TD103: 6 Causes Of Tired Truckers

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DroolingWell that’s just dandy. The entire non-trucking world is already convinced we truckers are all driving around with those gross eye boogers and now we get a high-profile story in the media that confirms their fear of tired truckers.

Now the only way you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about is if you’ve been doing missionary work in the jungles of Uganda. So here’s the basics: a Walmart driver recently slammed his truck into the back of a vehicle carrying comedian/actor Tracy Morgan (30 Rock) and some of his friends. One of them was killed, while Morgan and the others were critically injured. Apparently, sometime before the crash, the truck driver had bragged on Twitter about being awake for at least 24 hours. Brilliant. Juuuuuuust brilliant. Just what the trucking industry needs. Sheez Louise, driver. Why don’t you just tattoo a giant red target on your forehead?

So is it true? Are all truckers driving tired? For the most part, the answer is no. Most of us know when to get off the road before it’s too late. Although clearly, this case proves that there is at least some truth behind the allegations.

Now I haven’t spoken to this particular Walmart driver, but I have spoken to a few others. They assure me that if there is a procedure or a safety device available, Walmart has implemented or installed it. Walmart even made a statement that their electronic logs show the driver was legal at the time of the accident. How can that be? How can a driver be awake for over 24 hours and still be legal to drive?

First off, let me say I totally believe that the driver was “officially” legal to drive. I have an electronic log system in my truck similar to the one Walmart has. Most of the large trucking companies do nowadays.

And for the record, I don’t care what some obnoxious truckers say; if the carrier wants to make their e-logs tamper-proof, they can do it. I can’t edit diddly-squat on my e-logs and according to the Walmart drivers I’ve talked to, they can’t either. So if this guy’s logs say he was running legal, I buy it. But that doesn’t mean he should have been driving. I’ll explain as I go through the…

6 Causes of Tired Truckers (in no particular order)

#1 Cause of Tired Truckers: The 14-hour rule

All truckers must adhere to HOS (Hours-of-Service) rules set forth by the FMCSA (Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration), which is under the DOT (Department or Transportation). For the record, we drivers pretty much hate everything about all three of those abbreviations. 🙂

If you want a full, detailed description of the HOS rules, please check out TD94: Understanding the New Hours-Of-Service Rules. That was one looooong blog post and we don’t have time for it here. The rule that is the biggest culprit in making tired truckers is the 14-hour rule.

  • The 14-hour rule says that a driver cannot drive past the 14-hour mark from when they started their day. For example, if a driver started at 8 AM, they must not get behind the wheel after 10 PM without first taking a legal 10-hour break. They can, however, work after the 14-hour mark. So they could fuel, unload a trailer, or replace a tail light, but the trucker cannot drive again without getting that 10-hour break first.

I hate the 14-hour rule primarily because I now feel pressured to drive even if I’m tired. If we truckers want to maximize our time, we often don’t have time to stop and take a nap if we need one. Nor can we pull over and wait out rush hour. Now that’s really stupid. I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing most of the public would appreciate fewer big trucks clogging the highways at peak hours. Derrr.

But you know what? There is a way to extend the 14-hour work day. That’s good for us truckers, right? Well, here’s where we can get into some sleepy-time trouble.

#2 Cause of Tired Truckers: Long load/unload times

There is one exception to the 14-hour rule. If a driver logs a continuous 8-hours in the Sleeper Berth at any time after they start their day, the 14-hour day can be extended.

When a driver uses this 8-hour break to extend his day, we call it “splitting” because we now have to get our mandatory 10-hour break by splitting it into two segments, one of 8 hours and the other of 2 or more. Splitting sleeper berth time sucks for everyone. It’s meant to give us drivers flexibility, but all it does for most of us is confuse us to the point that we have to stop into the nearest Costco for a bulk pack of Extra Strength Excedrin. Bonus! It’s got caffeine!

The even sadder thing about being able to extend the 14-hour period is that is usually doesn’t accomplish it’s goal. The rule makers are willing to let you extend the time because they think you’re sleeping the whole time. Well, they’d be as wrong as a Hindu inhaling a Big Mac. As a matter of fact, here’s how it worked for me when this happened just the other day.

I had slept a full 8 hours of my 10-hour break and I eagerly headed out to pick up my load, which was supposed to be ready any time after 3:30 PM. I did my 15-minute pre-trip inspection and drove 45 minutes to the shipper, arriving at 8:00 PM. Sadly, my good mood is instantly squashed when the security guard said the load wouldn’t be ready until 4:00 AM. Okay. So now what?

Well, I immediately put my stupid electronic log onto Line 3 Sleeper Berth since extending your 14-hour day can only be done if the entire 8-hour break is logged as Sleeper Berth time. Okay. So I immediately go straight back to bed and sleep for 8 hours, right? Uhhh…NO! I just slept eight hours! I’ve got a better chance of becoming the next Pope than falling asleep again.

So instead, I procrastinate writing a blog post by watching some movies and playing QuizUp on my iPhone. By the way, my QuizUp username is ToddMcCann if you’re feeling macho enough to challenge me. So anyway, the time finally passes and I restart my day. So how many hours can I still drive?

Well, I only used 45 minutes of my 11 hours drive time earlier, so I still have 10 hours 15 minutes to drive. But the 14-hour rule also still applies to my new starting time. So I used 45 minutes of drive time and 15 minutes of On-Duty time. That’s 1 full hour of “working time” against my 14 hours, so I have to get the 10.25 hours of driving done within 13 hours.

That all sounds fine, but remember, I’ve already been awake since aproximately 7:00 PM. It is now 4:00 AM, so that’s 9 hours I’ve been awake already. But my logs tell me I have 10.25 hours to drive, meaning I could “legally” be behind the wheel until 5:00 PM if I wind up needing the whole 13 hours available on my 14-hour rule. Since that sentence was about as confusing as a fur coat-wearing PETA member, let me make it easy by saying that by the end of my shift I could have possibly been awake for 22 hours.

So what do you think most truckers do? We load up on caffeine and hit the road, that’s what we do. Remember, most OTR truckers only get paid when we’re moving. Now the smart ones know to pull over when they get too sleepy, but I’ll not lie and say that all truckers know when to call it quits. Clearly Mr. Roper thought his load was more important than his life. Or in this case, someone else’s life. Sad.

Extending the 14-hour rule is a great idea that in practice works about as well as booger-flavored candy. Okay. Bad example there. While grown-ups would hate that, kids would probably make it a best-seller. How about broccoli-flavored candy? Yea. That works much better. Even adults wouldn’t want that; unless of course, you’re a weird adult. And since you’re reading this, I’d say that’s a good possibility.

#3 Cause of Tired Truckers: Uncertainty of our next load

Most trucking companies try to let their drivers know what their next load is before they deliver their current one. These are called “Preplans.” They preplan us for two reasons:

  1. To stay ahead of the game to keep you moving. And…
  2. So that we can truckers can schedule our day to get sufficient sleep.

If you’re still going to have hours to drive when you get unloaded, naturally they’ll try to give you a load that picks up near you ASAP. If you’re nearly out of time, they’ll try to preplan your next load so that it gives you just enough time to take a legal 10-hour break and hit the road again. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

To explain how this can make truckers tired, let’s say you’ve slept all night and you get up and drive two hours to get unloaded. You still haven’t got your preplan yet. Maybe there just isn’t much freight moving. Or maybe your dispatcher or the much-hated planners just dropped the ball. Who knows? Finally, your satellite beeps. You say a silent prayer for a decent load and then mumble a naughty word when you see that it picks up 10 hours from now. Ugh.

Again, you’ve only driven for 2 hours, so you still have 9 hours left to drive. Now what? You can’t sleep because you just slept all night. And by the time you’re getting sleepy, it’s time to go pick up that load that needs to keep moving all night in order to deliver on time. So you won’t have time to get a nap, either. Even if you do have time on the delivery you might not have time due to the retarded 14-hour rule.

Often times, there just isn’t a whole lot us company drivers can do about this. After all, we don’t control what loads we get. But maybe if we had seen the preplan the day before, we could have adjusted our sleep.

For instance, if you knew you only had 2 hours to drive the next morning and then you had a 10-hour wait to pick up your next load, you might have decided not to sleep for 8 full hours. Maybe you would’ve only slept for 4 hours and then gotten up 4 hours earlier than when you needed to start driving. So now after you add your 2-hour drive time, you’ve been awake for 6 hours. Stay up 3-4 more hours and maybe, just maybe you can lay down and sleep for 6 hours or so. While not ideal, that’s usually enough to get us through.

No matter how you slice it though, you can see it will never be ideal, even if we do know what our next day’s schedule is. Now I can imagine what all you non-truckers are saying, “Don’t take the load if you need some sleep.” Yeah. That leads into the…

#4 Cause of Tired Truckers: We get paid by the mile, not by the hour

Unlike our hourly-paid brothers in Europe, we lowly US drivers get paid by the mile. While this is great for incentivizing drivers to work harder, it’s also the very thing that makes us less safe. We truckers don’t get paid big money to do worthless work, unlike so many of the high-level executives who got bonuses for mismanaging their companies to the point of needing bailout money… part of what went for more bonuses. Grrrr.

No, when we truckers get a load that we can legally run, we usually do it. Granted, most of us are smart enough drivers to know when we’re about to see polka-dot pandas floating across our vision. That’s when it’s time to pull over before we ass-end a celebrity’s vehicle and yell for the spotlight operator to shine the light on us.

It’s my firm belief that the vast majority of the problems in the American trucking industry would slowly work themselves out if we were switched to an hourly wage. If the trucking companies had to pay drivers to sit for five or six hours to be loaded, they’d start cracking down on the shippers/receivers. If they didn’t pay attention, the carriers would raise their rates to force them to pull their head out. And if they get their act together, then truckers aren’t in a rush to deliver. Nor are they needing to try to sleep during an unneeded 8-hour break.

The problem with the idea of going hourly is that I’m also just as certain that the hourly rate the carriers would come up with would be so low that it would drive even more truckers away from the industry than are already leaving. But that’s another issue altogether. Basically, we truckers have to move down the road to make money. And that’s what we do. But our friendly Walmart driver has an even bigger problem. Actually two.

#5 Cause of Tired Truckers: Minimal home time

There are all kinds of schedules for OTR (Over-The-Road) truckers, but the vast majority of us stay out for two to four weeks (or even longer) and then only get two or three days at home before we head back out to keep all you fine Americans stocked up on Budweiser and Cheetos.

What this means is that we have to try to get as much out of our home time as we can. You’re only home for so many hours and you’ve got to find time to spend with the spouse and the ankle-biters, fix the shower faucet (again), take the car in for service, and get your laundry done. And oh yeah. You might want to sleep some too… if there’s time.

I don’t know about you, but sleep is not usually my top priority when I’m home. It falls somewhere between fixing that stinkin’ repeat-offender faucet and spending time watching movies with The Evil Overlord or getting killed by the nephews (and every other online player for that matter) in Black Ops II.

The way it works at my house is that I have to conform to everyone else’s schedule. The Evil Overlord and our wallet-sucking nephews stay up really late on the weekends and basically all summer long. But even if they had normal, non-vampirish tendencies, it still wouldn’t matter. If I’ve driven 8-10 hours to get home and they’re all getting ready to go to bed, great; I can hit the sack too. But if they’re just getting up, what do you think I do? Go to bed for 8 hours? No! I stay up so I can be awake when they’re awake.

So maybe I’m shorted on sleep as soon as I get home. Maybe not. But now it’s time to hit the road again. Again, I’m on their schedule. If they’re getting up at 1 PM (not uncommon at all) and I need to leave about that time, everything is peachy. That happens about half the time. But say I need to leave at 6 AM in order to deliver my load on time. That’s about when they’re heading to Snoozville. So what now?

Well, for me that depends on the load. If I’ve got a long 8-11 hours of driving ahead of me, I’ll try to lay down and take a 3-4 hour nap before it’s time to go. But if I’ve only got 3-5 hours to drive, I’ll just stay awake and grab a giant mug of coffee on the way out the door.

It’s possible that this Walmart driver being awake for over 24 hours had something to do with this. He may have wanted to hang out with his family for as long as possible before leaving the house. Can’t fault him there I guess. But you do have to be smart about it and get some sleep even when you don’t want to.

It’s a good possibility he overestimated his machoness. We men tend to do that, you know. At least I think that’s what The Evil Overlord is implying when she calls me an Omega Male. (If you don’t get that joke, tweet me @ToddMcCann and I’ll explain. LOL) But wait. It’s possible that this driver had an even bigger problem.

#6 Cause Of Tired Truckers: Commuting

I’ll admit that for the most part, commuting isn’t a huge deal for truckers. Most trucking companies allow their OTR drivers to take their trucks home, so when they leave their house their logbook starts counting down. But some drivers don’t have that option. Like I said earlier, while Walmart is probably correct in saying the driver was driving “legal,” they may have neglected to mention that Mr. Roper had a commute that makes the Indy 500 look like a go-cart track.

That's one heck of a commute!

That’s one heck of a commute!

Apparently, Mr. Roper lived in Jonesboro, Georgia but worked out of a Walmart Distribution Center in Smyrna, Delaware. As you can see from the map, Google says that’s a 750-mile commute that will take 11 hours and 23 minutes! And from what I hear, most Walmart OTR drivers get home every 6-7 days! So it’s possible that this guy was making this commute each week. And remember, that 750 miles is one-way!

According to the Walmart drivers I’ve talked to, this is a somewhat common practice for Walmart drivers. Granted, the drivers I’ve spoken with had never heard of a driver living this far from his home terminal. Over a Steak-n-Shake sundae, one Walmart driver told me that it’s so hard to get hired that many drivers will take any driving job Walmart has available just to get their foot in the door. Then after a position opens at a terminal closer to them, they transfer locations to lessen their commute.

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most drivers. We’ve all heard the stories about how much money Walmart drivers make. Another driver said he lived 3 hours from his terminal. He said he always got to the yard early enough to get some sleep before he had to leave, but I’ll bet that’s not completely true 100% of the time.

Now we don’t know Mr. Roper’s situation. Maybe he had just moved to Georgia and he hadn’t been able to transfer to a closer terminal yet. Or maybe he was tolerating a 750-mile commute just to “get his foot in the door.” We just don’t know. Just like I don’t know if my summary of this tragic accident has a shred of truth. But here goes.

To sum up…

If I had $100 to spare, I’d be willing to bet you that the accused Walmart driver left the house, drove over 11 hours to work, hopped in his truck, and did a full 11-hour shift. That would put him awake for 22 hours. Figure in some pee breaks and moving his crap from car to truck and you could easily see him being awake over 24 hours. Worst case scenario is that he didn’t sleep a full 8 hours before he left the house either. And that’s also a possibility I could easily see happening.

So how could this particular accident have been avoided? Well, I’m guessing like so many trucking companies who punish all their drivers for the stupidity of a few, I’d be willing to toss out another $100 that Walmart will be changing their policy about how far a driver can live from a terminal. There doesn’t seem to be a limit as of now, but expect one in the future.

But this incident is a specific case. So what can be done to stop tired truckers from driving? Nothing really, barring a switch to hourly pay for all CDL holders. That would certainly limit the wasted time at shippers/receivers. But that ain’t-a-gonna-happen anytime soon, if ever.

As bad as I hate to admit it, electronic logs help some, but they can’t control how much we sleep we get before we get behind the wheel either. The HOS rules definitely need some tweaking to add more flexibility too. After all, a driver knows when they need to sleep more than the beaurocrats at the FMCSA.

So it basically boils down to this. Drivers need to know their limits and get off the road before those adorable polka-dot pandas attack. Wow. If I had just said that one line at the beginning, I could’ve saved 3,368 words. Oh well. You know me…

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