Detention study thorough, but meaningful change proves elusive

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Updated Jan 9, 2021

The recently reported study on detention shows incidents from 2014 to 2018 got longer and more frequent. The level of detail in the American Transportation Research Institute report might be helpful at some point, but for now it’s more a reminder that detention is a decades-old problem that gets too little respect.

The practice severely handicaps productivity, robbing those who move freight. It further complicates hours of service adherence, unfairly jeopardizing fleets’ and drivers’ compliance records and diminishing safety.

Only three in 10 “carriers reported they were able to collect all of the detention fees they had billed to customers,” says ATRI.Only three in 10 “carriers reported they were able to collect all of the detention fees they had billed to customers,” says ATRI.

Even electronic logging devices, though heralded as a tool that could help reduce detention, did not have that effect during their first year of mandated use, according to the study. Overdrive reader polling has shown the same.

To be fair, at least charging shippers and receivers for detention has become more of a norm than ever. But it’s a highly fractured norm, as the study makes clear.

Detention billing usually starts after two hours, but it can be much later, ATRI found. Some detention billing is capped by dollars or hours. Some drivers were denied detention pay if they arrived more than 10 minutes late.

Survey respondents reported a wide range of detention rates, on the low end extending far below the $67 hourly that ATRI computed as fair compensation. Only 71% of drivers said they received all or part of collected detention fees in 2018. Particularly discouraging was that “shipper recalcitrance toward detention fees is clear: only 29.3 percent of carriers reported they were able to collect all of the detention fees they had billed to customers.”

You can see who’s holding the high cards in this game.

What did the 22-page study offer as “potential solutions”? Two data tables and 46 words: “customers who were well organized … maintained tightly managed schedules and … utilized as-needed extended business hours … greatly reduced delays.” In other words: Just get your act together and do it.

The catch is having the will to do so. Carefree shippers/receivers that keep finding doormat carriers will continue to disrespect their trucking partners. There’s not enough pressure within the supply chain or from regulators to do otherwise.

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If a fleet finds that shipper “recalcitrance” to detention fees is too strong, taking business elsewhere is the other logical strategy. During the 2017-2018 freight boom, reports surfaced of even small fleets doing just that.

In less heated markets, that can be easier said than done, especially for small operators. As the study notes, two reasons that one in five small carriers don’t even charge detention are that they use brokers that don’t try to collect it, and they believe not billing it gives them a competitive edge.

But even in this market, good trucking service is in demand. Fleets of all sizes need to do what they can to avoid giving away so many precious hours that they enable the bad actors.