriers will use the new rule’s restart provision, which could strand them for 34 hours at a truck stop, to address productivity losses. But this option is not “a silver bullet,” said Scott Arves of Schneider. In fact, because many drivers don’t bump up against their 70-hour, eight-day limit, the restart will impact fewer than 10 percent of Schneider’s drivers, he said.

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With no magic pill, and getting sicker by the day, trucking cannot avoid overhauling its business model. The industry will need a major infusion of drivers – experts estimate 180,000 in 2004 – to compensate for lost productivity and to handle economic growth. Attracting these new workers, much less keeping existing ones, will not be possible until trucking becomes a healthier place to work.

While the new rule may not be the panacea for all trucking’s ills, one fact remains: it is forcing the industry to admit it has a problem. And that’s the first step to recovery.