'Way past ridiculous': Owner-ops sound off on FMCSA's baby steps on detention

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With detention time and its impacts on safety and operations in trucking in FMCSA's crosshairs, owner-operators and some key trucking organizations have weighed in on what they think about a potential new study and detention time in general.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in August took the first step toward a potential new study on detention times within the major segments of the trucking industry.

At that time, the agency announced its plan to file an information collection request to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget titled “Impact of Driver Detention Time on Safety and Operations.”

If approved by OMB, FMCSA estimated that approximately 80 carriers and 2,500 drivers would provide data in the study to analyze the relationships between detention time and characteristics of carriers, facility locations and driver schedules (appointment times, time of day, day of week, month and season). Another analysis would examine the relationship between detention time and safety outcomes during the shifts following the detention time.

A comment period was opened for 60 days to gather input on whether the study is necessary for the performance of FMCSA's functions, ways for FMCSA to improve the quality, usefulness, and clarity of the collected information and more. The docket received 173 comments, including from several trucking organizations and a number of owner-operators.

Alpha Drivers Transportation, a Colorado-based owner-operator fleet, argued in its comments that the information collection is unnecessary -- not because detention isn’t a problem, but because the problem has already been recognized in the Biden-Harris Administration Trucking Action Plan. The TAP noted that drivers spend about 40% of their workday waiting to load and unload goods, and that detention is a driver-pay problem.

Alpha Drivers said that the real problem lies with carriers that pay by the mile. “The motor carrier industry is the only industry in which a driver works 100 hours per week, shows only 70 hours on the logbook, and gets paid at a 40-hour rate,” the company said. “And yet, FMCSA wonders whether there is a problem with detention? Is this really a question that warrants a lengthy study only to restate the obvious?”

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The company noted that it pays its owner-operators on a hybrid time and mileage package to ensure its drivers are paid for any time they spend doing carrier-related functions.

Commenter Barry Gathanga said detention most impacts independent and small owner-operators. “Brokers would rather sacrifice the independent owner-operators ... than hurt their relationship with the shipper or receivers, for they would automatically lose their contracts,” he said.

He added that small-business owner-operators are affected more because they don’t have the same power as larger fleets to negotiate a maximum wait time before detention is paid.

Abel Trucking emphasized follow-on impacts of excessive wait times, affecting not just that particular load, but also “the next load, as well as making you late for the drop for the load that took six hours to load.”

Abel Trucking’s solution -- rates for loads should include an hourly rate of $100/hour, along with the cost of fuel.

For Town To Town Logistics LLC, who said they have 35 years in trucking and three as an owner-operator, the detention problem appeared to have grown each year, adding that it is “a major safety issue.” On top of lost time and money, “it sometimes forces a driver to do things he wouldn't normally do. Just the stress of trying to make appointments and speeding to make those appointments can take a toll mentally.”

Shippers and receivers should be held accountable, the owner believed: “Charge them, fine them or whatever, but it is way past ridiculous.”

Commenter Zeus Anton said that as a former owner-operator, he has “many times felt the unnecessary pressure of delays at shippers and receivers.” Even with a scheduled time for pickup for delivery, “I rarely have had that time honored by the customer. I made a habit to manage time so myself and my drivers would arrive a half hour before appointment times to account for checking in. Even with that we would sit for hours."

“We made a point to keep our drivers and myself safe” after long detentions, he added. “So safety for us was not an issue. But to prioritize safety, it meant we took huge financial hits as a small company. We should not have had to make a choice between safety and the financial good of our company. In the end this was one of the contributing factors that caused us to shut our company down.”

[Related: How to turn up the heat on detention]

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) contended detention time “is both a safety and financial concern” for owner-operators and other truck drivers.

OOIDA cited a 2018 DOT Office of Inspector General report estimating just a 15-minute increase in average dwell time -- that’s total time spent at a facility -- increases the average expected crash rate by 6.2%. OIG’s report also found that detention time results in annual lost earnings of $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion for for-hire commercial motor vehicle drivers in the truckload sector and that detention reduces net income by $250.6 million to $302.9 million annually for motor carriers in that sector.

Ultimately, OOIDA said it supports FMCSA’s intention to collect more data on the frequency and severity of detention time.

“In addition to the lost hours and wages, excessive waiting times create other hidden costs throughout the supply chain that are detrimental to highway safety and the economics of the profession,” OOIDA said. “Logistical uncertainties from detention time prevent drivers from accurately planning trips, finding safe places to park, and making it in time to pick up their next load. This contributes to increased driver dissatisfaction and turnover, which undermines the overall safety and efficiency of the industry.”

[Related: Report: Detention sucks over $1 billion from truckers’ wages annually, boosts crash risk]

The American Trucking Associations said it agreed with FMCSA on the need for more data on detention time, but the group raised concerns about the issue being suitable to a regulatory solution. Because the costs of detention are felt by motor carriers and truck drivers, “the shippers who are actually in a position to better manage the operations at their loading docks to reduce inefficiencies have little if any incentive to do so.”

Because the problems with detention are economic and operational in nature, ATA said, the organization believes a one-size-fits-all regulatory solution wouldn’t work. “On the contrary, those inefficiencies are best addressed by agreements between carriers and their customers that can be adapted to specific circumstances, to create context-appropriate incentives for all stakeholders to minimize delays, maximize productivity, and value driver time,” ATA said.

ATA also questioned whether detention time leads to unsafe driving behaviors. “While there has been no end of speculation that excessive waiting times provide incentives for unsafe behaviors, numerous studies have failed to substantiate even a statistically rigorous correlation between detention time and crash risk, much less a causal link,” the group added.

If the new study did establish a link between detention time and unsafe driving, ATA still said it believes FMCSA should “direct its regulatory and enforcement efforts at the underlying unsafe behaviors as it has historically done (through, for example, requiring tamperproof electronic logging devices to mitigate evasion of hours-of-service limits)” rather “than to shift its focus to tinkering with indirect incentives.”  

The Truck Safety Coalition (TSC), along with a handful of other safety organizations, jointly filed comments, noting that “improving the quality of FMCSA’s detention time data is unquestionably necessary for the performance of FMCSA’s core function to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses.”

The groups added that because truck drivers are often detained for hours at shippers and receivers and are not paid for their time -- either by their employer, themselves as an owner-operator, or by the customer -- they “contend with perverse incentives to speed or violate their hours of service requirements in unsafe and unwise efforts to ‘make up’ for uncompensated time.”

[Related: FMCSA taking another look at truckers' detention time with operational, safety impacts under the microscope]

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